It is the last day of February and I cannot let it pass without thinking (and for me thinking means writing) about Philip Levine who died on 14th day of this month.
I only came across his poems three years ago and entirely by chance. Being new to a language means been new to its poets too. And, unlike anywhere else, in language ‘newness ‘is not measured by mere passage of time. As it takes a lifetime.
‘What Work Is’ arrested me with power of recognition. I wrote to my daughter about it when I wished to tell her about work.
I remember reading and re-reading the poem in disbelief such poems are still written somewhere. By someone. It was imperative for me to find out who wrote it. I only felt that way when I was very young and reading poems of Tina Ujevic’s in my native language and many years later those of Charles Bukowski in English
I decided to find out as much as I could about Philip Levine. What I learned made me understand why his poems resonate with me so deeply.
He worked in factories and knew the drudgery of manual labour, camaraderie of working class, bleakness of dawns after the grave-yard shifts, sweat that glues your shirt to your back until you peel it off in the evening.
When I was 15 I needed a job and found one at the local rubber factory. It was summer and girls that worked next to me on the production line making gloves and condoms would take their factory-issued shoes off at the end of the shift to walk home barefooted across meadows fresh with dewy. It helped bleeding blisters.
I was told I could do better. I was young enough to believe it. Even though nobody knew what the ‘better’ is. What it looks like. What it feels like. I set to find out. For years. Before the age of 30 I acquired some degrees and what was described as an important job. I was still years away from the critical discovery that there is no such thing as an ‘important job’. Because that which is important is not a job. It is your life and what you meant to be doing with it. If you dare. Philip Levine did.
When I first landed on these remote islands I now call mine, I also needed a job. Badly. As you do if all you have is a baby and nothing else. Not even language. I found one in the local Plywood Mill factory. And I was happy. We laughed a lot. And sang around 3 a.m. to stay awake. I learned why Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’ is an important song and Maori word for honour – mana.
And once again I embarked on ‘bettering myself’. Learned English. Got me one more degree. And an office job. It was said I did well. But ‘well’ did not have colour or vibrancy or smell. ‘Well’ felt fake.
Philip Levine stayed true to his blue-collar origins of which he once said: ‘I believed that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own.’ His honour intact.
In his youth he was an amateur boxer and learned how to rebuild the universal joint of a car’s powertrain. He started reading poetry as a teenager while working at auto factories, soap and bottling plants; ‘You do the work, and you don’t whine’ is what he said about those years.
He graduated from University in 1950s and began to frequent the Iowa Writers’ workshops often only sitting in on classes because he could not afford the tuition. In later years Philip Levine became protégé of the poet John Berryman and began teaching at one of the working-class universities that he much preferred to Ivy League ones. I recently read somewhere his observation of Ivy Leaguers who ‘were shocked to learn that their poems were no good.’
Philip Levine’s first book was published in 1960s and he became one of the America’s most honoured poets. He won the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards before serving as poet laureate in 2011 and 2012.
Nevertheless there were of course those who criticized sharply his ‘prosaic, non-lyrical style’. Unsurprisingly they are mostly from Ivy Leaguers ranks.
Above all Philip Levine’s was a poet of human conditions. He wrote about and for people, unimpressed by lofty, self-centred poetry and uninterested in writing about nature. He once observed; ‘Hiking was what we did in Detroit when the car broke down.’
In 1994, incidentally the same year my daughter was born, he won Pulitzer Prize for ‘The Simple Truth’.
Salute for the poet.
The Simple Truth
I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets and ate them for
dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields on the edge of town.
In middle June the light hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead
the birds were gathering for the night,
the jays and mockers squawking back and forth,
the finches still darting into the dusty light.
The woman who sold me the potatoes was from Poland;
she was someone out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and
urging me to taste even the pale,
raw sweet corn trucked all the way, she swore, from New Jersey.
“Eat, eat” she said, “Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things you know all your life.
They are so simple and true they must be said without elegance,
meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water,
the absence of light gathering in the shadows of picture frames,
they must be naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965 before I went away,
before he began to kill himself, and the two of us
to betray our love.
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 you never uttered
because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life,
made of that dirt we call earth,
the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and
you live on it.