The pope's vigor on behalf of working people resonates right here in America among workers fighting for a living wage. On Black Friday, that big shopping day after Thanksgiving, some 1500 demonstrations took place at Walmarts around the country. And then, on the heels of the Walmart protests, fast food workers staged the latest in a year-long series of walkouts and demonstrations, this time in more than 100 cities, demanding a raise in the minimum wage at McDonald’s and other chains to $15 an hour.
Now the companies yell right back, of course, but they can afford what the employees are asking for. The six Walmart heirs alone have a combined net worth of nearly $145 billion. You heard me right: $145 billion for choosing their parents well. McDonald’s reportedly just bought its second $35 million corporate jet to fly executives around at a cost of $6500 an hour while its workers can barely scrape together the pennies for a Happy Meal.
We are losing sight of who really keeps this country working, and that's why I asked the poet Philip Levine to join me. He once labored in the heat, grit and noise of the assembly lines at the automobile plants of Detroit where he discovered that his gift for verse could provide “a voice for the voiceless.”
He’s the author of twenty collections of poems, as well as books of translations and essays, and has been the recipient of the Pulitzer and two National Book Awards. He recently served as the nation’s poet laureate at the Library of Congress. One critic described Philip Levine as “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.” Philip Levine, welcome.
You worked in factories when you were a young boy. What kind of work?
I worked for a place called Chevrolet Gear and Axle, long gone. And that was working on large punch presses in a forge room. So it was very hot and dangerous. And it was a kind of job that you could not attend to. You had to be conscious of what you were doing.
You were sticking metal with tongs into this press and waiting for it to come down. And then you were taking it and you were hanging it on something. And you couldn't daydream, you know? You could-- and people told me, "You can't daydream. Men have lost their hands in these damned machines." That was the worst job I ever had.
It was numbing, you know? Later on I worked for a place called Wyandotte Chemical and you worked at height. Wrapping asbestos around these great pipes that were transferring stuff.
And you'd have to wear a mask. And so after about two weeks, I was having nightmares about falling down to the Earth that I always thought was friendly. It didn't look very friendly from up there on the scaffold. You know?
Detroit at that time was in its heyday, as the industrial giant of America.
Of the world.
Of the world, yeah.
Yeah. I mean, absolutely. And during the war, I mean, I could get a factory job that was restricted to an 18 year old, even though I was 16, by just going in and saying I was 18. They didn't ask for a birth certificate, they needed a body, right?
How old were you when you wrote “An Abandoned Factory, Detroit”?
I was 29. And my twin brother sent me about the closing of Chevrolet Gear and Axle, where I had worked, closing and being abolished, who knows what. And although Detroit was still a going thing, but the factory was a mess when I worked there.
And you know, I mean, it was old and junky. And I started thinking about my years there. I should say months. I didn't last a year. And it came out of that, it came out of -- in a way, a kind of deep pleasure, that little Philip, 160 pounds, wiry guy, he has outlasted that huge factory.
Can I coax you to read that one?
I haven't read this poem in probably 40 years.
Not even to myself. “An Abandoned Factory, Detroit”.
The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands,
An iron authority against the snow,
And this grey monument to common sense
Resists the weather. Fears of idle hands,
Of protest, men in league, and of the slow
Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.
Beyond, through broken windows one can see
Where the great presses paused between their strokes
And thus remain, in air suspended, caught
In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,
And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.
It must be painful to you to see what's happened to Detroit. Do you ever go back?
Yeah. But I don't know it. I mean, that city that I knew so well, I don't know for a number of reasons. One, all these landmark buildings, a lot of them are gone. Movie theaters, or whatever. Also, there were no freeways when I lived there. So now, you would take, today, you would take a street, a major artery, with almost no cars on it.
And it would stop. Why doesn't it keep going down to, you know? Because the freeway cuts in there. And I don't know those freeways. So I drive around and just get lost and lost again.
You wrote a poem, “Coming Home, Detroit, 1968.” Would you read this? And then--
--tell me about it.
“Coming Home, Detroit, 1968.”
