I had intended to spend this post writing about the ways in which the shop floor has been miserable lately. It’s been close to 100 degrees on the floor and worse in the break room. The bosses give us cold water, but only when they think of it, or if it doesn’t run out. Our hours have been cut. Still. Those things are always available for discussion. Instead, the beauty of our industrial world has been put up for all to see.
Today, a new poet laureate was announced; Philip Levine is this year’s. The position is appointed by the Library of Congress on poetic merit alone and, according to the LOC website, “serves as the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” Pretty lofty stuff. Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the same year my granddad was born to Mexican immigrant parents. Both worked in the auto industry, though my granddad would go on, proudly, to spend his whole working life at Chrysler. Forty-two years. Levine did not spend his whole working life in the Detroit auto plants, but it certainly seems that the years he did spend informed the rest of his life…according to the Library of Congress website:
As a student, he worked a number of industrial jobs at Detroit’s auto-manufacturing plants, including Detroit Transmission—a branch of Cadillac—and the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory. Levine has said about writing poems in his mid-20s during his factory days: “I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry, I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought, too, that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.”
As much as I love this description, I have to take issue with it. I think that the work does possess value and dignity on its own. The New York Times had a really nice article on the appointment, which you can view at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/books/philip-levines-poetry-is-full-of-people-a-rarity.html
Best of all on this day, this news was delivered to me by a dear professor of mine from Wayne State, my alma mater (and that of our Mr. Levine), whom I encountered on an errand to campus. When I saw him, I pulled over and hopped out of the car to go talk to him as he was crossing the street. Detroit is such a small town that I see this happen all the time. He mentioned that he had come across something that I had written and was wondering how I was. If I was writing. I told him about this little blog, that I was trying to do more disciplined writing. He asked me then what else I was doing. I told him I was working at Chrysler. “Really? Wow. Doing what?” I told him that I was working on the assembly line. He was sort of delighted, as are most people I run into. He then invited me to come and speak to a class of his. The class that I had taken with him, Dr. Duncan, was Detroit Poetry. He is the only one who teaches it and he does so with a warmth, passion and compassion that is peerless. He said that I should come and talk to his class about working in the plant, a kind of ‘live blog’. I can hardly remember the last time I was so…honored.
I live in a world with a lot of intellectuals and activists and artists. Or intellectual activist artists. Or something like that. The idea of an actual factory worker has become kind of abstract to many, many people. It was to me, before I became one. Auto work skipped a generation for many of my peers. My mother told me the only reason that she enrolled in college was because she couldn’t get a job at Chrysler: they simply weren’t hiring in 1975. So when I run into folks, particularly folks like professors or editors, or people who know me as a writer, they’re always really intrigued by the idea that there are still Detroiters working in the plant. That this really is “what we do.” So here I am, trying to tell our stories.
Salud! Mazel Tov to Philip Levine. He tells our stories. He tells What Work Is.
Stepchild in the Promised Land