Worlds collided when the nation’s Poet Laureate came to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It was a moment of discordance: a room filled with the scientists and engineers of OSHA – people who work in absolutes, in things measurable and provable – speaking with a man whose work was by its nature ineffable, exploring the deepest mysteries of experience. It was May of 2012, and Philip Levine visited the department on the eve of his final address as our nation’s 18th Poet Laureate.
I had told the lecture’s organizers at the Library of Congress that Levine had many fans at OSHA, and that we would come to hear him read. We arrived at the library’s auditorium and the 2nd row was roped off with a sign “Reserved for OSHA.” Proudly, we observed that was likely the first time that sign graced a poetry reading at the Library of Congress, or perhaps anywhere else.
That final lecture was titled “My Lost Poets,” a reflection on Levine’s early encounters with the poetry that would shape him at Wayne State University. He paid loving tribute that night to the poets whose impressions on one young reader lasted a lifetime. Levine now joins such a group of lost poets, having passed away this month at the age of 87 at his home in Fresno, Calif.
No one wrote about work quite like Philip Levine. In collections such as “The Simple Truth” and “What Work Is,” Levine, the proud son of Detroit, evoked an experience of industrial labor that he shared with so many from the American heartland. In many of the poems, the work is hard, dreary, back-breaking. The working conditions are shocking, and he could write about those conditions in such a visceral way that the reader shares the experience. In Fear and Fame, he describes a shower that rinses the chemicals (the “smoking traces”) from his protective clothing after a shift in “the dim world of the pickling tank”:
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
But Levine also wrote wonderfully about the expansive possibility that work brings, about the joy of opportunity and the pride of a job well done. Here, the poet is working in a soap factory (it doesn’t sound like a pleasant place) at age 14:
Head down I entered,
first to remove what had dried
and then to wheel in the damp, raw
yellow curls of new soap, grained
like iris petals or unseamed quartz.
Then out to the open weedy yard
among the waiting and emptied drums
where i hammered and sawed, singing
my new life of working and earning,
outside in the fresh air of Detroit
in 1942, a year of growth.
One of our bywords at the Labor Department is ‘dignity’ – all work and all workers have dignity, a quiet dignity that expresses itself in the daily perseverance required to do a job and do it well. There may be no one who was able to evoke that dignity as resonantly as Philip Levine in his poems about work.
We will not forget him. I will not say Philip Levine is “our” poet, but his words carry particular meaning for us; they teach us, animate us, instill us with pride in our work. His light will remain with me, certainly, and with so many of us at the Labor Department. It is a special, industrial light – the fire of the foundry or the glow of the welding torch over the midnight shift. We carry it with us as we continue to defend the rights of the working men and women who Philip Levine knew and loved so well.