Valley molds a poet laureate ready to speak truth to power

By Stuart Leavenworth

Special to The Bee

Philip Levine is shown in 2006 at the San Joaquin River Center in Fresno where he recited his poetry. Levine died Saturday at age 87.
Philip Levine is shown in 2006 at the San Joaquin River Center in Fresno where he recited his poetry. Levine died Saturday at age 87. Associated Press file

In my younger years, I used to joke that, as storytellers and seekers of truth, journalists were much like poets. The only difference was that poets had more talent and enjoyed more extravagant deadlines.

But that doesn’t quite do it. Poets, the best of them, come from a higher orbit of observing the world and letting it tap their emotions. Many of them write because it is therapeutic, but for the true poets, writing is not an exercise in self reflection. They are precision craftsmen -- in touch with their times, secure in their faith that no matter how penniless they may be, their prose can have a lasting impact.

As Philip Levine once wrote, “All of us who write poetry know that if the work is worthy, it will eventually find its readers ... . Our job is the work of creation and as such it never ends.”

Last week it was announced that Levine, who has lived in the Central Valley for 53 years, will be the nation’s next poet laureate.

The Library of Congress couldn’t have made a wiser choice.

Levine, now 83, won his National Book Award when he was 63 and the Pulitzer Prize when he was 67.

He should have been the U.S. poet laureate consultant years ago, but I’m glad the Library of Congress held off.

Levine is the perfect laureate for an era that some economists are calling the Second Great Contraction. It’s an era in which working people and their communities are being marginalized, scorned and exploited by various factions.

A native of Detroit, Levine has devoted a lifetime to writing about the hard work and grimy conditions he and others encountered in sweatshops and manufacturing plants. That era is over. Many of those plants are gone -- closed, or moved overseas. The gap between the rich and poor has grown wider in Levine’s native town, as it has in places where he now divides his time, Fresno and New York City.

Reached by telephone Friday, Levine said he hopes to use his new status to help America rediscover poets toiling in obscurity. But he also realizes that his fans and peers want him to do more -- to speak boldly about the disparities and injustices this country refuses to confront.

“I really haven’t figured out how to do that, but I’m thinking about it, “ Levine told me. One of his plans is to branch onto the Internet, possibly through a blog in Detroit that would let him speak directly to the people of the Motor City.

It will be interesting to see how Levine handles the political sensitivities of his new post. The Library of Congress is funded by, well, Congress, and Levine’s politics don’t exactly align with those in power, particularly in the House.

Even President Barack Obama should be on watch.

Last week, with his book sales soaring, Levine was interviewed by the Associated Press, which asked him about possibly meeting Obama in the near future.

“The problem with meeting him now is I wouldn’t exactly know how to relate to him. Like so many people who believed in what he would do, there is a disappointment, “ said Levine, citing the continued war in Afghanistan and Obama’s agreement to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich.

Whether or not you agree with his politics, there’s no denying the power of Levine’s prose.

In his poem “Growth,” part of his “What Work Is” collection that won him the National Book Award, Levine describes working in a factory that made soap out of rendered animal fat.

“My job was always the racks and the ovens -- two low ceilinged metal rooms the color of sick skin. When I slid open the heavy doors my eye started open, the pores of my skull shriveled, and the sweat smelling of scared animal burst from me everywhere.”

It sounds like a grim tale from Dante’s “Inferno, “ but then the poem takes a twist as the narrator steps outside.

“Then out to the open weedy yard among the waiting and empty drums where I hammered and sawed, singing my new life of working and earning, outside in the fresh air of Detroit in 1942, a year of growth.”

I asked Levine about the reason for that twist, and he said it referred to his background, as the son of Jewish immigrants. The poem was inspired, he said, by stories he heard of Nazis rendering the fat of Jews into soap during the Holocaust. The final line in the poem, he said, “is about my good luck of being here and not there.”

Levine was fortunate in many ways. While working days at a car plant, he managed to attend night school at what is now Wayne State University. He recalls paying $75 a semester for an education that would helped lead to his master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

I asked him how his life might have been different had he been born a millennial, reaching college age at a time when tuition is skyrocketing and student aid faces cuts.

“It’s a good question: If I had been born in Detroit 18 years ago, could I have afforded to go to college?” The answer, he said, is probably not.

It is hard for me to be dispassionate about Levine. I’ve known him since I was young. Starting in the late 1950s, my late father and Levine worked together in the English Department at what was then Fresno State College. Our families have been friends ever since.

Levine has long had a tortured relationship with Fresno. He recently called it “a sewer” because of its pollution and sprawl. But it inspires his work, as do friends and former students who’ve gone on to join an impressive salon of Central Valley poets.

Plus, Levine still hears music in Fresno – the sound of mockingbirds singing from the Atlas cedar that grows in his front yard. It is a song that helps calms the anger triggered by a world that, far too often, seems brutally cold.

Stuart Leavenworth, a former editorial page editor for The Sacramento Bee, is Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. This column was originally published in The Bee on August 14, 2011.