Philip Levine was named the Poet Laureate of the United States this week, a choice that has been widely lauded. I must admit that for some years I’ve questioned the esteemed poet’s status, or more pertinently, his authenticity. My doubts, however, were dispelled by one short but memorable encounter.
From his first book on, Levine made himself known as a “blue collar” poet. Reading some of his poems, you might think that he worked at a factory all of his life. In fact, not only did he attend college, but in his mid-20s began an M.A. program and shortly thereafter became a professor of creative writing — which is what he’s been doing since.
He did grow up in the blue collar environment, and worked at a factory for a few years after college. But, I thought, he did that for the same reason that short, overweight, and nearly blind Isaac Babel joined the Red Army — to gain authentic experience in order to write about it. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But I always imagined Levine to be a refined, frail, and spectacled intellectual, who only traveled to the steel plants of Detroit from the protected confines of his poetry. He probably doesn’t even talk the talk — he just writes it down.
A few years ago I was taking a graduate course at New York University’s department of comparative literature, which shared a floor space with the creative writing program. One day I walked into the men’s room. A man was washing his hands. In the mirror over the sink, I saw a face that I knew from a number of back-covers on my bookshelf. “Oh wow, Philip Levine!” I blurted out.
“Yes, Philip Levine takes sh*ts!” the maestro replied and walked out.