I recently came across a remarkable poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine thanks to a blog I sometimes read.
As remarkable as the poem (below) is, I am even more grateful that it led me to an utterly delicious interview of Levine conducted by Mona Simpson in The Paris Review. Few interviews of poets can be described as page-turners, but this one certainly is.
What Work IsWe stand in the rain in a long linewaiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.You know what work is—if you’reold enough to read this you know whatwork 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 mistinto your hair, blurring your visionuntil you think you see your own brotherahead 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 thanyours but with the same sad slouch, the grinthat does not hide the stubbornness,the sad refusal to give in torain, to the hours of wasted waiting,to the knowledge that somewhere aheada man is waiting who will say, “No,we’re not hiring today,” for anyreason he wants. You love your brother,now suddenly you can hardly standthe love flooding you for your brother,who’s not beside you or behind orahead because he’s home trying tosleep off a miserable night shiftat Cadillac so he can get upbefore noon to study his German.Works eight hours a night so he can singWagner, the opera you hate most,the worst music ever invented.How long has it been since you told himyou loved him, held his wide shoulders,opened your eyes wide and said those words,and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve neverdone something so simple, so obvious,not because you’re too young or too dumb,not because you’re jealous or even meanor incapable of crying inthe presence of another man, no,just because you don’t know what work is.
As Philip Levine says in the Paris Review interview, he told stories in his poems. He told an interesting story at a gala farewell in New York, at Cooper Union. I think he was retiring from teaching at NYU. Several poets told stories and read poems by Levine, and finally Levine himself got up to speak and read. He read “They Feed They Lion,” and the story he told about the poem was that the title was a typo. He asked his wife to read the poem, and as she read it aloud, he stopped her and said, “No, that should be ‘They feed the lion.'” And his loving wife said, “No, honey, I like it the way it is.” So he kept it that way. The poem has become an anthology piece, but it’s a deviation from Levine’s style, which is pretty straightforward and doesn’t depend for its interest on deformations of the language. The interest comes from real people, real life, written well.