“To come to life in Detroit,” writes Philip Levine in “Escape,” a poem from his 1994 Pulitzer Prize–winning collection The Simple Truth, “is to be manufactured without the power of speech.”
Born in Detroit in 1928, Levine grew up working industrial jobs, most of them in the automobile industry. In those years, Levine’s goal was to escape a life of labor — to find a voice among the voiceless. Seventy years later, he has spent his literary career revisiting those factories and the people he worked alongside.
Speaking on the phone last week from Fresno, where he retired after teaching at Fresno State University for more than 30 years, Levine reflected on the way writing poetry transformed his understanding of his early years in the factories of Detroit.
“My anger toward being exploited — not just me, but everybody around me — was changed by a realization that I had experienced a kind of brotherhood … sisterhood … humanhood with quite wonderful people who were very different from me and who had totally accepted me, even if I said I wanted to be a poet,” he recalled. “We had each other, and we didn’t have a hell of a lot more. This sense of humanhood, I came to realize, was an extraordinary gift.”
“Humanhood” is as good a word as any to describe the theme of Levine’s oeuvre. Some have called his poems “gritty” for their unsentimental portrayal of working-class life. Yet the voice in these narrative poems is clear, elegant, and spare, inviting the reader to enter vivid and recognizable landscapes: the living room with the brown sofa, the kitchen, the classroom, the orchards of California’s Central Valley. With these poems, Levine calls to the reader, appealing to him or her through simple truths that are human and shared, though rarely spoken.
In the title poem of his 1991 National Book Award–winning collection What Work Is, Levine writes of standing in line for work, and of the silent love between brothers. In “Growth,” from the same collection, he describes working in a soap factory at 14, where “I spoke to no one and only one man spoke to me.”
There is toughness in Levine’s poems, but also resilience, and running beneath them all, an understated joy in living. He asks his reader in “The Simple Truth” from the collection of the same name:
…Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Philip Levine Thursday, January 16, 8 p.m., at the New Victoria Theatre, 33 West Victoria Street. Free. For info, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.