Work Poems Came Later in Life, Says U.S. Poet Laureate
November 8, 2011 – U.S. Poet Laureate and former Detroit autoworker Philip Levine admitted to Georgetown students yesterday that he didn’t write a “decent” poem about his work experience until he was in his late 30s.
“I was too angry,” said the 63-year-old Levine. “I felt so exploited, and I hadn’t done anything to fight that exploitation. I was too busy making $2 an hour.”
But from that feeling of exploitation, Levine eventually found the inspiration to write.
“It took me a long time to realize that out of that [experience] there was great fortune, too,” he said. “That I had made friendships and had been touched by other people, and I had seen things that I never would have seen otherwise. It gave me an almost endless supply of imagery of individuals that I could write about.”
Levine, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1995 for his collection of poems, The Simple Truth (Knopf, 1994) and a National Book Award for What Work Is in 1991, took time to talk with students before a public reading of his work before a larger Georgetown community.
He also participated in a question-and-answer session with NPR’s book critic, Maureen Corrigan, who also serves as a critic-in-residence and lecturer at Georgetown.
After the reading and discussion, Levine signed two of his books of poem – What Work Is and News of the World (Random House, 2009).
Best known for his poems on work and labor, Levine was invited to the university as part of the “Labor Lab series” sponsored by Georgetown's Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, which brings scholars, writers, activists and artists to campus to examine labor issues.
Jennifer Luff, research director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative, introduced Levine and asked what poetry can tell us about issues involving work and laborers.
“Poetry is not policy,” she said. “Poetry will not give us guidelines for setting minimum wage. [But it can] help us look around and see what is happening in front of us.”
Striking a Chord
Most of Levine’s poetry involves depictions of Detroit auto factory workers, with whom he worked alongside for many years.
Born in Detroit in 1928, he graduated from Wayne State University before going to work in the auto industry.
“My uncle said to me, ‘You went to college Phil, why don’t you live on your wits?’ ” Levine said.
The future poet went on to obtain a degree from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and then Stanford University awarded him its Jones Fellowship in Poetry in 1957. At the age of 30, Levine began teaching at California State University, Fresno, where he is now professor emeritus in the English department.
The U.S. Poet Laureate’s visit struck a chord with those in the audience who will need jobs after they graduate.
“It was a crucial time to have him come and share his experiences in the working world through the lens of poetry,” said Taylor Griffin (C’14).