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Even from far away, renowned poet fondly remembers Motor City

WSU alumnus Phil Levine uses his frank, lyrical poetry to explore Detroit’s early working class

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Posted: Thursday, July 5, 2012 12:00 am

Imagine, for a moment, that Detroit weren’t a city poised for a comeback, frayed at the edges but nevertheless still standing. Imagine, instead, that it is a city glistening with promise in the midst of its Golden Age, with a flourishing population of blue-collar workers and local, vivid culture. With so many scars and broken dreams scattered between then and now, it would seem that there couldn’t be anyone left who cares to remember our past, or even cares to participate in our present or our future.

But Phil Levine, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and the U.S. poet laureate for 2011-2012, remembers because he’s been here — sometimes physically, always emotionally — for every gritty bit of it.

Born in Detroit in 1928, Levine graduated from Wayne University in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in English, before the university had added the “State” to its name and become a state-funded institution. In 1955, Levine received his master’s degree, then packed his bags and left Detroit. He eventually became a professor at California State University in Fresno, Calif., where he still resides.

The critically acclaimed writer has never forgotten his roots, however, and many of his poems are based on his experiences in the Motor City – especially among its working class. His anthologies, which include the 1991 “What Work Is,” winner of the 1991 National Book Award, and the 1994 “The Simple Truth,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize, detail the life and times of people in Detroit with the accuracy only someone who’s lived through it can express.

But Detroit was a very different place back then. In the 1950 U.S. Census Report, Detroit’s official population count was listed as 1,849,568; by 2010, the population had dropped to 713,777 – a decrease of more than 60 percent. Additionally, the city’s racial makeup of white and black residents has reversed, with Detroit now predominately black and underemployed.

Even so, the unabashed spirit of Levine’s poetry is timeless; it chronicles the sometimes idyllic, often menial labors of the people society likes to belittle or ignore. Levine surely felt that himself as a young Jewish child of the lower class, and again as a teenager, working in factories from the age of 14 until he decided to enroll at WU at age 18.

Levine hadn’t planned to attend college because of World War II, according to the WSU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ summer 2010

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