10 August 2011

Philip Levine

"I want to bring poetry to people who have no idea how relevant poetry is to their lives." -- Phillip Levine

Heartiest congratulations to Phil Levine, newly appointed U.S. Poet Laureate! I've been a fan of his for a number of years, and his poetry has led me to a little side-project of investigating poems about Work and Workers.

Now, I will say, as an aside, as happy as I am for him, that there has not been a Laureate 'of colour' since Rita Dove stepped down (her years were 1993 - 1995). While I most certainly have nothing against those that followed her ("The Roberts" Hass and Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins, Louise Gl├╝ck, Ted Kooser, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, Kay Ryan (the first openly LGBTQ Laureate), and W.S. Merwin: Complete list here), in my admittedly somewhat biased opinion, a great deal of the talent and energy of American poetry now can be found in the work of Black, Latino/a, Asian, and other "Other" writers. I would love to see the Library of Congress recognize this excitement and quality in contemporary poetry by appointing a non-white Laureate - Soon.

In case you were wondering, previous African American "Consultants in Poetry to the Library of Congress" - the historic name for the position - were Robert Hayden [1976-78] and Gwendolyn Brooks [1985-86].

Here is my favorite Levine poem, and one of my all-time favorite poems by anyone. Enjoy

What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work
You know what work is — if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

— From What Work Is by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991

This and other Levine poems can be found here at the New York Times website). Happy Reading


Unknown said...

Hey Reggie,

Great to see your blog, and I agree that it would be great to see a poet of color as laureate. We have never had an Indigenous poet or Asian or poet of Latin descent. Meanwhile, we journey on.....

Afaa of B'more

patriciacaspers said...

Hi Reggie,

Great blog. That is one of my favorite Levine poems along with "You Can Have It." I am so excited about Levine becoming poet laureate, but I agree too that it's time for a person of color.

Take care,