BILL MOYERS: 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.
PHILIP LEVINE: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: You worked in factories when you were a young boy. What kind of work?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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?
BILL MOYERS: Detroit at that time was in its heyday, as the industrial giant of America.
PHILIP LEVINE: Of the world.
BILL MOYERS: Of the world, yeah.
PHILIP LEVINE: 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?
BILL MOYERS: How old were you when you wrote “An Abandoned Factory, Detroit”?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: Can I coax you to read that one?
PHILIP LEVINE: Yeah, sure.
BILL MOYERS: All right.
PHILIP LEVINE: I haven't read this poem in probably 40 years.
BILL MOYERS: Wow.
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: It must be painful to you to see what's happened to Detroit. Do you ever go back?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote a poem, “Coming Home, Detroit, 1968.” Would you read this? And then--
PHILIP LEVINE: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: --tell me about it.
PHILIP LEVINE: Yeah.
“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.
BILL MOYERS: "We burn this city every day."
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: '67.
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: So you could see the future?
PHILIP LEVINE: Oh yeah. There it was. And in 1968, I was driving a VW.
BILL MOYERS: “Think small.”
PHILIP LEVINE: Yes, yeah, yeah.
And I thought, "Well, why don't they see it?" And--
BILL MOYERS: In Detroit?
PHILIP LEVINE: Yeah. Well, maybe they did. I don't know. They--
BILL MOYERS: They saw -- they saw it too late.
PHILIP LEVINE: They certainly did. Way too late.
BILL MOYERS: And then there is the poem “They Feed They Lion.” Where did that title come from?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: Here's what came out of that 20 minutes. Read that for us.
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: Humiliated?
PHILIP LEVINE: A little bit, yes, because I wasn't doing as much as I should've done.
BILL MOYERS: Here is another one of your poems that I’d like you to read – “The Helmet.”
PHILIP LEVINE: 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 making helmets.
There are white hands the color of steel, they have put their lives into steel, and if hands could lay down their lives these hands would be helmets. He and the woman did not lie down
not because she would praise the steel helmet boarding a train for no war, not because 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.
BILL MOYERS: Where did that come from?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: You liked these women? They liked you?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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?
BILL MOYERS: Sure.
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: There's a tendency on the part of those of us who really admire your poetry to think everything is from your own experience.
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: 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?
PHILIP LEVINE: Yes to both. I feel in control when that's taken over. That's right.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: 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.
PHILIP LEVINE: You said sometimes? I'd say most of the time.
BILL MOYERS: Really?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: You never know what is going into a poem, do you?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever write from anger?
PHILIP LEVINE: Oh yes. God yeah, I wrote a lot of terrible poems of anger. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: What made you the angriest?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think there's been a class war fought against working people?
PHILIP LEVINE: Of course.
BILL MOYERS: By?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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?
BILL MOYERS: 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.
PHILIP LEVINE: “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.
BILL MOYERS: They were white?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: Did the year as poet laureate change you?
PHILIP LEVINE: No, no. It was fun. It was great fun.
BILL MOYERS: What was fun about it?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: So what do you take away from that?
PHILIP LEVINE: 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.
BILL MOYERS: Philip Levine, I've enjoyed this very much. And I thank you for sharing your time and your work with us.
PHILIP LEVINE: Thank you, Bill.