Once again in 2015 some of the literary firmament’s brightest stars were extinguished. We lost a pair of Nobel laureates, a pair of former U.S. poets laureate, beloved novelists, prize-winning poets, a tireless human rights activist, a wily agent, a revered teacher, a champion of black writers, a writer of shameless sexcapades, and memoirists who refused to flinch when dissecting their first-hand experiences with addiction, persecution, disease, and the horrors of Jim Crow. Here is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2015.
The Robert Stone novel that sticks in my mind is Dog Soldiers, winner of the 1975 National Book Award, the story of a Vietnam-to-California heroin smuggling scheme gone horribly wrong. It’s also a singular portrait of how the blissed-out ’60s, which Stone experienced first-hand with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, turned into one very bad trip. Stone, who died on Jan. 10 at 77, produced eight big novels, a pair of story collections, and a memoir, books in which danger is everywhere, Americans behave badly either at home or in some far-flung hot spot, and neither God nor any hope of salvation is to be found. Stone was an American rarity: a writer who dared to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and never stumbled.
Anne Moody produced just two books in her lifetime, but her debut, the wrenching memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, is as timely today as it was when it appeared in 1968. Moody, who died on Feb. 5 at 74, told in spare unflinching prose what it was like for the daughter of black sharecroppers to grow up in the Jim Crow deep South, and then to dare to join the civil rights struggle. She worked with various organizations — the Congress for Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — once getting dragged by her hair from a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, while watching a fellow protester get bloodied by a brass-knuckle punch. After leaving the movement, she moved to New York City, where she wrote her memoir, then lived quietly for decades working non-writing jobs. Late in life, she acknowledged to an interviewer that writing her memoir had taught her a painful lesson: “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”
Moody’s only other book was a slim collection of short stories for young people called Mr. Death.
In 1976 I came upon a book of poems that proved that art can be made from absolutely anything, including a night-shift job at the Chevy Gear & Axle factory in Detroit. The book was peopled with autoworkers, fading boxers, and working stiffs, people who stubbornly refuse to admit defeat in the face of the monstrous forces that belittle them. The book was called Not This Pig, the second volume of poems by a Detroit native named Philip Levine, who died on Feb. 14 at 87. On the back cover, Levine explained that the book is filled with “the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all costs and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’” Reading that book was the birth of a passion for Levine’s poetry that endures to this day and shows no signs of flagging.
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at 14 — the first in a long string of factory jobs that could have crushed his body and spirit but instead gave him the raw material for a body of work that would win him high honors, a devoted readership, and a stint as U.S. poet laureate. His great subject was the people who do the brutal manual labor that usually gets ignored, by poets and everyone else. When I wrote an appreciation of Levine four years ago (here), I quoted a 1999 interview in which Levine realized, looking back, that Not This Pig was the book that gave him his voice.
“Those were my first good Detroit work poems — the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine said. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work…I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it — that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
Günther Grass’s life turned out to be an illustration of just how treacherous and slippery the high moral ground can be. After blazing onto the world literary stage with his 1959 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, Grass spent his long and productive career as Germany’s self-anointed conscience, pushing his countrymen to face up to the dark strains of their history, especially the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Grass, who died on April 13 at 87, railed against militarism and nuclear proliferation, opposed German unification, denounced the Catholic and Lutheran churches, supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and spoke of the “unchecked lust for profit” that drove German companies to sell weaponry to Saddam Hussein. He also found time to be a novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, poet, sculptor, and printmaker. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But it was not until 2006, on the eve of the publication of a memoir, Peeling the Onion, that a dark truth emerged. For years Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer during the war, one of many youths charged with guarding antiaircraft gunneries. But finally he admitted that he had been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, notorious for committing many atrocities. Though Grass was not implicated in any war crimes, the belated revelation caused a furor.
“My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,” he explained. “It had to come out in the end.” In the memoir he added, “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept silent.’”
