By Anna Clark
The following article is a slightly adapted excerpt of the forthcoming book, Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden (History Press, 2015):
Philip Levine’s father came to the United States from Russia, traveling across the ocean all by himself at age fifteen. He grew up in New York City with two older sisters and their families. His path to Detroit was an extraordinary one: he enlisted in the English army, was stationed in Palestine and conjured a new identity (including a new passport) in Cairo.
These are fantastical stories for a child to hear — stories that merge the ordinary with the extraordinary. The poet, who died on February 14, 2015 at age 87, was also told that he had Spanish ancestry. That was not true, but it catalyzed Levine’s lifelong fascination with Spanish politics, culture and literature.
What is true is that Levine was born in Detroit in 1928, one of a pair of twins born to parents who had grown up in a village in western Russia. An older son was also part of the family. His father was a handsome multilingual man who sold used auto parts. He was only thirty-five years old when he died. Levine was five. His mother, Esther, worked full time at her father’s auto parts company, and then as a secretary, before running her own clothing and gift shops, all while raising three sons by herself. She did it in a community where public discourse was poisoned by the hateful anti-Semitic radio commentary by Father Charles Coughlin, a popular priest at the National Shrine of the Little Flower in nearby Royal Oak. Up to thirty million radio listeners tuned into Father Coughlin’s weekly radio addresses, where he championed the political policies of Adolf Hitler in Germany and suggested that Jewish bankers were to blame for the Russian revolution. Meanwhile, Henry Ford, whose successful automobile company seemed to dominate every part of private and public life, voiced his paranoia about Jewish people. Ford bought the Dearborn Independent, his hometown newspaper, in 1918 and he used it as a place to publish a series on the so-called Jewish conspiracy. “Jewish Power and America’s Money Famine,” read one headline. The articles ran in more than ninety straight issues and were collected in a four-volume book called The International Jew.
[blocktext align=”right”]The King James version of the Old Testament was Levine’s first encounter with poetry. Religious cadences entranced him.[/blocktext]Levine’s family, which lived around 7 Mile Road and Livernois Avenue, were not especially religious — they did not keep kosher or go to shul. Levine’s Polish grandmother actually became a Christian Scientist. But the anti-Semitic cultural environment of the time strengthened the family’s sense of identity. The King James version of the Old Testament was Levine’s first encounter with poetry. Religious cadences entranced him. Around the same time, young men from his neighborhood headed to Spain in the 1930s to fight in the Spanish Civil War. To a child, this seemed like the stuff of myth: a hero’s journey into the heart of revolution. Levine’s imagination caught fire.
Levine went to junior high at Durfee, a west-side school built in 1927 that still sports the artistic flourishes that made the building a showpiece, including a copper bell tower. Durfee’s students came largely from working-class and immigrant families. Levine remembered it in his poem “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School,” where he describes it as the place where he experienced the shift from book-learning to artistic discovery. He dates the poem “Detroit, 1942” and published it in the collection What Work Is (1991)
[…] It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds…
Levine was fourteen in 1942. He was already making up poems, though he didn’t think of them as poems; he’d climb trees and say little words and phrases aloud, not to anyone in particular. Around the same time, he began working in a soap factory. In his poem “Growth,” also included in What Work Is, Levine wrote about his experience as a teenager, wheeling little cars of damp chips into the factory ovens and speaking to no one but his supervisor.
[…] My job
was always the racks and the ovens—
two low ceilinged metal rooms
the color of slick skin. When I
slid open the heavy doors my eyes
started open, the pores
of my skull shriveled, and sweat
smelling of scared animal burst from
Levine clocked hours on the line throughout high school — he studied at Central High on Tuxedo Street, right behind Durfee. He also fell in love with horse racing, a hobby that his mother hated. She was much relieved when Levine graduated in 1946, at age eighteen, and instead of loitering for long at the racetrack, he headed uptown to study at what is now Wayne State University. (He remained an enthusiast of horse racing, however, as well as just about every other sport, especially tennis. “He was also crazy baseball and basketball,” his future wife Franny told me. “He just liked watching games.”)
