His name was writ in oil: Philip Levine’s industrial sublime

People spend a lot more time earning a living than having sex, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from reading poetry.  You can flip through most anthologies without finding many songs in praise of labor.  There might be a bit of farming—Hesiod’s Works and Days, one of the earliest monuments of Western literature, is apparently an agricultural manual (I confess that I haven’t read it, probably because it’s an agricultural manual).  And both Whitman and Hopkins wrote poems about big handsome farmers straining behind the plow (if the Village People had been around in the 19th Century, I feel certain they would have had a Plowman in the band).

There’s also Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer from Resolution and Independence, now remembered primarily as the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s astonishing parody:

He said, “I hunt for haddocks’ eyes
Among the heather bright,
And work them into waistcoat-buttons
In the silent night.
And these I do not sell for gold
Or coin of silvery shine,
But for a copper halfpenny,
And that will purchase nine.

“I sometimes dig for buttered rolls,
Or set limed twigs for crabs:
I sometimes search the grassy knolls
For wheels of Hansom-cabs.


But poets writing about their own day-jobs?  Not so much.  Banking and insurance do not play a large role in the work of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens (“One must write a policy of winter to cover nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” doesn’t really do the trick). Factory work seems, if anything, less promising—when Pablo Neruda undertook to write a series of poems for a workers’ newspaper, he produced mostly paeans to food, and I don’t think anyone regrets the decision.

No,if you’re looking for lyrical treatments ofindustrial labor, its sounds and smells and even its waste and its tedium, Philip Levine is your man.  “Sweet Will” is not as full of detail as some, but I find it particularly charming:


The poem works (if it does work for you) through various kinds of balance.  The line-breaks mostly reinforce syntactic coherence but also create a tumbling pace where the next line is necessary to complete the meaning, as when we fall from line to line on the word “fell”:

The man who stood beside me
34 years ago this night fell
on to the concrete, oily floor
of Detroit Transmission…

There is also a balance between squalid realism and a kind of stateliness; note that in the last line below Levine sneaks in an elegant iambic pentameter:

and he smiled the smile of one
who is still surprised that the dawn
graying the cracked and broken windows
could start us all to singing in the cold.

I also enjoy the reserve that dignifies an otherwise banal observation:

In truth it was no longer Friday,
for night had turned to day as it
often does for those who are patient,


And of course the whole enterprise is a balance of the sordid and the ecstatic, the obscene ethnic slurs sung to the tune of “America the Beautiful,” the doomed mortality of both the workmen and their work set against the miraculous portent’s at our narrator’s birth, and finally the miracle of all these people trudging througha dark and cold Detroit winter day after day to creat whatever kind of world it is that we live in.  For me, the unresolved gap that remains between these extremes creates an attractive sense of incompleteness, of the poem creating a space that it doesn’t fill, though I can imagine that others might find this annoying.

I’ll leave you with “Belle Isle,”  a poem about skinny-dipping in the industrial detritus of the Detroit River:

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3 Responses to His name was writ in oil: Philip Levine’s industrial sublime

  1. apolena says:

    “People spend a lot more time earning a living than having sex, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from reading poetry.” …of course, in the Soviet and East-Central European Socialist Realism poetry (but also, prominently, visual arts), particularly of the 1950s variety, the reverse was true 😉

    • Roy says:

      You mean people spend more time having sex than earning a living?

      Seriously, though, I originally had a sentence saying that I was sure Stalin had encouraged the production of odes to industrial production, but deleted it because I didn’t have anything interesting to say about it. Do you consider any socialist-realist poetry of the kind you describe worth reading? I know the Soviets of that era did awesome graphic arts, but I’ve never known anyone who spoke of liking its poetic equivalent.

  2. Pingback: Some Books of 2012, Poetry and Non-Fiction | lippenheimer

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