James Salter is often pinned with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer.” Even worse, James Wolcott called Salter America’s “most under-rated under-rated writer.” I prefer to remember Salter, who died on June 19 at 90, as a writer of gem-like sentences that added up to a handful of highly accomplished novels and short stories, a man who lived a long and fruitful life and, in the bargain, had no peer when it came to writing about flight.
In 1952 Salter flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 jet, hunting and fighting MiG-15s in the skies over Korea. His writing about flying — most notably in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir, Burning the Days — has won high praise, including this accolade from a fellow military pilot, Will Mackin: “Salter’s writing about flying made me miss flying even while I was still flying.” Salter took a dim view of such praise: “I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”
So who was James Salter? A writer who put the exact right words in the exact right order to produce books full of beauty and insight and pain — six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, essays on food and travel, and a memoir. (Salter also wrote screenplays, including the 1969 Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer. It wasn’t art, Salter acknowledged, but the Hollywood money was wonderful.) Salter was also a writer who craved the broad popularity that never came his way. He explained the craving this way: “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.”
Like Philip Levine before him, Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at 79, turned his indifferent early years into indelible writing. Instead of soul-crushing factory jobs, Weesner had to contend with an alcoholic father and a teenage mother who abandoned him and his older brother when they were toddlers. After living in a foster home and dropping out of high school to join the Army at 17, Weesner went on to attend Michigan State University and earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Worskhop.
His first novel, The Car Thief, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim, and it has become a cult classic. The novel, which was reissued in 1987 as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series, reads as neither a screed nor a cry for help, but rather as a tender and clear-eyed portrait of a troubled boy, 16-year-old Alex Housman, whose only available means of self-expression is to steal cars. Weesner went on to produce half a dozen other works of fiction, which, like his debut, won critical praise but a modest readership. Late in life, Weesner seemed to come to terms with his fate. In 2007 he told an interviewer, “I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot…The Car Thief got a lot of awards and praise and was widely reviewed. And (since) then no one has given me a whole lot of credit.”
I would not presume to single out the best book by E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at 84. But I’m convinced Ragtime was both his best loved and his most influential book. Published in 1975, it did something unheard-of at the time: it mingled fictional characters with historical figures — Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and many others — to create a vivid portrait of America on the eve of the First World War, the dying moments of the nation’s heedless exuberance and innocence. The novel was not universally loved. John Updike famously dissed it, and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of it. “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said,” Doctorow said years later. “Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
Ragtime opened the gates for writers of wildly different temperaments to start inserting historical figures into their novels, either at center stage or in the background. These writers included Joyce Carol Oates (who channeled Marilyn Monroe), Colum McCann (Rudolf Nureyev, Philippe Petit, and Frederick Douglass, among others), James McBride and Russell Banks (John Brown), and Don DeLillo (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby). For Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Doctorow’s fiction — including Loon Lake and World’s Fair, but especially Ragtime — offered novelists a “magic way out” of the confining box made by the reigning ’70s vogues of “dirty realism” and post-modernism. In The Guardian two days after Doctorow’s death, Chabon wrote, “In opening that particular door, Doctorow made a startling discovery: done properly, the incorporation of historical figures into a fictional context did not come off as some kind of smart-ass critique of subjectivity and the fictive nature of history. Done properly it just made the lies you were telling your reader — with his or her full and willing consent, of course — sound that much more true. And that small-t truth then became a powerful tool for getting across whatever Truth, subjective or fragmentary though it might be, that you felt you had it in you to express.”
By the time she died on Sept. 19 at 77, Jackie Collins had produced some 30 steamy novels that tended to carry a Hollywood zip code and sold more than half a billion copies. Collins, who was born in London, was refreshingly candid about the shameless commercialism of her fiction. “I never pretended to be a literary writer,” she once said. “I am a school dropout.”
