Proletariat Professor Named New American Poet Laureate
Philip Levine didn't think he'd ever be poet laureate of the United States. The man a critic dubbed the "proletariat poet" is in his 80's, and according to Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress, "could've been poet laureate 20 years ago." True. He had the credentials.
Levine has won major prizes including the National Book Award, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, a Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He joined the faculty of University of Iowa in 1955 after receiving an MFA as part of the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. He then moved on to California State University in Fresno where he remains a Professor Emeritus. He has been a visiting professor and writer-in-residence at Princeton, Brown, Vassar, Tufts, Columbia, New York University and National University of Australia.
So why is the octogenarian "amused" that he was chosen as poet laureate? Perhaps because his descriptions of blue collar, "voiceless" Americans punching time clocks under the exploitative watch of oppressive bosses is exactly the imagery in vogue right now. The poet knocked around as a teenager in WWII-era Detroit where he worked in auto manufacturing plants. Whether this experience shaped his anti-capitalist world view or simply added to it doesn't change the fact he prospered because he lived in a capitalist society.
Levine, the self-described "irreverent" "union man," is a perfect pick for our times. The radicals in Washington have resurrected the class warfare shtick making his depiction of the laboring masses coincide nicely with "spreading the wealth around" and "workers of the world unite." He writes about low wages, social injustice, unhealthy working conditions, and "the hope that the poor /Stalked from their cardboard houses/To transform our leaders/that our flags/Wept colored tears until they became /Nothing but flags of surrender."
The laureate never lets his readers forget he was one of the oppressed despite his rise through the ranks of academia. How radical of Levine to remember his short-lived trek through the monotony of a few "stupid jobs" in order to champion the eternal peasantry. The poet was no fan of our capitalist system despite the fact that he did alright for himself. In a 1986 interview with the Paris Review Levine humbly admitted he lacked the guts to go all the way in protest against the oppressor.
I'm cowardly. I should stop paying my taxes.
Those who have dominated our country most of my adult life are interested in maintaining an empire, subjugating other people, enslaving them if need be, and finally killing those who protest so that wealthy and powerful Americans can go on enjoying their advantages over others. I'm not doing a thing about it. I'm not a man of action.
I'm a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do? We can describe ourselves as horribly racist people, which we are, as imperialists, which we have been and are.
Later on in a 1999 Atlantic online interview Levine reminisced about his anarchist ideations. Again, he lamented his own spinelessness when it came to actually practicing what he preached.
For a couple years, maybe four or five, I really thought of myself as an anarchist. And then I stopped. For one thing, I bought a house. I could no longer say, "Property is theft." I realized I wasn't up to that ideal
Life was becoming relatively easy for me, so I gave up my claim to anarchism. But these guys still remain my heroes, because of the intensity of their gift to humanity and their vision...we are the stewards of the earth, we don't own anything, and our function is to make it as good as possible.
Levine preferred the "revolutionary" nature of anarchism to the "peel-and-patch process" of socialism.
But anarchism was a radical change: we'll go right to the denominator and destroy it; we'll start all over. We'll abolish the notion of private property, we'll abolish money. Then we'll abolish, all those relationships that are built out of money: marriage, serfdom, racism, colonialism, consumerism, the ills of America.
It is only natural that Levine would emerge triumphant in the current environment, but not to worry. He has few official duties during his one-year term beginning in October. Some former laureates have worked on projects to encourage interest in the medium. No doubt Mr. Levine will be invited to one of the Obamas' poetry slams at the White House along with area schoolchildren.
In jest, Levine "said he had thought of proposing a project in which people would be asked to name the ugliest poem they could think of." How about the rapper Common's "A Letter to the Law?" After all even ugly poetry is good poetry, right?
Read more M. Catharine Evans at Potter Williams Report