We were saddened to learn that Philip Levine died yesterday at eighty-seven. The U.S. poet laureate from 2011 to 2012, he composed poems that were, as Margalit Fox writes in the New York Times, “vibrantly, angrily, and often painfully alive with the sound, smell, and sinew of heavy manual labor.”
Levine grew up in industrial Detroit during the Depression; the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he worked factory jobs for Cadillac and for Chevrolet. “You could recite poems aloud in there,” he told The Paris Review in 1988 of his time on the assembly line. “The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear.”
His time in those jobs would later inform one of his most enduring poems, “They Feed They Lion,” from the late sixties—you can hear him read it above. Levine explained the title in a 1999 interview with The Atlantic:
I was working alongside a guy in Detroit—a black guy named Eugene—when I was probably about twenty-four. He was a somewhat older guy, and we were sorting universal joints, which are part of the drive shaft of a car. The guy who owned the place had bought used ones, and we were supposed to sort the ones that could be rebuilt and made into usable replacement parts from the ones that were too badly damaged. So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who’d then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in—burlap sacks—and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words “Detroit Municipal Zoo.” And he laughed, and said, “They feed they lion they meal in they sacks.” That’s exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy’s a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn’t speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit—I’d gone back to the city to see what had happened—somehow I thought of that line. “There’s a poem there,” I said. “But I don’t know what it is. And I’m just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates.”
He added in his Art of Poetry interview:
I had been to Detroit after the riots in 1968 and I was struck by a number of things. One was how scared I was. The riots took place in exactly the same neighborhood I grew up in. I went back with a set of rather standard emotions, or standard for me anyway, about how wonderful it was that black people were letting white Americans know what this place was all about. But when I got there I was scared. People were looking at me like I was exactly what I was—middle class, middle-aged, white. There was a kind of boiling up of different emotions that I hadn’t expected, and it was that complexity of emotions that really produced the poem—my own rage toward America, my own anger. I mean, this was the America of the Vietnam War, and to me it was as though we were fighting two racist wars, one in Vietnam and one in the cities of America. We didn’t have Asians, we had blacks to persecute and kill and firebomb, or morally, mentally, and emotionally firebomb. So a lot of those emotions just boiled up.
“They Feed They Lion” offers what the critic Charles Molesworth called “a bestial totem—the exploitative spirit as a universally hungry animal anthropomorphized by a blind greed only humans could recognize … There are few other thirty-line poems that manage to say as much about America as this one.”
In Levine’s best work, the political, the personal, and the poetical seem less intertwined than indivisible: his great subject may have been, as he put it, “the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit.” Above is an excerpt from his interview in Anarchism in America, a 1983 documentary, which provides a welcome glimpse into his more casual side. “One of the things that struck me most when I went to Europe,” he says, was
how fucking law-abiding the people were. And how I broke all the laws. I didn’t break the laws so much because I was an anarchist … it was just because I was an American. I mean, if I came to a traffic light, nobody was there, I went through the goddamn thing. It was just an attitude, you know, What’s the point of staying here? … I found that my European neighbors went crazy. ‘Stay in line,’ ‘Be this way’ … And I’d say, Fuck you, you know, first one to the bus gets on … I think it was very American. We are a people who are very smart. We’ve got a lot of street smarts—we know what the law is all about. We know who made it, and how it gets enforced. I mean, I think if you stop the average American, say, What’s the law all about? Did God make it? They’d say, Oh, bullshit, God didn’t have anything to do with it. You know who made it. John D. Rockefeller made it.
It’s a compact, aggressive sort of manifesto, told in Levine’s frank style. What’s strange about it more than thirty years later is how much his conception of the American people has fallen into disuse—in a way, things are just the opposite now. Most Americans I know would commend what they see as the cavalier, enlightened, aloof European approach to the law; they would characterize Americans, by contrast, as strict, hidebound, and pious to a fault. We’d do well to remember this oh-bullshit side to “the average American,” and probably to heed some of Levine’s other advice, too:
I should stop paying my taxes. I know that the government in Washington is full of terrible people with terrible plans. They will murder people here and abroad to gain more power. 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; It finally comes down to that. I’m not so profoundly moral that I can often overcome my fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I’m a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do? I guess we can hang on and encourage each other, dig in, protest in every peaceful way possible, and hope that people are better than they seem. We can describe ourselves as horribly racist people, which we are, as imperialists, which we have been and are, but we can also see ourselves as bountiful, gracious, full of wit, courage, resourcefulness. I still believe in this country, that it can fulfill the destiny Blake and Whitman envisioned. I still believe in American poetry.
American poetry needs this kind of advocacy more than ever—with Levine’s death, it’s lost one of its most intense, elegantly strident voices.
Levine published a number of poems in The Paris Review, and we’ll share them, in his memory, over the next week.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.