Backchat: Philip Levine in Conversation
Nick Patrick: I'm standing outside of the James Cable Room in the White Lion Hotel where the octogenarian—and I suppose you could call him "blue-collar poet"—Philip Levine has captivated the audience. Let's go and meet him.
I was just thinking—when you were talking just now, Philip—we live in this age of celebrity where banks and finance seem to rule the world. And you must wake up some mornings thinking, "What world am I living in? What's happened?"
Philip Levine: It doesn't strike me that it's that different from the world that I grew up in as a boy. I don't see any real changes. I mean, there are profound changes—in the way we live, in the styles we live. Technology has revised so much. But I'm still aware of a huge class of people, the majority, especially in the United States, who are held down by forces that they have no control over. They go to vote, and they voted in President Obama—hoping that there will be these drastic changes in the way America is governed, the way it lives. There are changes, but they're not the dramatic changes we hope for or that we expect. And once again we view ourselves and say, "How naïve of us," to think that switching from one party that's controlled by high finance to another party that's controlled by high finance, to think that much would change.
It's been the world that I knew as a boy. Sometimes it's been harder for most people, and sometimes it's been a little easier. I grew up and saw the horror of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and, before I knew it, we were a country at war again in the Korean War. When that was over, we had the Vietnam War. It seems as though my country has been a country at war since I was a boy. And this one may be the worst one of all, in terms of the degree to which the public was misinformed, lied to, cheated; in that the ends were vain, unreachable.
Patrick: Do you think there are people who are experiencing Afghanistan and Iraq at the age you experienced the Spanish Civil War—as a teenager, as a boy really—do you think there are people who are as affected as you were then?
Levine: No. No, I do not. When I converse with my grandchildren, I hear generalities that have absolutely no meaning. "Bring democracy to the Middle East..." They're just cant terms that mean nothing. No, I don't think they know enough about what's going on, or that they even care enough about what's going on. Politics hardly enter into the writing of young people today.
Patrick: Did you see that trend as a teacher?
Levine: Yes, I saw it, and I found it very frustrating. I pushed. But that kind of pushing is exhausting. After a while you say, "Well, hell, if they don't want to be pushed, let them go where they want to go."
Patrick: Did you ever buy into the American Dream? The notion of the American Dream?
Patrick: So I can't ask you whether it's dead.
Levine: It was a kind of charm that was dangled before millions of people. They said, "This can happen," because of course it did happen to a few people. By the time I was fifteen and sixteen, I was doing heavy work. A little bit later, when I was a college student, I taught adult education. It was a very difficult experience, because half of the students were immigrants and a certain portion were from the South, and they had these dreams of becoming lawyers and doctors.
They weren't kids anymore. They were working. The classes were at night. They were working people still holding onto a kind of a fantasy. I found it heartbreaking. They wrote these papers about what they were going to do, and they weren't going to do these things. But they had been told that these things were available. If they worked hard, were industrious, etcetera, this is America, and it would happen. But it wasn't going to.
Patrick: One of your more notable collections is What Work Is. Did that really mark the end of a period—not just in American industrial history, but probably in Western industrial history—where the blue-collar worker really did exist and really was part of the economy? I mean, look at it today: in Britain and America, manufacturing is dead.
Levine: I don't know how these industrial societies that are now post-industrial societies are going to survive. I don't see a way of getting out. Unquestionably, there would be a way of getting out if everyone who was in authority wanted to find a solution. Then I think a solution could be found. But almost no one who is in real authority cares.
These giant industries can go on making money with Romanian workers or Chinese workers or African workers or Bolivian workers, paying them near-starvation wages. They're not going to turn and say, "I own this much of America. I should therefore be responsible, much more responsible about the society in which I live, because it has been so generous to me." I don't think they'd say that. I don't think they even think that. I think they think they are blessed, and that's why they own so much.
Patrick: And growing up today, Philip Levine just wouldn't be able to have written the way he has written?
Levine: No, he probably wouldn't. He wouldn't have been there in Detroit. He wouldn't have found his subject matter. The irony was that, at the time, in my late teens and twenties, when I knew I wanted to be a poet, I was doing this kind of work, and it was exhausting. I thought that what would eventually make it impossible for me to write the poetry that I should have written was the fact that I was living the life I was living, as an industrial worker. It was leaving me so little energy, and it was exhausting me. It was also making me very angry, and I didn't know how to cope with that anger, because I felt that I was being manipulated. I felt that I was being used. I felt powerless instead of proud.
The irony is that those years—from the age of 16 to 26—became so much of what I eventually wrote about. As the years passed I realized that other things went on, besides just doing work. There were friendships made and a sense of camaraderie and a sense of concern and care and bravery.
When I got into academia, the teachers quibbled about whether to unionize or not. They had their doctorates and what have you, yet they were so timid in comparison to these people that I knew in the industrial world. I realized that I had been very lucky to have known these people who could make these moral decisions and stick with them and have to pay dearly for them if they lost. I said, "You're a lucky son of a bitch, to have gone through what you thought was such a nightmare. And it wasn't a nightmare."