DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This week, America got a new poet laureate, 83-year-old Philip Levine, an emeritus professor of English at California State University at Fresno. Best known for his warmhearted poems about his native Detroit, where he worked in auto factories as a young man, Levine won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his book "The Simple Truth." He also won a National Book Award for his collection "What Work Is" in 1991, which is when Terry Gross interviewed him. She asked him to describe one of the factories at which he tried to get work.
Mr. PHILLIP LEVINE (Poet Laureate): It's a very exotic place or it was when I was very young. I mean there was fire. There was noise. There was, it was like bedlam. Sometimes I remember going into a foundry once to get a job, and I was about 17 - they wouldn't hire me, I was too young - and thinking, really, I'm in hell.
Mr. LEVINE: This is like hell. You know, it was so hot and it was this liquid metal and I was terrified. I was glad they wouldn't hire me.
GROSS: I want you to read the title poem from your new collection "What Work Is." It is there a story you'd like us to hear about the poem before we hear the poem itself?
Mr. LEVINE: Yeah, there is. There is a curious story. I never worked at Ford Highland Park, which I mention in the poem. But I went there once for job during a period in the early '50s in Detroit when there was a kind of - a slight recession so a lot of people got laid off, although Detroit was a booming town back then. And I waited in line and it was raining and it was a long wait. You know, you - the newspaper would advertise, you know, assemblers. That's the lowest job you can get. And they would put hours down like 8:00 to 5:00. But you knew you had to be there early if you were going to get a job. And so you got there at maybe 7:30. Well, they didn't open the employment office until, say, 9:00, so you stood there for an hour and a half before anything even opened and there were 50 people ahead of you.
But that was in a way to, you know, they wanted to test you. You know, how much crap could you take? I mean were you willing to wait in line that long? If you weren't, they didn't want you. And so I, as I waited I grew angrier and angrier at myself for being this humble character. And finally, maybe about 10:30 or so I got up to the head of the line and there was a guy sitting down - I was standing. We each went to a different desk. We stood. They sat. And he said, what kind of job would you like? And I don't know where this impulse came from, but I said: I want your job.
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GROSS: Oh, gee.
Mr. LEVINE: And he said, okay, take off. And that was it. But I was sort of happy that there was this thing in me that was still there that, you know, said, you know, I don't want you and you don't want me. Let me read the poem.
"What Work Is." 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. Forget you. This is about waiting, shifting from one foot to another. Feeling the light rain falling like mist into your hair, blurring your vision until you think you see your own brother ahead of you, maybe 10 places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers, and of course it's someone else's brother, narrower across the shoulders than yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin that does not hide the stubbornness, the sad refusal to give in to rain, to the hours of wasted waiting, to the knowledge that somewhere ahead a man is waiting who will say, no, we're not hiring today, for any reason he wants.
You love your brother. Now suddenly you can hardly stand the love flooding you for your brother, who's not beside you or behind or ahead because he's home trying to�sleep off a miserable night shift at Cadillac so he can get up before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing Wagner, the opera you hate most, the worst music ever invented. How long has it been since you told him you loved him, held his wide shoulders, opened your eyes wide and said those words, and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never done something so simple, so obvious, not because you're too young or too dumb, not because you're jealous or even mean or incapable of crying in the presence of another man, no,�just because you don't know what work is.
BIANCULLI: Philip Levine, during a conversation with Terry Gross in 1991. This week he was appointed the country's next poet laureate.
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