Tag Archives: Philip Levine

Monday’s Verse 3.2.2015

Dear readers,

I have some exciting news. My poetry-technology consultants, Arwen, Theresa, and Katie, have been busy over the past week helping me to drag Monday’s Verse, kicking and screaming, over to somewhere approaching the 21st Century. The blog that Arwen has maintained for several years, mv37.wordpress.com, has been backfilled to include most editions going back to around 2001. There are some gaps that we will still have to fill. We may also have to do some tagging so that all poems are arranged by author and title, and searchable by author. We’ve also created a twitter feed where, each Monday, the poem’s title, and author, and a link to the blog will be tweeted.

Today I’m suggesting you do 3 things:

1. Check out the blog at:


2. Create a wordpress account at:


The account will allow you to follow the blog and post comments there.

3. Follow us on Twitter! @MondaysVerse

One thing we’re still looking at is whether we’ll export the mailing list to some kind of mass e-mail service, so that the weekly postings, which will still be a part of MV, no longer come from my personal e-mail account. More on that, and other blog updates, in the near future. Meantime, big thanks to our poetry-technology consultants (and a HUGE high-5 to Arwen for originating the blog and updating it for going on 7 years), as well as to volunteer Mark Kats and gadfly Steve Bailey.

And now on to the poetry. Philip Levine’s (1928-2015) work has been featured in our pages many times, and deservedly so. I regret to report today his recent death. In his professional life he was strongly identified with Detroit and with his own blue-collar roots. Before college, he worked with his brother and neighbors on a Ford factory line, reading poetry at night. He discovered a gulf between the 2 worlds, a gulf he found unnecessary. When he found that the voices of his coworkers were not present in the poetry he read at night, “I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them, and that’s what my life would be. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it. Or tried, anyway.”

Here’s to foolish vows. Here’s to trying. -ed.


Two young men—you just might call them boys—
waiting for the Woodward streetcar to get
them downtown. Yes, they’re tired, they’re also
dirty, and happy. Happy because they’ve
finished a short work week and if they’re not rich
they’re as close to rich as they’ll ever be
in this town. Are they truly brothers?
You could ask the husky one, the one
in the black jacket he fills to bursting;
he seems friendly enough, snapping
his fingers while he shakes his ass and sings
“Sweet Lorraine,” or if you’re put off
by his mocking tone ask the one leaning
against the locked door of Ruby’s Rib Shack,
the one whose eyelids flutter in time
with nothing. Tell him it’s crucial to know
if in truth this is brotherly love. He won’t
get angry, he’s too tired for anger,
too relieved to be here, he won’t even laugh
though he’ll find you silly. It’s Thursday,
maybe a holy day somewhere else, maybe
the Sabbath, but these two, neither devout
nor cynical, have no idea how to worship
except by doing what they’re doing,
singing a song about a woman they love
merely for her name, breathing in and out
the used and soiled air they wouldn’t know
how to live without, and by filling
the twin bodies they’ve disguised as filth.


August 12, 2011 Detroit, Tomorrow

I may as well go ahead and say that MV is on August hiatus, because that seems to already be the case. Sorry. Philip Levine knows how work can get in the way. So in a temporary sign-off I’ll just say that, following the news of his appointment as Poet Laureate, sales of Philip Levine’s books have SOARED! Which is pretty cool. It will be good to have a poet laureate capable of saying something about a place like Detroit as poet laureate in this day and age. And here’s one to chew over for the nonce.
I hope to return in September with renewed vigor! ~mjl
Newspaper says the boy killed by someone,
don’t say who. I know the mother, waking,
gets up as usual, washes her face
in cold water, and starts the coffee pot.
She stands by the window up there on floor
sixteen wondering why the street’s so calm
with no cars going or coming, and then
she looks at the wall clock and sees the time.
Now she’s too awake to go back to bed,
she’s too awake not to remember him,
her one son, or to forget exactly
how long yesterday was, each moment dragged
into the next by the force of her will
until she thought this simply cannot be.
She sits at the scarred, white kitchen table,
the two black windows staring back at her,
wondering how she’ll go back to work today.
The windows don’t see anything: they’re black,
eyeless, they give back only what’s given;
sometimes, like now, even less than what’s given,
yet she stares into their two black faces
moving her head from side to side, like this,
just like I’m doing now. Try it awhile,
go ahead, it’s not going to kill you.
Now say something, it doesn’t matter what
you say because all the words are useless:
“I’m sorry for your loss.” “This too will pass.”
“He was who he was.” She won’t hear you out
because she can only hear the torn words
she uses to pray to die. This afternoon
you and I will see her just before four
alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box
of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee,
a navel orange secured under her arm,
and we’ll look away. Under your breath make
her one promise and keep it forever:
in the little store-front church down the block,
the one with the front windows newspapered,
you won’t come on Saturday or Sunday
to kneel down and pray for life eternal.

Sept. 7, 2009 M. Degas Teaches Art & Science

Dear readers,

Another Labor Day is upon us, which means we revisit America’s wordsmith of work, Philip Levine. And man, has this guy done some work: among his accolades are a Ruth Lilly prize, a Harriet Monroe Prize, the Frank O’Hara Prize, a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle award, the American Book Award for poetry, 2 Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, and the National Book Award. Son of Russian immigrants, Mr. Levine worked in a Ford assembly plant in his hometown of Detroit, where he “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. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it. Or I’ve tried anyway. . . . I just hope I have the strength to carry it all the way through.”

May we all be so foolish.

Here’s a poem from probably his most famous collection, What Work Is (1991). Rather than valorizing work though, this selection seems to want to run away from it–just the way a 15-year-old might. Wait, the way a 15-year-old might? I spent the long weekend with people in their 30’s, all of us* dreading Tuesday and the return of work. The way we all do, then. I kninda appreciate the way this poem defines work. How do you see it?

Have a great short week, and work hard,


*Wait, I don’t have a job.

M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School–Detroit, 1942

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, “What have I done?”
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, “You’ve broken a piece
of chalk.” M. Degas did not smile.
“What have I done?” he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. “M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle.” Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. “It is possible,”
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
“that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn.” I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I’d be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, “You’ve begun
to separate the dark from the dark.”
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.