It was at Wayne State that Levine began to write poetry, encouraged by his art-loving mother. “That a son of hers would devote himself to this art thrilled her,” Levine said in a 2001 interview with Edward Hirsch. Levine discovered the English poet Wilfred Owen, who wrote scorching verses about World War I. With the smoke of the Second World War scarcely settled, Owen’s poetry struck a chord with Levine. So did W.H. Auden, who impressed Levine with his ability to the write poems about difficult subjects in a way that surprised readers, putting them off balance just enough to create space for insight to come through.
[blocktext align=”right”]“My early poems ignored the place I lived in — maybe it was an effort to remove myself, I don’t know.”[/blocktext]College classes also put modern poetry in front of Levine for the first time. He had never before read poems about urban life. Before, it had all been bucolic lyrics about the countryside that he had pretended to be interested in, and now there was T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” which is carved out of iconic, striking images of the city. “I said, ‘Wow, I don’t have to fake this nature-love, I can write about what I want.’” Levine explained in an interview with Tablet. “My early poems ignored the place I lived in — maybe it was an effort to remove myself, I don’t know. That was the first big change.”
The second big change was reading Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who captured the imaginations of young writers of the time with his fast living and his musical, muscular poetry. Levine was hypnotized when Thomas came to the United States on performance tours, awed at how he was able conjure drama in his poetry. “I was very young at the time,” Levine said in the Atlantic, “and I realized that in order to write like that there was a lot I was going to have to learn to be able to control the line so beautifully and to get that resonance that he had in his writing.”
But it is not as if there are many jobs to support that kind of tough poetic work. After he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1950, it was right back to the auto plants for Levine. He slogged through the hours in a number of factories. He worked with hot metal at Chevrolet Gear & Axle, built transmissions for Cadillac and punched the time clock at Breslin’s First-Rate Plumbing and Plating. This was soul-crushing work for him, “stupid jobs,” he called them. “I found the places hateful,” he told NPR, “and the work was exhausting.”
Levine married Patty Katerman in 1951, but their relationship did not give him much of a respite. They divorced two years later. And then, in 1953, Levine skipped town, leaving the city for good. He married Frances Artley Umland, called Franny, who designed costumes for theatrical productions. He followed her to Boone, North Carolina, where she had a job at an outdoor production. After a summer in the mountains, they moved to Tallahassee, Florida, where Franny got a job in the drama department of the local university. Their first son attended nursery school, leaving Levine time to hammer out a thesis on John Keats’ “Ode to Indolence,” for his master’s degree in English at Wayne State. In time, the couple found their way to Iowa City, where Levine taught English to freshmen and to engineering majors at the University of Iowa. He also started attending classes at the college’s legendary writers’ workshop, though he never enrolled and certainly never paid tuition. By simply showing up, Levine had the chance to work with some of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, including Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Levine found Berryman — who he had first met at Wayne State in Detroit — to have excruciatingly high standards and to work on his own writing with passionate sincerity. So Berryman’s encouragement meant the world to Levine. “For one thing, he liked what I did, he liked the idea of the guy writing about Detroit,” Levine said. “I never had a really terrific poet read my work and really admire it.” Berryman also expected his students to be reading far more than they were. They had gotten preoccupied with modern poets, but their instructor nudged them further back to Elizabethan poetry and other older works. Berryman thought Levine in particular should be reading Thomas Hardy and William Butler Yeats.
Levine ultimately earned a master of fine arts degree in 1957. A poetry fellowship at Stanford University lured him to California, and by 1958, Levine had joined the English faculty at California State University in Fresno. The Central Valley city had a population of about 130,000, less than a quarter of what it is today. Levine gave his first poetry readings in San Francisco, alongside poet Gary Snyder, and a full five years after his arrival, at age thirty-eight, Levine finally published his first collection of poems. He titled it On the Edge.
“Even in my imagination I didn’t want to spend time where I was working,” he said in the NPR interview. “I didn’t want to talk shop. So no, even after I left — because I left Detroit at age 26 — I was unable to write anything worth keeping about Detroit for years. I wrote things and I threw them away.”
