I like being the poet laureate of the United States,” says Philip Levine, who assumed the honorary post last October and will serve through next fall. “My wife has told me, ‘Shut up. Don’t tell people you’re the poet laureate. You’ve said it enough.’” He laughs. “Okay, I realize that. But I like it.” Levine, now eighty-four, has certainly earned the honor. Best known for his sharply observed poems about working-class life in Detroit, where he grew up, Levine has published twenty-four books within the past fifty years. Along the way he has won nearly every award available to an American poet, including the Pulitzer Prize, for The Simple Truth (Knopf, 1994), and the National Book Award, for What Work Is (Knopf, 1991). The poet, who divides his time between California and New York City, spoke about his plans for the laureateship and the range of influences on his work through the years.
Why do you think they selected you as poet laureate?
[Librarian of Congress] James Billington wrote that he was taken with the fact that my poems are populated by people, and not spectacular, heroic famous people, but in some cases spectacular, heroic unknown people.
What would you like to accomplish?
I’m thinking of assembling an anthology of lost poems, poems that I really liked—loved—that were inspirational to me when I was starting out, all the way back in the forties, that have fallen out of anthologies. They probably exist largely now in the minds of those who liked them, and since I’m talking about the forties and fifties, many of those people aren’t around any more.
How did you start writing poems?
It started when I was fourteen. I didn’t write them down. I composed them in my head. Then in my senior year of high school, I found remnants of modern poetry, first in Wilfred Owen, which was enormously moving to me because the war was on, and I thought, “I’m going to wind up in this thing.” I found the poetry intoxicating almost. I mean, here were all my fears and doubts connected with war being objectified in amazing poetry, and I thought, “My God, if I could write stuff like that.” So then, starting at about age eighteen, I got more serious about it. And bolder. Now I would write it down.
Were there other kids around you at the time who were writing poetry?
None that I knew.
So it was an entirely solitary pursuit?
Until my second year in college [at Wayne University]. I showed a poem to a teacher and the teacher asked me if I belonged to the Miles Poetry Room. He explained to me that there was a group of students and others who met once a month in a particular room named after a man who had taught at Wayne and then gone into the service—he was an officer in the Navy, and he was killed. He had a vast poetry collection—he was a friend of Berryman’s, actually—and he willed it to the school, so they decided to open this room. Just finding the room and this collection of con-temporary poetry was really quite astonishing. I met at least a dozen men and women of varying talent, some writing better than I. There was no course at the school in poetry writing, but there was a poet teaching, and sure enough he started coming to the Miles Poetry Room. I showed stuff to him and he was helpful.
You’ve written about being full of rage at that time in your life. Was that a help or a hindrance to you as a poet?
It was a huge hindrance because it meant I couldn’t write anything worth a damn about work life. I couldn’t get that disinterestedness that’s often required. I couldn’t get Wordsworth’s tranquillity. It took me until I was about thirty-five before I really wrote a poem that was about work. There is one poem called “An Abandoned Factory” in my first book. I looked at it the other day because someone wanted to reprint it, and I asked them not to. I thought it was hokey. It was skill-ful—it was rhymed and metered—but it has no one in it, and that’s the big difference between it and the other poems that I think work. The other poems about work are populated with people working.
How did you channel your rage to allow you to write poems that had people in them?
It happened because of a dream. I was living in Fresno. I had a dream that I got a telephone call, and, as things happen in dreams that are crazy, I could see the caller. He’s in a phone booth. He’s a guy I’d worked with named Eugene Watkins, a black guy I’d worked with in Detroit. Eugene tells me he’s in Bakersfield. He’s come to California on a vacation or something. “Where should I go?” he says to me. The answer he wants is, “Drive north for two hours, come to Fresno, we’ll have la-da-dee, you know.” I don’t give him that answer. I tell him how to get to L.A. and what he might do in L.A. to see the sights. I woke up and was furious with myself. How could I possibly not invite Eugene to my house? This was terrible. I was turning my back on my whole growing up. I was so angry with myself. I keep musing about, “Oh, what a schmuck you are. You’ve become an assistant professor at a second-rate school and you think you’re hot shit and you’re not going to invite a black, working man to your house, a guy who came to your apartment in Detroit, who shared your weekends with you. What kind of crap is this?” And then I realized, “Hey, I didn’t do anything. That was just a dream.” When I realized this, I said, “That dream is a warning. Go back and deal with those years and those people who were so dear to you, who were your friends.”
How did a poem like “What Work Is” come out of that inchoate rage?
By the time I wrote that poem, the rage had died. But something happened that reinvoked it. I was watching television one night and they ran a story about a father and son in Detroit who were dining in a restaurant and there was what they thought was a Japanese man eating there alone—the guy was actually Chinese—and they waited until he left the restaurant and they beat him with a baseball bat and killed him. I couldn’t believe it. The next day when I got up, I started writing the poem, and on the original draft I wrote: “Detroit is shit.” And I felt that way. But once I got into the poem, it became a different poem. It became itself, you could say.
Now you’re eighty-four. How has your poetry changed as you’ve aged?
I’ve learned to be more savvy about the energy I do have. I don’t start as many bad poems as I did when I was, say, fifty, and I certainly don’t stick with them. I can smell their failure pretty quickly now, and say, “Uh-uh, move on.” I think I have largely avoided imitating myself. If you read my books, there’s a consistent voice, but the techniques and the subjects and attitudes do change. If you look at a book like They Feed They Lion, there you see the rage. If you look at The Names of the Lost, you see something else. You see me becoming a guy with more of a vision of what might be a great life. And humor enters. Up until the book 1933, there’s almost no humor in my work. And then it starts.
What do you think brought that in?
A guy I grew up with who’s a poet, a man named Paul Petri, wrote me a letter once. He said, “You have a terrific sense of humor. Why isn’t it in your poetry?” Thom Gunn had also said that to me. “Why don’t you let it get into your poetry? It’ll enrich it.” And I said, “Yeah, why the hell not?” Also, I remembered how Auden could inject humor into really serious poems, and disarm you, and then you’d drop your defenses, and suddenly the poem would get even more serious, and really hit you with power. Berryman was another guy who could do that. I thought, “Yeah, let me get more cunning.”
What do you say to a kid now working in a factory job similar to the ones you had who wants to be a poet? Do you think your work and the work of other contemporary poets is relevant to that kid?
Sure. All good poetry is relevant to him. This kid—he or she, or they, the two of them—have to recognize that they don’t know what they’re going to write, because they’re just starting. So they don’t know what it is their poetry will be. They scarcely know their own feelings. It takes a long time to find out what your poetry is going to be. When I taught, I would tell my students, “Don’t strain to get a voice right away because you don’t know what it is you’re story is going to be.” I would tell them to read the best poetry, write everything that occurs to you, see where it goes. The voice that will suit you will arrive without you really even knowing it. That’s what happened to me.
What would you say your story is, now that you’re not fourteen but eighty-four?
I can’t answer the question. I don’t think about it. What I think about is, “What the hell’s the next poem going to be?” That’s what I’m always looking for.
Does it ever get any easier?
Nothing gets easier, except forgetting. That’s the only thing that gets easier.
Michael Bourne is a poet and fiction writer living in New York City, where he teaches at Fordham University and works as a staff writer for the literary website the Millions.