A big smile this morning rouses me from writing hermitry: Philip Levine is the new U.S. poet laureate.
A big smile because Levine is a mensch, a real mensch. His poems are “gritty, hard-nosed evocations of the lives of working people,” says NYT critic Charles McGrath, somehow missing the point that in Levine’s hands, grit becomes haunting, soulful music. And totally missing the point that here is a poet who resonates with the millions of “working people” not working right now.
Why do I love Levine? Here’s the beginning of one of his best-known poems, What Work Is:
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 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…
And here’s a video of him reading another poem, Belle Isle.
See what I mean?