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Philip Levine, Fierce About Poetry

The U.S. poet laureate on growing up Jewish in Detroit, playing tennis in verse, and hanging on to his memories, which are the source of his art

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Philip Levine. (Geoffrey Berliner, courtesy Library of Congress)

Growth
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. The oil drums
of fat would arrive each morning,
too huge for me to tussle with,
reeking of the dark, cavernous
kitchens of the Greek and Rumanian
restaurants, of cheap hamburger joints,
White Towers and worse. They would
sulk in the battered yard behind
the plant until my boss, Leo,
the squat Ukranian dollied them in
to become, somehow, through the magic
of chemistry, pure soap. 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
me everywhere. Head down I entered,
first to remove what had dried
and then to wheel in the damp, raw
yellow curls of new soap, grained
like iris petals or unseamed quartz.
Then out to the open weedy yard
among the waiting and emptied drums
where I hammered and sawed, singing
my new life of working and earning,
outside in the fresh air of Detroit
in 1942, a year of growth.

Excerpted from What Work Is by Philip Levine. Copyright © 1991 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Zackary Sholem Berger says:


Perhaps more than any other ethnic group in the United States, Jews have struggled with their dual identity.” Perhaps – and perhaps not! 

J. Arnon says:

I must say, Levine’s poetry never did much for me. 

If I had ot choose between a make believe Jews like Levine and a real Goy like Berryman I’ll take the Goy every time. 

Berryman, is one of my favorite American  poets, btw.

Very typical of the majority of American Jews, completely ignorant of who he is and where he comes from.

I think the Talmudic term Am Haaretz best sums him up.

What’s up with the Nadal comments? I don’t think Levine is nearly that fierce! Unless profanity fierceness? Anyway, I always think of that poem about a cat sitting on top of the poet’s typewriter, swatting at his hands every now and then and that’s now poetic lines are made – perfectly describes the ones given here.

Thomas Graves says:

berryman probably turned levine into a drunk, though…as levine says in the interview, he was “proud;” no way berryman, who drank more as he got older, while levine drank less, was “proud…”  berryman wasn’t “proud.” that’s the difference…

Does anyone know who the Pulitzer-winning classmate who ‘became a Mr. Important’ is?

I suppose it might be W. D. Snodgrass. The dates roughly line up. ‘He wrote one other decent book, and after that everything he wrote was shit.’ Well, certainly Snodgrass’s career after ‘Heart’s Needle’ didn’t go quite the way he wanted it to.

Just a thought.

Shame on some of you…for some of the comments below. Levine is enough of a Jew. Read his work. His poems often take on an incantatory, almost prayerlike, intensity…like תְּפִלָּה. I love his work. Levine is the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His parents and their experience loom large in his poetry — as do his grandparents, and his extended family. All Old World Jews. All of them. Also, Levine has fought Antisemitism ever since he was a kid in Detroit. That informs his poetry, too.

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Philip Levine, Fierce About Poetry

The U.S. poet laureate on growing up Jewish in Detroit, playing tennis in verse, and hanging on to his memories, which are the source of his art