With the passing this week of Philip Levine the literary world heaves with loss.
A Pulitzer Prize-winner, Levine served as U.S. poet laureate from 2011- 2102, and while his death was not a surprise — he was 87 and in failing health — the greater sadness is that he represented a rapidly disappearing type of writer: the working man's poet.
Levine was an auto-worker turned writer who grew up in Detroit.
“I saw that the people that I was working with . . . were voiceless in a way,” he explained in Detroit Magazine. “In terms of the literature of the United States they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. . . I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be."
While many poets work in universities as professors or in literary jobs related to publishing, working class poets seem scant. And their voices, when we stumble upon them, feel fresh and real.
Where are the working poets?
I'm thinking of Mather Schneider, a cab driver in Arizona.
And the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an annual celebration of rural American West. The event is held every January in Elko, Nevada and for over 30 years has drawn a robust collection of working cowboys and ranching families expressing their culture through poetry, music and storytelling.
And the Fisher Poets Gathering, an annual celebration of commercial fishermen and fisherwomen poets. The event takes place in late February in Astoria, Oregon, and features over 75 fisher poets performing music, poetry and prose. "It's not just old guys looking backward," says founder Jon Broderick. "We hear the voices of people from across the commercial fishing spectrum: deckhands, skippers and cannery workers, young and old, women and men, west coast and east."
What Work Is
- Philip Levine