Now seems to be the right time to choose Philip Levine as our nation’s poet laureate, what with our official unemployment rate stubbornly refusing to drop below 9 %. (Unofficially, unemployment is up around 16%.) Raised in Michigan and once a factory worker, Levine often writes about rustbelt desolation, as he does in the following poem:
An Abandoned Factory, Detroit
by Philip Levine
The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands,
An iron authority against the snow,
And this grey monument to common sense
Resists the weather. Fears of idle hands,
Of protest, men in league, and of the slow
Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.
Beyond, through broken windows one can see
Where the great presses paused between their strokes
And thus remain, in air suspended, caught
In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,
And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.
Supposedly Levine wrote this poem about a plant in which he once worked, the Chevrolet Gear and Axle plant. He hated the work and his poem is torn between the need for work as a foundation for self respect and work–factory work, anyway–as something that saps one’s dignity and grinds one down.
I’ve met Philip Levine a couple of times, once in Slovenia when I was on a Fulbright there and once when he came to St. Mary’s. In Slovenia, which he was visiting on some sort of artist exchange program, he and his wife came to dinner. He also talked to my American literature class at the University of Ljubljana.
He told the students a story about working in the plant described in his poem. I believe he was a teenager at the time. Apparently, a fellow factory worker saw him reading something (I forget what) and told him that “T. S. Eliot is where it’s at.” Levine checked out some of Eliot’s poetry from the local library and said that the book opened to “Gerontion.” His eye immediately fell on the line, “the jew squats on the window sill.”
“And the son of a bitch didn’t even capitalize Jew,” growled Levine, who is Jewish.
Nevertheless, Levine fell in love with Eliot and one can see wasteland imagery running through his poetry, including in the poem above.
Someone has written that our new factories are our restaurants and fast food establishments. From the point of management, these have the advantage of not being unionized. There are no worries of “protest” or “men in league.” But if Greece and now England serve as any kind of warning, “fears of idle hands” may start returning. In much of his poetry, Levine captures the low simmering anger of the working class.
As I say, it’s the right time to have this poet as our laureate.
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