A winter Tuesday, the city pouring fire,
Ford Rouge sulfurs the sun, Cadillac, Lincoln,
Chevy gray. The fat stacks
of breweries hold their tongues. Rags,
papers, hands, the stems of birches
dirtied with words.
Near the freeway
you stop and wonder what came off,
recall the snowstorm where you lost it all,
the wolverine, the northern bear, the wolf
caught out, ice and steel raining
from the foundries in a shower
of human breath. On sleds in the false sun
the new material rests. One brown child
stares and stares into your frozen eyes
until the lights change and you go
forward to work. The charred faces, the eyes
boarded up, the rubble of innards, the cry
of wet smoke hanging in your throat,
the twisted river stopped at the color of iron.
We burn this city every day.
"We burn this city every day."
You know, I remember, I can still remember the impetus to the poem. I went back to Detroit in 1968 to see my brother. And there was a lot of hostility in the city. There was a lot of hostility. You know, it was after those great riots, or rebellion, whatever word you want to use.
Yeah. And that atmosphere was still clearly there. Then when I left, the plane passed over the city. And everywhere, it was still a city of industry. The industry was still there in 1968. It was all this smoke coming up. And I thought, "There's a profound way in which we're burning this city inwardly."
We're burning the hearts of our citizens. We were burning -- our souls, in a way, are charred. These faces, these representations. They are of who we've become, or are in danger of becoming. And it was a heart-breaking experience, because I could see then it's over, it's over. I was living in California. In 1968, half the cars in Fresno were made in Japan.
So you could see the future?
Oh yeah. There it was. And in 1968, I was driving a VW.
Yes, yeah, yeah.
And I thought, "Well, why don't they see it?" And--
Yeah. Well, maybe they did. I don't know. They--
They saw -- they saw it too late.
They certainly did. Way too late.
And then there is the poem “They Feed They Lion.” Where did that title come from?
The title has a curious story. And when I was probably 18, at the most 19, I was working in what, in Detroit, we call a grease shop. And a young man and I -- he was a couple years older, his name was Eugene Watkins. I still remember his name. We were sorting the crosses that go to universal joints. And the ones that had to be scrapped, we were putting in a big sack.
And the ones that were salvageable, that could be reworked and rebuilt and used were going here. And three-quarters of them were -- had to be junked. And Eugene brought a big bag over, and we'd finished one of these burlap sacks. And he held it up and it said, "Detroit Municipal Zoo." And he said, "Look at this, Phil, they feed they lion they meal in they sacks." That's just what he said. And he laughed. And I thought, "He has reduced all the third-person pronouns to one. He has simplified the English language. This is amazing."
Years later, during that era of huge unrest, racial tension Detroit, Newark, LA. And one day
I woke up with this dream about Eugene. And remembered him saying, "They feed they meal -- they lion they meal in they sacks."
And I thought, "There's a poem in there. There is a poem." I knew it instantly.
I didn't know where it was going to go. I knew its title, “They Feed They Lion.” And I knew it had something to do with Eugene, with my contact with Detroit, with the racial situation, I knew that. But I didn't know where it was going to go. And when I sat down, I wrote it probably in 20 minutes.
Here's what came out of that 20 minutes. Read that for us.
Yeah, okay. “They Feed They Lion.”
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.
I left out one crucial emotion that I had when I went back to Detroit. I realized -- I was walking, I was downtown and I went into a little restaurant that made marvelous hot fudge sundaes that I knew from my childhood. And the atmosphere in the place was not friendly. I was the only white person there, including the people who were working there. And I got this realization, "When these people look at me, they don't know me. They regard me in a way as exactly what I am. White and middle class." Which by this time, I was. I was a teacher, I was a university teacher. And they see me in many ways for what I am, a portion of their problem.
And they had every right to view me this way, because what am I doing? I am -- I got my -- I'm middle aged now too, I'm middle everything. And I'm not, you know, you're either part of the problem or you're part of the solution.