Her writing style brought to mind the USA Today columns of Al Neuharth — short sentences, liberal use of fragments, no words that would send readers to the dictionary. Her books were also loaded with sex, beginning with her debut, The World Is Full of Married Men, from 1968, when, as Collins put it, “no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.” Perhaps Collins’s keenest insight was to understand that literature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so she set about filling it to the brim. And she did her research. While still a teenager, she visited her actress sister Joan in Hollywood, where she met and bedded a hot young actor named Marlon Brando. When an interviewer suggested in 2007 that America had become a great big titillating Jackie Collins novel, she replied, “That’s true. When Clinton had his affair and the Starr report came out, reviewers actually said, ‘This is like a Jackie Collins novel.’ But in my books, the sex is better.”
Grace Lee Boggs
The indefatigable social activist and prolific author Grace Lee Boggs died in Detroit on Oct. 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. While earning degrees from Barnard and Bryn Mawr, she steeped herself in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, then moved to Chicago and started organizing protests against slum housing.
Her life changed in 1953, when she relocated to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker and activist. Together they plunged into the city’s radical politics, protesting racism, sexism, and police brutality. Malcolm X was a frequent visitor in their home. When fires and shootings swept Detroit in the summer of 1967 — a justified rebellion, not a senseless riot, in the eyes of Boggs and her fellow radicals — she reached what she described as “a turning point in my life.” She began shunning confrontation in favor of nonviolent strategies, a path she followed for the rest of her days. She founded food cooperatives and community groups to fight crime and to stand up for the elderly, the unemployed, and people fighting utility shutoffs. She planted community gardens. Always, she kept writing. She published her autobiography, Living for Change, in 1998. In her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011, the former radical aligned herself with Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Here are some other noteworthy literary deaths from 2015, in alphabetical order:
John Bayley, 89, was an Oxford don and literary critic whose moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, recounted his life with his wife, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Iris Murdoch, both before and after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy was published in 1999, shortly before Murdoch died, and two years later it was made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Judi Dench as the ailing Murdoch.
David Carr, 58, was a celebrated New York Times columnist who weathered cancer, alcoholism, and crack cocaine addiction, then wrote about his battles with verve and black humor in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.
Assia Djebar, 78, was an Algerian-born novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker who was often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for her unflinching explorations of the plight of women in the male-dominated Arab world. Djebar was also adept at kicking down doors. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman admitted to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française. Despite these achievements, she insisted, “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing.”
Ivan Doig, 75, produced 16 works of fiction and non-fiction that celebrated his native western Montana, where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” Doig, whose affecting final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously, liked to say he came from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” The critic Sven Birkerts called him “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.”
When Charles F. Harris, who died on Dec. 16 at 81, went to work as an editor at Doubleday in the mid-1950s, the work of black writers was a niche market that was treated more like a ghetto by New York publishing houses. Harris helped change that, most notably as chief executive of the nation’s first black university press, Howard University Press, where he published Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, Walter Rodney, and many other black writers. Harris also founded Amistad Press, which published critical volumes on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, among others.
Jack Leggett, 97, was a novelist, biographer, editor, and teacher who was the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1970 to 1987. He stocked the nation’s oldest creative writing program with big-name teaching talent, including John Cheever, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, and Leggett’s eventual successor, Frank Conroy. Students included Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Denis Johnson. During Leggett’s tenure there was a fundamental shift in students’ approach to writing, which he summarized this way after a decade on the job: “In 1970 there were a lot of kids out of the armed forces and the Peace Corps. They were an undisciplined lot. They would say, ‘Don’t tell me about form.’ Now they are very interested in technique. They want to know what novelists have done in the past. And it shows in their work.”
When Leggett arrived in Iowa City there were about a dozen creative writing programs in the country. Today, for better or worse, there are more than 200.
Colleen McCullough, 77, was a neurophysiological researcher who decided to write novels in her spare time and wound up striking gold with her second book, the international bestseller The Thorn Birds, in 1977. A panoramic tale of McCullough’s native land, it was made into a popular TV mini-series and was often called “the Australian Gone With the Wind.”
