Of course teaching is work and hard work, too, if very different. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two I did my share of hard labor on shop floors, on assembly lines, in a shipyard and a paint factory and behind broiling friers. So I know what “work” is. I also know the kind of work that involves long hours spent behind a desk, grading papers, analyzing insurance data, writing code, or reading screenplays. For Levine work seems to take place only in an industrial sphere. It’s the work only men do. Or used to. Is there any mention of the domestic labor women have done for ages in a Levine poem? I’d like to know, sincerely, but I seem to have sold off all his books, alas.
Radio producers and journalists know a meme when they see one: here’s a poet who wrote about work – the idol before which all Americans bow down to and worship – and he wrote about it in simple, straightforward language. He wrote about it in a way that elevated the worker and praised him for his stoicism and his wounds. He wrote about it in a way that was not too far removed from a WPA or WWII propaganda pamphlet. “Brother, Can You Spare a Rhyme?” He wrote about the alienation and suffering of a certain kind of work – labor in Detroit’s car plants, shop floor environments my father and his friends worked on – and he wrote about it with a certain pathos but without ever managing somehow to offer any powerful criticism of the forces that kept this system in place.
When Levine’s The Simple Truth came out in 1995, I gave it a glowing review, comparing him, grandiosely, absurdly, to Francois Villon, Cesar Vallejo and Nazim Hikmet. This gaseous praise merited a prickly letter to the editor from Anselm Hollo and marked the beginning of our friendship, along with a transformation of my views about what poetry is. Which became for me a different kind of work than what Levine undertook.
Marjorie Perloff is still right. Levine represents Exhibit A in how experience gets ground into poetry through the most simplistic formula. A string of descriptive anecdotes rounded out by an epiphany? At least, that’s how I remember her famous and very accurate put-down, How can a poet claim to write about work and not critique the system that enslaves men and women everywhere? Jeremy Prynne, for all his bristling apostasy and hermeneutical obscurity, is a greater poet of “work” than Phillip Levine ever was. Because Levine, finally, was not a poet of ideas – a notion he would no doubt gladly ascribe too. His own work ethic blinded him to the reality of work.
His famous poem “What Work Is” is not about work as such, but a valentine to his brother, an aspiring opera singer. There’s some overcooked irony about a Jew wanting to sing Wagner in it, too, but finally it’s a poem about discipline and aspiration rather than work. A poem about wanting to escape the jail of work for the freedom of art. The scandal of Philip Levine – and the reason for his lionization – is that he has no clue what work is. To read a Levine poem about work gives one the impression that workers suffer because of mysterious unnamed forces or mere human malice and caprice. Work degrades the soul, demeans the person, exhausts the body. That’s what work is. Levine gets part of that right -- how work strips a person of their dignity -- but has no idea and has never bothered to ponder why work is. This failure to probe deeper mars his late poetry considerably, yet has managed to endear him to many readers. Still, in his early work, in books like Names of the Lost, for instance, he was capable of striking a powerful and elegaic tone.
Post-script: after further reflection and reading some thoughtful comments by readers of this post on Facebook I've toned down the rhetoric in this entry, which was needlessly harsh, and revised it somewhat. My overall point is not to castigate Levine for bad poetry -- though his late work does suffer from mannerism -- but rather a kind of bad faith. If the subject of a poem about the travails of work only portrays its sufferers as downtrodden figures deserving of our sympathy, without condemning the system that produces that suffering then these figures become mere fetishes, stand-ins for dishonest emotion.