Philip Levine and the Problem of Rust Belt Literature
by Wells Addington

Has there been another poet so identified with the place he doesn’t live than Philip Levine? Joyce and Dublin seem the obvious prose precedent, but as far as verse goes, Levine is as inseparable from Detroit as Frank O’Hara is from New York City. Except physically. Physically the man and the city called it quits decades ago: Levine fled the Rust Belt for Fresno, albeit with a stop off in Iowa City to pick up an MFA.  But while Levine, like many Rust Belt artist-types before and after him, might have left, he’s never been able—or perhaps willing—to shake off Detroit.

When named Poet Laureate last year, The New York Times noted Levine is “best known for his big-hearted, Whitmanesque poems about working-class Detroit,” and that’s true enough. Levine is a uniquely Rust Belt writer. Archetypal even. His poems are straightforward, accessible. I don’t find them particularly “big-hearted” or “Whitmanesque” but I would expect The New York Times to label them that. Whitman is a precursor for sure, but I find Levine’s poetry more reminiscent of the American folk music tradition: Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger most obviously, but also the early-60s folk revival in which a bunch of highly educated kids played songs about working life. And that’s my problem with Philip Levine.

Actually, not so much with Levine. He’s a damn good poet, masterful in his use of language. Take the opening lines of “Belle Isle, 1949”:

We stripped in the first warm spring night
And ran down into the Detroit River
To baptize ourselves in brine
Of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,
Melted snow.

Everything you want out of poetic writing is here: striking details, a careful use of alliteration and consonance, near rhymes you barely notice. It sets a slightly harrowed tone and the poem, about nearly drowning while skinny-dipping with a “Polish highschool girl / I’d never seen before,” and sustains a tension that is at once unnerving and oddly sweet. One could, I suspect, have few complaints about this poem as a poem. But one could, or at least I can, have complaints about what this poem, what all of Levine’s Detroit poems for that matter, mean to Rust Belt literature.

In assessing popular conceptions of Levine—and by “assessing popular conceptions of Levine” I pretty much mean browsing his reviews on—Levine is perceived as an “honest” writer. Whenever I hear “honest” and writer together, I shudder. Writing creatively means constructing lies for the greater good. There is nothing more frustrating when teaching Creative Writing than to have read a boring piece by a student and to have recommended to the student changes that would make it less boring and to have that student reply, “But that’s the way it happened!” The writer’s commitment is not to reality, but to the piece of writing. A poem about a father buying a mother cookies because he loves her is never going to be as good a poem about a father buying cookies because he is trying to give the mother diabetes so that she’ll die and he can remarry and to do all this while acting as if he loves her (truth be told, neither of those sound like particularly good poems, but my point remains).

And I find Levine’s poems inherently dishonest. Yes, he grew up in Detroit. Yes, he worked in a factory after college. Those things are important—they provide Levine with setting and subject that he extracts and refines to hammer some stunning poetry out of. But Levine attended the premiere MFA program in the country. He spent the majority of his adult life in the academy, which is arguably a factory of sorts but, as someone who has worked third shift in a factory (briefly) and taught at the university, I can assure you that their only real similarities is that in both places you get to bullshit with co-workers over cigarettes. The university can be a cozy place to work (especially when Levine started in the 1950s), but I’ve yet to read a poem about teaching literature and there’s likely a good reason for that: teaching is perhaps the one subject that is outside of the poetic imagination.

So Levine’s poems are inherently dishonest: he is not actually a factory worker who tosses off verse on the weekend. And why would he want to be? Being working class sucks. You do the same thing day in, day out. You get paid a penance of what the suited fellows in the corporate headquarters make. Physical monotony may appeal to some, but chances are if you are reading this, you’re not one of them. Or you might claim that you are, that there’s a certain dignity to sewing soles onto shoes, to picking grapes during the season, to bending metal in a die. Great. Go work those jobs. You probably don’t want to, especially not for the wages you’d get. But are you satisfied with your job now? You went to college so you didn’t have to work a blue collar job (all six that we have left), got the degree, got the fancy career, and now, if pop psychology is to be believed, you suffer from malaise, feel inconsequential in the world, want there to be something more to life than cubicles and big screen televisions. And it is in that dissatisfaction that I suspect much of Levine’s appeal lies.

I’m really not trying to be an ass here or accuse you of things that aren’t true. I’m being incredibly reductive, but it’s with the aim of getting to this point: Levine’s poems aren’t honest, but they are nostalgic. The individual poems are not necessarily nostalgic, although they often are in that they recall moments from the speaker’s past, but taken en masse, they create a world that never quite existed and that world seems to us somehow more pure, more “honest” than the world in which we live. Remember that Levine isn’t living the life he describes in the poems—he’s a college professor. But his readers aren’t living the lives he describes either: last I checked, factory workers and agricultural laborers and fast food employees aren’t exactly gobbling down poetry books. Poetry readers are the educated (upper) classes, the ones institutionally conditioned to value poetry and more than likely not the ones employed on the second shift at Ford.

What Levine’s poems give upper class readers is a means to feel that they are on the level with the lower classes. What the poems effectively do is similar to the recent Occupy Wall Street Movement with it’s 99% slogan: it obscures what are extremely complicated class divides that stratify America more than anyone talks about in polite company. Levine’s poems give readers solidarity to a life they left behind and probably never really wanted. Perhaps their father was indeed a factory worker, but they aren’t. And Levine’s poems, in presenting the lower class as complicated rather than simple, further helps this solidarity: the woman taking my order Taco Bell—she has a rich interior life just like me!

These are, I suspect, good things overall. They are probably why The New York Times gets to call Levine “big-hearted.” But what this intellectual solidarity fails to do—what the Occupy Movement failed to do—is change anything. Big-hearted, white-collared liberals can perceive solidarity with Levine’s union workers, but it’s a facade that keeps the power structures in place. If it didn’t, then the TV pundits would have a) acknowledged that Levine was named Poet Laureate and b) raised hell about this. Given the oratorical masturbation preceding Common’s trip to the White House, if a true proletarian literature, a la Mike Gold, reemerged and gained governmental support, you know FOX News would launch an all-out nuclear culture war.

Again though, I like Levine. I like his poetry. I like all the things about Levine’s poetry that you probably like. Go read some Levine here if you haven’t before. What I don’t like is that his poetry and worldview has become the dominant form of Rust Belt literature. He’s paved a great road (no potholes!), but I think it leads to a dead-end. Rust Belt literature must become more than class nostalgia, than descriptions of the detritus in polluted rivers, than interrogations of the complex inner-thoughts of beer guzzling steelworkers. It needs to become something alive, something in the present. Something that bulldozes the decrepit buildings and rebuilds new structures to bury the past.

And for God’s sake, don’t let it be honest.


Wells Addington is the Poetry Editor of The Cleveland Review.