DAVID GREENE, host: The United States got a new Poet Laureate this past week. His name is Philip Levine, and he finds poetry in places where few people are looking for it; in the grease and grime of a factory floor. Levine, who's 83 years old, grew up in the city of Detroit and worked for a while in an auto factory, which he found at the time, anything but poetic.
PHILIP LEVINE: I found the places hateful. I was writing poetry then, but I didn't in even in my imagination, I didn't want to spend time where I was working. And then even after I left, I was unable to write anything worth keeping about Detroit for years.
GREENE: Why was it hard to write the poetry in the first few years after you left Detroit?
LEVINE: I didn't have any tranquility. I was full of anger. I was very aware of the fact that I was being exploited and the people around me were being exploited.
GREENE: If you wouldn't mind reading the first half or so of one of your poems. It's called "What Work Is."
OK. 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.
LEVINE: 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 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.
GREENE: And I'll stop you there, and I'd like to ask you what would you like readers like myself to take from that.
LEVINE: This poem is actually based on an experience. I needed work. There was an ad in the newspaper and they gave the hour at 8 o'clock when they would open for our applications. And I got there around 8 o'clock, and it turned out that they weren't opening until 10:00. They wanted us to wait two hours because they wanted men who were willing to wait two hours.
LEVINE: And you came in and you stood. You didn't sit. He was seated. He asked me, and what sort of job were you looking for? And I - I'm a big mouth. I'm a smart-ass.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LEVINE: I said to him, I want your job. And then I called him several names and left.
GREENE: You didn't get hired immediately, I take it.
LEVINE: There weren't comedy - so many comedy clubs at that time. I should've gotten a job at a comedy club.
GREENE: Well, the people you worked with in those factories in Detroit became part of your poetry, obviously.
PHILIP LEVINE POET LAUREATE: Yeah.
GREENE: And one poem struck me of the many you've written: "He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do." You were talking about a man, Frankie, and you wrote if you asked for a smoke or a light he'd hand you whatever he found in his pockets, a jackknife, a hanky, usually unsoiled. And later in the poem, you say the fact is that silence is the perfect water. And I would just love to know who Frankie is.
LEVINE: I can't tell you. I'm sorry. I don't want people to know, really, that I'm using them in this way, because what happens accidentally in the world must seem absolutely necessary in the poetry or fiction. And when you sit down to write a poem, you really don't know where you're going. And you have to follow where that poem leads, and it will surprise you. And you look at that poem and you realize that is truly how I felt. That is truly what I saw.
GREENE: All right. Well, that's Philip Levine. He's the new Poet Laureate for the U.S. He's been speaking to us from his home in Fresno, California. Thanks so much for being here.
LEVINE: Well, thank you.
GREENE: And you can also hear Philip Levine read another of his poems at our website, npr.org.
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