And I was part of the problem. And I saw myself in these terms. And this poem partly comes out of that. The sense that no matter how powerfully I feel sympathetic, this is their struggle. And they will make it without me. I can do -- they're going to make it whether I help them or not. But they're going to make it because they have this power. This human power. They can survive, they survived slavery, they survived Detroit -- racism, industrialism, they will make it.
They have a determination and a belief in themselves, that is awesome. And so in a way, I thought of that awesome power that they had, that you know, if you hit somebody -- in a way, he gains power over you if he survives it. And they had survived us. In all that we could do to wound them. And I was awed by it. And in a little way, kind of, you know, humiliated.
A little bit, yes, because I wasn't doing as much as I should've done.
Here is another one of your poems that I’d like you to read – “The Helmet.”
Yes. Okay. “The Helmet”
All the way
on the road to Gary
he could see
where the sky shone
just out of reach
and smell the rich
smell of work
as strong as money,
but when he got there
the night was over.
People were going
to work and back,
the sidewalks were lakes
no one walked on,
the diners were saying
time to eat
so he stopped
and talked to a woman
who'd been up late
There are white hands
the color of steel,
they have put their lives
and if hands could lay down
their lives these hands
would be helmets.
He and the woman
did not lie down
she would praise
the steel helmet
boarding a train
for no war,
he would find
the unjewelled crown
in a surplus store
where hands were sold.
They did not lie down
face to face
because of the waste
of being so close
and they were too tired
of being each other
to try to be lovers
and because they had
to sit up straight
so they could eat.
Where did that come from?
That came from working with women, in a place in Detroit for a year, exactly a year. In which we made plumbing parts and plated them. And I worked afternoons there, and there were women there who had children, there were women who were single.
The work was hard and the women would get very tired and, you know, you couldn't help but feel, "Oh my God, this is so tough. This is so dehumanizing." And I had such a feeling for those women who I, you know, I’d eat lunch, we would have a break for lunch, and we'd talk and I got to know them, and I worked there exactly a year.
You liked these women? They liked you?
Yes, oh yes. I knew their names, we talked. There was one that I found extraordinary. I think she's in this book here.
It's called “Coming Close.” Mind if I read it?
If I can find it. Come on, find it. Yeah, this is from that place. And I tried to capture a sense of her, a sense of what her life was like, at least in those hours. A sense of how I felt toward her.
Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase,
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull,
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, she would turn
to you and say, “Why?” Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, “Why?” Even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn't dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.
I guess this partly came out of the fact that I knew I was getting out of there. And I knew she might not.
There's a tendency on the part of those of us who really admire your poetry to think everything is from your own experience.
Coming Close, yeah, I worked with her. She never said that. She never said those things. She never took her hand and wiped it on my white shirt. I mean, I didn't take that ride to Gary, Indiana, and meet that woman who made helmets. That never happened to me. There is a core of experience that one transforms in the making of a poem. And you have to be free to take it where it can go and where it can be most meaningful.
Do you feel in control when you're writing? Or do you feel the song, the breath, the urge, the muse, whatever we want to call it, has taken over in some way difficult to describe to an outsider?
Yes to both. I feel in control when that's taken over. That's right.
How do you explain that?
It would be like trying to ask Rafael Nadal, "Why -- how could he win seven or eight consecutive French tournament?" "What are you thinking of out there? Do you feel in control?" He's not thinking at all. He knows he's in control so he doesn't have to think at all. He just does it. And I think, this hasn't always happened.
I mean, I've got poems in these books that, oh my God, I toiled over and toiled over and toiled over. And the ones that I toiled over, I really loved because they stuck with me until I got them right, you know? These had it easy, you know? These are like spoiled brats.
Sometimes I think poets write poems without knowing why they write poems. And they don't have the meaning in them that we ask you to explain to us.
You said sometimes? I'd say most of the time.
Most -- oh, yes. You know, poems don't come to you in a sense through your rational brain. They come from inspiration and mysterious sources. Naturally, you don't want to be a dumbbell when you're writing, when you see something that you've written that contradicts this or is badly done or what have you. So your brain is operating. But it isn’t your brain, quite -- or -- not brain. Your rational intelligence that's giving you the work.
