Lines for Hard Times

August 11, 2011

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, August 10th, 2011. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the new poet laureate. The Library of Congress announced today that Philip Levine had been dubbed the new poet laureate, succeeding W.S. Merwin. Philip Levine has been a prominent poet for many years now, and is no stranger to readers of contemporary poetry nor to listeners of Poetry Off The Shelf. In the fall of 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, I spoke with poet Ed Hirsch about Philip Levine and we listened together to a few of Levine’s poems. Now that we’re in the midst of what seems to be another financial crises with unemployment still depressingly high, it seems like a good time to replay that poem. After all, Philip Levine grew up during the depression in Detroit which suffered massive unemployment in the 1930s. Life in a down and out industrial city comes out a lot in his work. I spoke with Ed Hirsch in his midtown Manhattan office where he’s president of the Guggenheim Foundation. Hi Ed.


Edward Hirsch: Hi Curtis.

Curtis Fox: You’re much younger than Philip Levine, you’re a totally different generation. Do you remember when you first read him?


Edward Hirsch: Yes I do. He’s part of a generation that really brought me into poetry. When was first coming up as a teenager, 19 or 20 years old, I discovered the generation of Philip Levine, Galway Kinnel, Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, James Meryl, Richard Howard, to me that was poetry. What they were doing, what James Wright was doing, what Robert Bly was doing. I guess I’d been reading Levine my whole writing life.


Curtis Fox: I was rereading his selected poems and I was struck by how unironic the work of Philip Levine is.


Edward Hirsch: I don’t agree with that actually. I think there are ironies in his work, but they’re not cynical poems. What you might be calling irony, there’s no detachment. But what I respond to is the utter conviction of the work, the commitment of the work, the values of the work and the way the poems are really driven home with a kind of terrific verbal force. He’s really an inheritor of Whitman. He really saw the people around him and he really wanted to bring them into poetry. That’s what I think of as Whitmanesque, that you bring ordinary people into poetry and you evoke the word of what working people are like.

Curtis Fox: We’re going to get into a poem that does go into working class concerns, or working concerns. Here’s Philip Levine reading “What Work Is”.


Philip Levine:

We stand in the rain in a long line

waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.

You know what work is—if you’re

old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.

Forget you. This is about waiting,

shifting from one foot to another.

Feeling the light rain falling like mist

into your hair, blurring your vision

until you think you see your own brother

ahead of you, maybe ten places.

You rub your glasses with your fingers,

and of course it’s someone else’s brother,

narrower across the shoulders than

yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin

that does not hide the stubbornness,

the sad refusal to give in to

rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,

to the knowledge that somewhere ahead

a man is waiting who will say, “No,

we’re not hiring today,” for any

reason he wants. You love your brother,

now suddenly you can hardly stand

the love flooding you for your brother,

who’s not beside you or behind or

ahead because he’s home trying to   

sleep off a miserable night shift

at Cadillac so he can get up

before noon to study his German.

Works eight hours a night so he can sing

Wagner, the opera you hate most,

the worst music ever invented.

How long has it been since you told him

you loved him, held his wide shoulders,

opened your eyes wide and said those words,

and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never

done something so simple, so obvious,

not because you’re too young or too dumb,

not because you’re jealous or even mean

or incapable of crying in

the presence of another man, no,   

just because you don’t know what work is.


Curtis Fox: When we recorded him, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind reading the poems twice in case he made a mistake or we wanted to edit it later. He said “Fuck no!”


Edward Hirsch: (LAUGHING) Sounds like Phil.


Curtis Fox: But he’s a wonderful reader, we didn’t need him to read it twice. What’s the implication at the very end? Just because he doesn't’ know what work is? Does that account for his emotional distance from his brother? I don’t quite get that very ending, do you?

Edward Hirsch: I have to say it’s a peculiar ending. I can’t say I fully understand it myself. You think you get it, but it is very odd. The logic of it is you’ve never kissed your brother, you’ve never embraced him in the deepest possible way. Why? “You’ve never / done something so simple, so obvious, / not because you’re too young or too dumb,” although the suggestion is you are too young and too dumb. “Not because you’re jealous or even mean”; you’re all of those things.


Philip Levine: or incapable of crying in

the presence of another man, no,   

just because you don’t know what work is.


Edward Hirsch: And all I can take that to mean is you haven’t actually experienced it deeply and fully enough that even though it says early on you know what work is, you haven’t actually suffered it enough to really understand what it does to people. In a way, it’s you don’t know what work does as well as work is.

Curtis Fox: And by work he’s not meaning office work —


Edward Hirsch: No, this is hard manual labor. Anyone who’s ever worked in factories as I did as a kid knows you don’t want to do it anymore. It’s really brutalizing.


Curtis Fox: Here he is. He doesn’t even have the job, he’s waiting in line and he’s going to be lucky if he gets that miserable job.