He and his wife bought a small bungalow in Fresno that dated back to 1919, which is about as old as houses get in California. Orange, persimmon, and kumquat trees stood in the yard, and Franny tended to a sizeable vegetable garden. Levine gazed upon it from his small study, which he filled with bookshelves and photographs. A mobile hang from ceiling, made by a friend; thistles, thorns and dried weeds swung from wire, turning in the breeze. “I realized that everything else in my life was secondary [to poetry],” Levine said to Tablet. “Until I started having kids. And then I realized these things were equal. My love for my wife and my children, and my love of poetry. I somehow had to work out a way to be a good husband, and a good father and yet save enough time and energy to be a good poet.”
As a professor, Levine paid back the favor others had offered him in Iowa City. He opened his classes to poets who were not paying students. Administrators hassled him for it sometimes, but he kept doing it. Because he was teaching four or five courses a semester in the early days, this was a tremendous amount of student writing that he committed to reading. He also shared thoughtful correspondence with talented emerging poets around the country, offering direct and honest feedback on their work.
[blocktext align=”right”]“It probably was a warning that I should welcome back into myself all those people that had meant so much to me, and write about them.”[/blocktext]In 1965, Levine and his wife moved to Barcelona with their sons for the first of two year-long stints abroad. The poet wanted to learn Spanish, and he was curious about whether he could create a life for himself outside the United States. The Spanish city reminded him a lot of Detroit: working-class and industrial. His experience there was not all that different from his Michigan days, either. He did not make much money, but he wrote a lot. He also spent a lot of hours with his children; he cherished that time with them for the rest of his life.
After returning to California, Levine had a strange dream where a man he worked with in Detroit called him on the telephone. He desperately wanted Levine to invite him to come to Fresno for a visit, and Levine did not invite them. Then he hung up and was consumed with the sense that he had betrayed the man. While he realized this was just a dream, the feeling stayed with him. As he described it to The Cortland Review, “It probably was a warning that I should welcome back into myself all those people that had meant so much to me, and write about them.”
In the last days of Levine’s life as a worker in Detroit, “my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work,” he said. “I mean, there are guys at Princeton and Yale and Harvard, and they’re just sitting there writing their poems.” But it turned out that the years he spent as a worker became the poetic material that he would depend on for the next sixty years. When Levine published Not this Pig in 1968, it was the first time he trusted his own life experience enough to put Detroit at the forefront.Levine taught in Fresno until 1992, when he retired. He spent the next part of his life teaching at both Cal State classrooms and schools around the country, switching off semesters at places like New York University, Columbia University, the University of Houston, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Meanwhile, Levine and his wife divided their time between Fresno and Brooklyn.
“We had a good time,” Franny told me. “We traveled a lot. We had a terrific life, we really did.” Their three sons — Mark, John, and Theodore — eventually grew to include five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
He had not lived in Michigan for more than half a century; the last time he lived in Detroit, the city hummed with nearly two million residents. And yet, Levine continued to be associated with Detroit because he dedicated his poetic life to detailing what he remembers. His poems of Detroit are based on memory — a working-class childhood in a twentieth-century empire — which gives them the ring of elegies. His work is peopled by autoworkers and immigrants, average men and women who do ordinary things like drive down the interstate all through the night. Beginning with his earliest work, he often tagged his poems with their time and place — “this was Michigan in 1928.” They have a narrative drive fueled by Levine’s experiments with fiction in his twenties. The title poem in What Work Is calls back to Levine’s real-life experience of waiting outside two hours for a job at Ford’s Highland Park factory. He had seen a newspaper ad saying that the plant was hiring. Prospective laborers should show up at eight in the morning to apply. Levine sidled somewhere in the middle of the long line, but the factory did not end up taking applications until 10:00 a.m.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch…
Levine believes that the factory purposely had workers show up two hours before they took applications because it wanted to hire docile people who could wait quietly, standing on their feet, for hours at a time.
“There’ll always be working people in my poems because I grew up with them, and I am a poet of memory,” Levine told Edward Hirsch. His poetry is a testimony to a particular sort of life mid-century urban life, steeped in memory and crowded with clear-eyed portraiture. “Winter Words,” included in A Walk with Thomas Jefferson (1988), distills the essence of Levine’s work:
Friday night, after swing shift we drove
the narrow, unmarked country roads searching
for Lake Erie’s Canadian shore.
