Sunday, February 14, 2010

I've always liked Philip Levine

because of who he writes about.  No, strike that.  I like him because of *how* he write about who he writes about.  There is, after all, a long tradition of writing about the working man/woman--usually the pastoral working man/woman, and usually from the remove of a different, non-working class altogether.  Philip Levine uses no such remove.

My first taste of Levine was his collection What Work Is.  The poem "Fear and Fame" is the first work in this collection, and I think it illustrates the difference between Levine and other poets writing about the working class.  It is the speaker himself descending into the grit and slime, the speaker who can't rid himself of the taste of the work, the speaker in the alien suit, the speaker who'll descend into the pit again because that's what work is--the poet's work as well as the person's work. Levine refuses to write in the tradition of the outsider looking at the workers.  He is the worker, and there is no shame in that.

This is the Dirty Jobs approach to poetry.  Or not.  Mike Rowe always maintains a careful degree of separation from the work he's doing--we're constantly reminded that he's foreign to the work.  Levine does the opposite--he dives into the job and claims it as his own, as something that *should* be part of the poet's world.  There is no shame in working hard in inhospitable environments--or if there is, the shame is ours, we who enjoy the fruits of this work while refusing to get our own hands dirty.

No comments:

Post a Comment