Edward Hirsch: There’s a duo there. The brother who has the job and is now sleeping it off, and he who’s waiting to get a job, hoping to get a job because even worse than having a job is not having one.


Curtis Fox: We see this today all over, day labourers, a lot of Latin Americans sitting on corners waiting around all day for someone to come by and give them a crappy job that pays $6 an hour.


Edward Hirsch: And I think part of this poem is there’s going to be a foreman, there’s going to be a guy who can turn you down just because he wants to who really has power over you. There’s something really brutal about the rawness of it.


Curtis Fox: He would be a good poet for the candidates, the presidential candidates to read right about now, wouldn’t you think?

Edward Hirsch: I think that would be very helpful especially for one who seems to have gotten very far from what working people are actually like.


Curtis Fox: He’ll remain nameless in this podcast. Let’s go to another poem. It’s called “They Feed They Lion”; it’s a much older poem from a 1972 book. First, let’s hear how Levine introduces it.


Edward Hirsch: This poem grew out of my return to Detroit City where I grew up after the riots of 1967 called Race Riots in the press, called The Great Rebellion in the city itself. As I went back to the city I discovered in the language of the time that I was part of the problem not part of the solution. I was now middle aged, middle class, and I was white. I was to some degree just overwhelmed.


Curtis Fox: Is there anything that would help us grasp it a little bit as we hear it?

Edward Hirsch: This is a really great American poem I think. I guess a thing to pay attention to is it’s not quite as literal in the same way as “What Work Is” which is in a plainer diction. This is in a richer more Dylan Thomasesque kind of language. I guess you should pay attention to the way that black vernacular is used in the poem, so when you hear the words “They Feed They Lion”, it means something like “They Feed The Lion” and “They Feed Their Lion”, which is the way “they” would be used in black vernacular and of course he makes a lot out of it poetically.


Curtis Fox: So here’s Philip Levine reading “They Feed They Lion”.


Philip Levine:

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,

Out of black bean and wet slate bread,

Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,

Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,

They Lion grow.


Out of the gray hills

Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,

West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,

Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,

Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,

They Lion grow.


Earth is eating trees, fence posts,

Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,

"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,

From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,

From the furred ear and the full jowl come

The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose

They Lion grow.


From the sweet glues of the trotters

Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower

Of the hams the thorax of caves,

From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"

Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,

The grained arm that pulls the hands,

They Lion grow.


From my five arms and all my hands,

From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,

From my car passing under the stars,

They Lion, from my children inherit,

From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,

From they sack and they belly opened

And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth

They feed they Lion and he comes.


Edward Hirsch: What a poem.

Curtis Fox: Yeah.


Edward Hirsch: What a poem. It’s thrilling every time I hear it. It’s a spectacular performance.


Curtis Fox: There’s language in there that’s a lot more complicated and not to be taken literally. Particularly:


Philip Levine:

From pig balls,

From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,

From the furred ear and the full jowl come

The repose of the hung belly,


Curtis Fox: What do you make of that?

Edward Hirsch: I think evoking here the way that the pig is central in African American culture. I think he’s picking up on that, especially from the south. This whole first part of the poem is about the Great Migration, people coming up from the south to industrial mid western cities like Chicago and Detroit. There’s actually a journey here.


Phillip Levine: Out of the gray hills

Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,

West Virginia to Kiss My Ass,


Edward Hirsch: They’re just coming forward, and there’s a kind of relentless rhythm here, Whitmanesque rhythm that gives a sense of this migration and this force that can’t be stopped. I think the big balls and “the ferocity of pig driven to holiness”, something sacred, is evoking that whole culture of blacks migrating north.


Curtis Fox: The rhythm is so different than the first poem we heard.


Philip Levine: They feed they lion. They lion grow.


Edward Hirsch: The music is driving the poem in “They Feed They Lion” in a way that’s different than “What Work Is”, where you’d say the music is very subtle and operating on behalf of the story. Here, the music is driving the feeling. The feeling gets a sense of something actually, some kind of almost second coming. “They feed they lion and he comes”. Something’s going to happen, it’s bursting. It’s 1967, a lid’s been held on the society in a city that can’t be held down and it’s actually breaking loose.

Curtis Fox: And it got worse the next year with the assassination of Martin Luther King.


Edward Hirsch: It’s important to invoke that moment. What happens when certain forces are unleashed and then the counter forces. You need a just society because if you don’t have a just society then you have these extraordinary rebellions. People just can’t bear the way they’re living anymore and they respond.

Curtis Fox: Edward Hirsh, thanks so much.


Edward Hirsch: Thanks for having me.


Curtis Fox: Ed Hirsch’s latest book is Living Fire: New and Selected Poems published by Knopf. To read a good selection of Phillip Levine poems, go to our website where you’ll also find more audio of him reading his poems, a bio and a video. Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected]. The music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

Philip Levine reads his defiantly hopeful "They Feed They Lion" and "What Work Is" with commentary by Edward Hirsch.

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