Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Philip Levine's working-class poetry

I found this tribute at the libertarian communist site Libcom, not an oxymoron. It's full of current or
archival material documenting the often misunderstood or mocked voices of the everyday people who seek justice, oppose top-down imposition of coerced authority, and toil away with little hope of a hearing. I'd just read a poem by Philip Levine about an ordinary home when seeking some examples for a syllabus; after all, from a blue-collar family myself, I teach mostly the same students.

So, I liked the comment on Libcom who cited from the L.A. Times obituary this gem: "'Princeton students were apt to become emotionally undone when he critiqued their poems,' [poet Michael[ Collier noted, 'whereas Wayne State students were likely to unleash an obscenity in response.'"

Levine left his native Detroit where he'd began working at 14, and after a Stanford fellowship wound up teaching mostly at Fresno State. At least he could buy a house, way back I guess, for $165/month. I'd like to read more about him and his work, including his lifelong fascination with the anarchists of the Spanish Civil War (a subject I too gained an interest in as a teenaged bookworm, in a remaindered copy of Ronald Fraser's oral history Blood of Spain.) From the NY Times obit, I pluck this example, of the tedium and repetition of it all. It reminds me of my teenaged jobs at minimum wage, $2.85.

In the soap factory where I worked
when I was fourteen, I spoke to
no one and only one man spoke
to me and then to command me
to wheel the little cars of damp chips
into the ovens. While the chips dried
I made more racks, nailing together
wood lath and ordinary screening
you’d use to keep flies out, racks
and more racks each long afternoon,
for this was a growing business
in a year of growth

From "Growth" in What Work Is.

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