Speaking, melodically, on behalf of working stiffs everywhere

Philip Levine doesn’t write Holocaust poetry.

“The material is so difficult to deal with, and I’m an American. I didn’t have to go through that shit,” Levine said, speaking on the phone from his home in Fresno. “The only poems I ever wrote directly about the Holocaust were lousy, and I’d throw them away.”

If his words lack the pretentious ring of what you’d expect from a United States Poet Laureate, that’s because Levine, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, has long eschewed flowery language in favor of telling it like it is.

Philip Levine

Born in Detroit in 1928 and raised in the Motor City, Levine spent his 20s working in car factories — including the night shift at the Chevrolet gear and axel factory — before attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and later, winning a poetry fellowship from Stanford University. But it’s Levine’s proletarian origins that have long formed the basis for his narrative poems.

Levine, 84, who has written 20 collections of poems, will read from his work at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 26 as part of BookFest 2012. He has won numerous writing awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for “The Simple Truth” and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships.

In “What Work Is,” the title poem from his 1991 collection, which won him his second National Book Award, Levine chronicles the humiliation of standing in line for a factory job that may never materialize. The poem begins:

We stand in the rain in a long line

waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work

You know what work is — if you’re

old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.

In addition to chronicling his own experiences, Levine’s poems also speak to the hardscrabble lives of his fellow industrial workers and members of his own family. Yet unlike some Jewish American writers of his generation — think Philip Roth — the familiar Jewish characters who populate Levine’s poems are treated with affection rather than opprobrium.

“It’s true that I am much more affectionate toward my family,” Levine said. “These are people I recall with great love, and who I miss. When I would lose them, I would lose a connection to my past, to who I am.”

In “Yenkl,” a tender elegy for a great-uncle, Levine describes a scene in which the title character, who spent 30 years exiled in Siberia, asks the poet to pray with him — he in Russian, and Levine in English — before joining his family in Israel.

In the penultimate stanza, Levine writes:

Today I’d walk the fields in the winter chill

if the fields were still here and not the dull

miles of suburban houses. May the rain fall

on the little graveyard where he now lies

in an unmarked grave in the Judean hills

Recalling Yenkl, Levine explained that he was sent to Siberia for being a shochet, or kosher butcher. Of his Russian relatives, Yenkl was among the few to survive. “I lost a lot of family,” Levine said. “Years ago, the State Department wanted me to go to the Soviet Union. I told my brother and he said I could go back to the village where they came from. I called my mom and she said, ‘You don’t want to go there, they’re all dead.’ I thought, ‘Oh God, yeah, I don’t want to go there.’ ”

Asked whether he feels a kinship with other ethnic writers who chronicle the immigrant experience, Levine was quick to say yes. During his more than three decades as a professor at Fresno State, many of his best students were of Mexican descent, Levine said. In particular, he named Chicano poets Luis Omar Solinas, Andrés Montoya, Gary Soto and Ernesto Trejo, with whom he co-translated a collection by the Mexican poet Jaime Sabines.

In fact, Levine said, when he retired from Fresno State in 1992, a group of Chicano poets, led by Montoya, app-roached the dean, insisting that he hire a Latino because Levine was leaving. “They treated me with great regard,” Levine said in an email. “It was truly thrilling to help them on their way; when you get students like that the job becomes truly meaningful.”

Now, as the 2011-2012 U.S. Poet Laureate (the Librarian of Congress chooses one every year), Levine said he is optimistic about the future of poetry in America. “Poetry will survive,” he said. “My future is much more shaky.”

Philip Levine, 4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m. Feb. 26 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Included in $10 BookFest Sunday admission. Book signing to follow. www.jccsf.org.

Rebecca Spence
Rebecca Spence

Rebecca Spence is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently at work on her first novel. www.rebeccaspence.com