Philip Levine, On the Job
I met Philip Levine in 1982. He was fifty-four years old and had published ten books. I looked up to him, I felt as if I had been reading him my whole life. I came to his work with his homegrown books of urban fury, Not This Pig and They Feed They Lion, but I had also been moved by his book of elegies, 1933, which evokes “the blind night of Detroit” in the 1930s, and I loved the vanished utopia and anarchist dream of The Names of the Lost, which enlarges his vision. He took a special interest in me, I suppose, because I was living in Detroit and teaching at his alma mater, Wayne State University, which, as he once quipped, “wasn’t trying to be the Harvard of Shitville.” I recognized him immediately—we came from similar backgrounds. I loved his wisecracks, his street smarts, his offhanded learning, and his tremendous devotion to poetry. We became friends.
Phil and I traded poems over the years—he was ruthlessly honest, you didn’t want to show him anything unless you were prepared to hear the truth about it—and I often worked on his manuscripts. At some point in the nineties he asked me to become his literary executor. Every now and then we talked about the future of his work, the tasks ahead of me, what he wanted and didn’t want. That’s how I came to edit his last book after his death in 2015.
Philip Levine selected the poems for The Last Shift, but he left it to me, as his friend and literary executor, to organize and title it. This is the final book of his own making, and I’ve tried to honor his achievement. The title has the elegiac shadings of a last book, but I hope it also celebrates all that he brought into American poetry. He was a poet of the night shift, a late, ironic Whitman of our industrial heartland, and his life’s work is a long assault on isolation, an ongoing struggle against the enclosures of suffering. Looking back, I would say that his poetry began in rage, ripened toward elegy, and culminated in celebration. All three moods—anger, grief, and, finally, joy—are present in this collection, his last book on the job.
Philip Levine created a fundamentally human-centered poetry. He writes here of his childhood, adolescence, and early manhood in Detroit, which takes on an almost legendary quality now that everything is gone—the factories, the machines, the night workers. Time itself becomes the subject, the mystery. Here is one of his working class aubades:
8 A.M. and we punch out
and leave the place to our betters,
the day-shift jokers who think
they’re in for fun. It’s still Monday
2,000 miles and fifty years
later and at my back I always
hear Chevy Gear & Axle
grinding the night shift workers
Levine writes of his travels, especially to out-of-the-way European places, where he often finds what is funny, overlooked, and neglected, though he keeps returning to his primary cities: Detroit, Fresno, Brooklyn. He combines lyrical and narrative values, and his pointed anecdotes amplify into a larger vision. He is a poet of social justice and memory, a singer who enjoined himself to stand up for the victimized and the disenfranchised. The rages of his early work still burn (“Oh / to be young and strong and dumb / again in Michigan!”), but they no longer threaten to thwart or silence him. There is a comic tone to some of these remembrances, a mournful quality to many others, but there is also something else. He was a poet who refused to quit. “Let’s just give it what we have / and when that’s done give it a second time,” he declares in “More Than You Gave.” I would say that the Generation of ’27 (Federico García Lorca, Miguel Hernández, Rafael Alberti) and other martyred leaders of the Spanish Civil War (such as Francisco Ferrer Guardia, Buenaventura Durruti, and Francisco Ascaso) gave him a utopian politics, a blueprint for the future, a visionary hope that continued to sustain him. Thus his poems recall the fallen, but they also take up the anarchist dream of freedom and justice, the chant of “we shall inherit,” the world that Levine, echoing Durruti, said “is growing here / in my heart this moment.” Here, as elsewhere in his work, he memorializes a lost world and envisions new one.
In editing The Last Shift, I have tried to keep in mind two of Phil’s deepest values: his fervent belief in poetry and his ferocious loyalty to the past. He often praised, in life and work, the stubborn will of the dispossessed to dig in and endure. That determination is at the heart of his central project. The motif of regeneration and rebirth resounds throughout his work, which, for all of its denunciations, ends as poetry of praise for “a world / that runs on and on at its own sweet will.” He was ultimately a Romantic poet, an American Keats, who believed in the boundlessness of human possibility. We are lucky to have had him amongst us.
This essay originally appeared in American Poets, Fall–Winter 2016.