Philip Levine has long been a solid contender for the post of U.S. Poet Laureate, but I wonder whether the Library of Congress intended to make a statement by awarding him the honor this year. From the Arab Spring to the London riots, 2011 has brought to many minds the turmoil of the 1960s, a crucible that proved formative for Levine's poetry.
In some ways his sensibility reaches back even further, to John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, and other social protest authors of the 1930s. As a Detroit native and former auto factory worker, he’s remained fundamentally a poet of the working classes: a champion of grit, grime, and fierce struggle both economic and political. As the world teeters once again on the edge of recession, or worse, his rebellious voice has gained fresh relevance.
Like many political poets, Levine is at his best when avoiding direct topical references, as well as anything resembling a "message." And while he favors an unstudied, conversational style, I find his work most powerful when it's more formally compressed. Here’s an excerpt from one of his better-known poems, “They Feed They Lion”:
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.
…From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.
This otherworldly chant grew out of the Detroit race riots of 1967, in which many of Levine's fellow auto workers participated. The image of the Lion recalls the ominous beast of Yeats’ “The Second Coming”—the “shape with lion body and the head of a man” slouching inexorably toward Bethlehem. Levine’s vision, like Yeats’, is one of apocalyptic political upheaval, but it’s infused with a sense of exhilaration: he’s celebrating the ferocious spirit of a people as much as he is predicting a day of reckoning.
Another Levine poem from the same era, “Baby Villon,” is equally effective as a kind of undersong to the latest news from London and Damascus. It may be a portrait of the historical François Villon, French poet and criminal vagabond; or of a modern-day street kid; or of a down-and-out, hardscrabble fighter from any time or place. It begins:
He tells me in Bangkok he’s robbed
Because he’s white; in London because he’s black;
In Barcelona, Jew; in Paris, Arab:
Everywhere and at all times, and he fights back.
Throughout, the poem serves up a rich blend of delicacy and violence:
…The windows of the bakery smashed and the fresh bread
Dusted with glass, the warm smell of rye
So strong he ate till his mouth filled with blood.
That image of bread “dusted” with glass chips, as though sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar, is as photojournalistically precise as it is poetically ambivalent. The ultimate reward of violent rebellion may be nothing but a broken glass sandwich, but "baby Villon" devours it anyway.
Levine these days is more an elder statesman than a firebrand (a Poet Laureate can’t exactly be an anarchist), but he retains a less “quiet,” more publically engaged style than many recent laureates. His appointment is the capstone of a strong career as well as a sign of our unquiet times.