Later, wrapped in rough blankets, barefoot
on a private shoal of ground stones
we watched the stars vanish as the light
of the world rose slowly from the great
gray inland sea. Wet, shivering, raised
our beer cans to the long seasons
to come. We would never die.
Levine’s writing also explores how the city experienced crisis. He had been away from Detroit for nearly fifteen years when the July 1967 insurrection happened, but he purposely visited it in the aftermath to see what had happened. And he wrote about it. He called They Feed They Lion (1972) a “celebration of anger.” The title poem is a driving litany of images, one piled upon another, tracing the topography of emotion as it builds its own kind of logic. It becomes an incantation.
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden doilies,
They Lion grew.
“The American experience is to return and discover one cannot even find the way,” Levine wrote in 1994, “for the streets abruptly end, replaced by freeways, the houses have been removed for urban renewal that never takes place, and nothing remains,”
Levine’s career, especially in later years, was showered with honors. Ashes: Poems New and Old won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980. What Work Is also won the National Book Award, and it went on to sell tens of thousands of copies — extraordinarily rare for a collection of poems. Levine won another NBCC award for 7 Years from Somewhere. In 1994, his book The Simple Truth won the Pulitzer Prize. While it was big news nationally, the honor was recorded with only a little story at the bottom of the front page of the Fresno Bee and two poem excerpts inside. Only two weeks earlier, the same paper reported on the hiring of a new basketball coach at Cal State Fresno with a banner headline — “It’s Tark Time” — and no less than a dozen articles. In 2011, Levine was named the U.S. poet laureate at age eighty-three, making him one of the oldest laureates ever.
[blocktext align=”left”]“I have this feeling that I’m misusing language when I lie. And language is my medium – I can’t betray it.”[/blocktext]The big prizes transformed Levine’s life. Not only did he sell a lot of books, but he was also in a position to charge a lot of money for his poetry readings. At the same time, he felt obliged to try to not let the honors inflate his ego — he had seen former classmates fall apart after they were lauded, unable to write anything but faint mimicry of their earlier work. To keep focused, Levine stopped drinking to excess and stopped smoking dope, which he believed had negative impacts on his memory and his discipline. He stopped telling lies because he felt superstitious. “I have this feeling that I’m misusing language when I lie,” he told Tablet, “and language is my medium — I can’t betray it. If I start lying, my poems won’t come to me.”
Whatever the reason, the poems kept coming to him. When Levine published A Mercy in 2001, it was his eighteenth collection. He dedicated it to his mother, who had died the previous spring at age ninety-four. “I hope the book contains some of her zest for life, some of her belief in the power of beauty, some of her great humor,” Levine said at the time the interview with Hirsch. “As a teacher you too must have known many young people who wanted to pursue poetry but were discouraged by their families. I’m one lucky guy to have had Esther Levine for my mother.”
Levine’s later poetry developed a longer line and a slower pace. They lingered more over detail and have more soft sentiment in them. His wife Franny looked over his drafts. Even within his poems, he lamented the failure of language to capture the full spirit of a place or its people, especially in a culture full of mindless chatter that numbs us.
“I just wanted to tell the stories of people whom I found extraordinary and dear,” Levine said in 2011. “I saw them pass from the world, and nobody said a goddamn word about them, so I said, ‘Well, this is a subject matter that is mine and mine alone.’”
This article is a slightly adapted excerpt of the forthcoming book, Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden (History Press, 2015). Anna Clark is the editor of A Detroit Anthology.
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I’ve been reading Levine’s work for years, but never knew the back-story. It’s so interesting to try and wrestle the biography into and amongst the poems. The one time I met the man, he was as wry and humble and decent and clear-eyed and witty and lovably wicked as his poems. R.I.P. Philip Levine, and nice work Anna on this portrait.
Thank you for this interesting back story on Levine and his work. I enjoyed reading your article, but there was one bit that needs attention: Dylan Thomas was not an Irish poet – he was Welsh! I look forward to reading your forthcoming book. Best wishes.
I grew up with Phil in Detroit, later met (before he did) Fran in Iowa City; we reconnected in Palo Alto. This is one of the best accounts I have read, not that I’m an expert of any sort.