Philip Levine, the 'Walt Whitman' of industrial Detroit
Poet Philip Levine, who died Saturday, hadn't lived in Detroit full-time since the 1950s. But he was always known as an earthy, working-class poet who never forgot his Detroit roots, writing about assembly lines and foundries in clear, earthy language.
"He was the Walt Whitman of the 20th century," said M.L. Liebler, a Detroit poet and professor. Levine was 87, and died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Fresno, California.
When he was poet laureate of the United States in 2011-12, Levine talked up Detroit as he traveled the country. And he never stopped thinking or writing poems about his Detroit; a gritty, sweaty world of industrial work, world-class jazz and blue-collar heroism.
One of his best-known poems was "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."
"He always wrote about Detroit, all the time," said Liebler, a English professor at Wayne State. "It comes up in every book, even his most recent books."
Levine's last collection appeared in 2011.
Born in 1928, Levine grew up in a working-class Russian-Jewish immigrant family. His father died when he was 5, so he grew up poor. He graduated from Central High School in 1946 and what was then known as Wayne University in 1950.
He earned money for college working jobs in auto factories, and snippets of those days would recur in poems throughout his life. In 1985's "Sweet Will," he wrote of how those who made "your Cadillac cars" in 1948 had gone to heaven, singing songs like "Time on My Hands" and "Begin the Beguine," "and the Cadillacs have all gone back to earth, and nothing that we made that night is worth more than me."
At Wayne, he was part of an elite cadre of poets that included Dudley Randall and Henrietta Epstein. The young poets met at the Miles Modern Poetry Room in Old Main, discussed poetry and critiqued each other's work.
"It was sort of an early version of the Detroit Artists Workshop," Liebler said, referring to the Cass Avenue-located creative incubator of the 1960s.
Detroit in the late '40s and early '50s was alive with poets, writers and musicians, and a lively club scene which Levine enjoyed, and later, evoked. In his 2006 collection of poems, "Breath: Poems," Levine name-checks jazz greats Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Lester Young, Miles Davis and goes on a lengthy meditation about Charlie Parker, his "silent music" and the concept of breath in the poem "Call it Music."
While Levine was known for a certain level of sophistication with such metaphysical musings, his style was modern and readily understandable.
Liebler was reminded of that as he screened a video for his "Labor Through the Arts" class Monday. It showed Levine reading from his poetry in Detroit a few years back, and talking about it.
"His poetry remained accessible to the general population of people who may or may not read poetry," Liebler said. "After I showed him reading his poems to my students at Wayne, I said, 'Did you get that?' They all said yeah, they got it. They were impressed, here was this guy talking about the working class in between poems, and I don't know if they'd ever heard of him before that."
Levine left Detroit in 1950 to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but with a twin brother and other family in Detroit, he came back often, whether he had readings scheduled or not.
Over the years he won two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize (for his 1994 collection, "The Simple Truth").
One of his best-known poems, "They Feed They Lion" was inspired by the 1967 riot, or rebellion, as Levine would have preferred.
"People liked him, they understood him, he spoke truth to power and even as he became poet laureate and an adjunct professor at universities across the country, he still spoke his mind," Liebler said. "He never shied away from injustice."