So after, you know, when you're young, you have almost an agenda. "This is what I'm going to do with my poetry. I'm going to say da, da, da, da, da." Well, all right, you're 15, 16, 18, whatever. By the time you're 22 or 23, you've said all those things. And nobody -- and the poems are mediocre. And nobody gives a damn what you said. So then you-- but meanwhile, this is exactly what happened to me, meanwhile, you fall absolutely in love with the making of poems. It becomes a source of unbelievable pleasure, the rewards it gives you.
You can't describe how marvelous it feels to do it. I'm sure painters feel it, jazz musicians must feel it when they're on and the night, everything's going very well.
You never know what is going into a poem, do you?
No. But you have to be open and let it come, you know? Let it in. I have a notion that sometimes the more you let into a poem, the larger it becomes spiritually and meaningfully.
Did you ever write from anger?
Oh yes. God yeah, I wrote a lot of terrible poems of anger. Yes.
What made you the angriest?
American capitalism. Its heartlessness. And American racism. Yeah. Yeah. The conditions that are imposed upon the poor by the rich. It's a source of -- you never get over it. You never get over it. It's there. It's muted. Now because I've written about it so many times. And sometimes well and sometimes not so well.
I mean, you know, you're always in danger with -- in anger of writing propagandistically. And you don't want to do that.
Do you think there's been a class war fought against working people?
Those who don't work. Those who live off the labors of those who work. Who have bought our politicians. Hello there, bought congressman. How are you doing?
You won the National Book Award for the book whose title is “What Work Is.” And here’s a powerful poem from that. Talk about that poem, and read it.
“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. 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.
I tell you, the poem grew out of a terrible moment once. I was watching -- maybe it was “60 Minutes.” And the story was a terrible story. The story of a father and son who beat a man to death with baseball bats, who they identified as Japanese. He was actually Chinese. And they were -- they felt Detroit collapsing around them, right? And they felt, you know, this imposition from Japan. Somehow, they took it out on this guy and killed him.
They were white?
Yeah. And I just couldn't believe it. I mean, I was just so shocked. And I sat down. I started writing. And I said something at the top of the page that I can't repeat on television about Detroit. And then I just started -- and then I got this bitter memory of actually applying for a job at Ford Highland Park once. And they said, you know, "Employment Office opens at 8:00." And I got there, you know, around that time. And that was probably 20th in line or something.
Well, they didn't open till 10:00. And it was drizzling. And I like a jerk stayed. All those two hours, I kept thinking, "Well, it open soon. It'll open--" No. We all stood there. And then I realized they want those of us who are willing to stand two hours in the rain. They want to hire us. They know how docile we are already. We just proved it to them. We'll take any kind of crap they dish out, right?
And I like an -- I was so angry that when I get up there and I'm still so mad. And the guy says to me, "What kind of job are you expecting to get here?" Looks up at me. And because I'm a fat mouth, I said, "I want your job. I want to sit behind a desk and treat other men as swine, just the way you're treating me. You know? That's what I want. I'd like the power that you have." You know, I didn't swear at him or anything, but I just told him. And I walked away. And I felt good. I thought, “Good. I'm not that submissive.” You can't do that to me without my at least saying something, you know? And I remembered that.
Did the year as poet laureate change you?
No, no. It was fun. It was great fun.
What was fun about it?
Oh, I met so many interesting people, you know? For example, I was invited to read for the UAW AFL-CIO.
And it was just -- it was thrilling to read these poems and some love poems also. I mean, not just labor poems. I read a variety of poems for this audience that really cared about this. Men and women brought their children to meet me. I mean, it was so wonderful.
So what do you take away from that?
Oh, the pleasure of the moment. I mean, you know, and also just the sudden knowledge that, yeah, I'm not just somebody sitting in a room that nobody ever heard of. I mean, they read me. The act is complete. The act of writing is completed.
Philip Levine, I've enjoyed this very much. And I thank you for sharing your time and your work with us.
Thank you, Bill.