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.
The Poet Laureate of the United States is a sort of job/a sort-of job. It comes with a $35,000 stipend and the responsibility of getting Americans interested in poetry. By the time a poet is selected as Laureate, he or she has already done all sorts of other work: for some recent examples, Kay Ryan taught (and teaches) poetry at a community college; Robert Pinksy is a longtime professor at my alma mater, Boston University.
Our current Poet Laureate is Philip Levine, known by many of his critics and readers as a “poet of work.” Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in 1928, Levine worked in Detroit auto factories in the 1950s before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has since published over twenty volumes of poetry, many of which take up work and labor as themes for exploration. He won the National Book Award in 1991 for his book What Work Is and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his book The Simple Truth — two of the highest honors for an American poet to win, with the Laureateship a third. Upon his appointment, the New York Times published a feature of him, noting “Mr. Levine’s poems aren’t lachrymose; they don’t present blue-collar caricatures. Yet he speaks for people who are rarely given a voice in our poetry, and his poems feel, crucially, populated.”
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 of 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…
Voicing “our poetry,” the poetry of Americans, is the central task of the Poet Laureate. What Levine will do as Poet Laureate at the program level to disseminate, discuss, spread, share poetry still has yet to be seen — he’s a new appointee, having assumed the position in August of this year. But looking outward at our people — Americans, those people populating Levine’s poems — we see a national unrest with the state of work and labor in the United States that maps with many of the described experiences in Levine’s works. We see high unemployment and the Occupy movement gaining traction; we see foreclosure and financial-sector greed and police brutality. We hear Levine himself, quoted in the New York Times in November of this year, speak out (implicitly) against the 1%: “I think,” he tells Andrew Goldman in an interview, “if we started making radical changes in the way wealth is distributed in this country, it would be a hell of a lot better.”
While Poet Laureates aren’t elected, and they aren’t appointed in conjunction with any sort of political movement or current event (or as a movement’s “mascot” or figurehead), it’s hard to see Levine’s new position as anything other than fortuitous for the people he will represent as Laureate. He’s lived the life of a factory worker and of an academic poet—certainly not mutually exclusive vocations, though it’s a hard combination to find side-by-side in the biographies of Levine’s contemporaries. If new readers to poetry, or uncertain readers, or readers who have no academic “skills” or training to read poetry (and I can only imagine how Levine would feel about the assertion that one needs these “skills” in order to read and enjoy a poem), are looking for a poet to read, they should without any hesitation look to our new Laureate, and check out one of his books, and take a look.
…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.
Why should you read Philip Levine? Why should you, as Levine-as-Laureate hopes you will, read poetry at all? Why — not an unrelated question — was there a library carefully preserved and fostered at Zuccotti Park, and why was there such a tremendous outrage when it was dismantled? American poetry is at times hermetic and private and coterie-d, but it can also be open and public and populated. For the Poet Laureate, working at this “populated” task is paramount — not just doing the (noble and important) labor of putting readers of poetry and poetry together, as do literary magazine editors and poetry professors, but putting all Americans and poetry together, and having a productive national discussion about both poetry and the nation.
You should read poetry because poetry teaches us about being citizens (of America, of civilization, of humanity). You should read it because it’s difficult and accusatory and graceless, and also alluring and world-making and world-granting and (sometimes) kind. Reading poetry is work, hard work; it is work that rewards the worker. President Obama chose to have the poet Elizabeth Alexander read at his inauguration (though many lamented that his not choosing the Laureate to read was an oversight). Her poem opened with our American privacy: “Each day we go about our business, / walking past each other, catching each other’s / eyes or not, about to speak or speaking,” and ended with our American unity: “What if the mightiest word is love? / Love beyond marital, filial, national, / love that casts a widening pool of light, / love with no need to pre-empt grievance.”
When I first read Levine’s “What Work Is,” the image that stayed with me longest can be found in the poem’s sixth and seventh lines: “Forget you. This is about waiting, / shifting from one foot to another.” Here, we see the limbo of unemployment, the drama and panic of stasis when movement is desired. We feel the exchanging of weight from one side of the body to the other, and, when I read this poem out loud, it feels like a sigh. The energy in the body is palpable; it is ready for action, willing to labor; it is also fatigued, weary.
The poem is curious and literate; it is learning; it is working.
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.
(For another, unbroken look at Levine’s poem “What Work Is” (included throughout this essay), more information about Levine, more of his poems, and an audio clip of him reading “What Work Is,” check out his page at the Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182873.)