The Scottish writer William McIlvanney, 79, became known as “the father or Tartan noir” for his novels featuring the Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw. McIlvanney was also a poet, essayist, teacher, short story writer, TV narrator, and, in the eyes of The Telegraph, “the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, 66, the knighted British novelist, produced more than 70 immensely popular works of fantasy, including the series known as Discworld. It was a Frisbee-shaped place balanced on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a giant turtle, a place populated by witches and trolls and a ravenous character known as Death. While frequently ignored by serious critics, Pratchett had fans in high places. A.S. Byatt applauded his abundant gifts, not least his ability to write “amazing sentences.”
Ruth Rendell, 85, was the British author of more than 60 mystery novels that hit the trifecta: they were intricately plotted, psychologically acute, and immensely popular with readers and critics, selling some 60 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was her most durable character and a sort of alter-ego. “I’m not creating a character,” Rendell said, “so much as putting myself as a man on the page.” Along with her friend P.D. James, who died in 2014, Rendell is credited with exploding the confines of the mystery genre. In a 2013 interview, Rendell vowed she would never stop writing. “I’ll do it until I die,” she said. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October, five months after her death.
Oliver Sacks, 82, was a neurologist who used his patients’ conditions, from amnesia to Tourette’s syndrome, as starting points for his bestselling books about the human brain and the human condition. He called his books “neurological novels.” More than a million copies are in print.
Timothy Seldes, 88, was one of the last of a vanishing breed — an old-school literary agent and editor who believed that literature should be seen as a vital source of oxygen for the nation’s culture, not as product that needs to be moved. How quaint. He was, in a word, a gentleman, whose devoted clients included Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, Annie Dillard, and Nadine Gordimer.
William Jay Smith, 97, was a poet, critic, memoirist, translator, and teacher who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1968 to 1970. His poems, both tactile and empirical, embraced rhyme, meter, and other conventions deemed passé by many of his contemporaries. To his credit, Smith ignored them. In “Structure of a Song,” he offered this lovely anatomy of the making of a poem:
Its syllables should come
As natural and thorough
As sunlight over plum
Or melon in the furrow,
Rise smoother than the hawk
Or gray gull ever could;
As proud and freely walk
As deer in any wood.
So lightly should it flow
From stone so deep in earth
That none could ever know
What torment gave it birth.
James Tate, 71, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who believed “the challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary.” His 17th book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, has come out posthumously, and it’s marked by his trademark surrealism and wordplay, deployed in narrative-driven prose poems that Tate turned to in his later years. He never lost his child’s sense of wonder at the plastic magic of language, its ability to startle. These lines come from his final book:
I was sitting on the porch when I watched my neighbor’s kids walk by on their way to school. One of them turned and waved to me. I waved back. That’s when I realized they were zombies.
Tomas Tranströmer, 83, was an accomplished pianist, an amateur entomologist, and a trained psychologist who worked with juvenile offenders. He was also a popular and beloved poet, sometimes called “Sweden’s Robert Frost,” whose crystalline, sometimes chilly poems won a Nobel Prize in 2011.
C.K. Williams, 78, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who, unlike James Tate, wrote morally charged, politically impassioned poems about such weighty topics as poverty, love, death, war, climate change, and the shootings at Kent State University. Like Tate, Williams moved toward longer ribbony lines that freed him to “talk about things.” Shortly before he died, from multiple myeloma, Williams completed a collection of poems about death and dying. He called it Falling Ill.
Rest in peace. Through your words you will all live on.
Behold the magisterial front end of the 1954 Buick: the toothy chrome grill, the sharply tipped mammiferous bulbs of the “Dagmar” bumper, the “bombsight” hood ornament, the tear-drop headlights, all of it wrapped in luscious lipstick-red sheet metal. This rolling work of art serves as proof, if any were still needed, that they don’t make cars like they used to. It has also served as the muse for all the fiction I have written, providing a way for me to travel, in comfort and at speed, into my chosen theme: the hollow promises of the American Dream in the years following the Second World War.
Many people under the age of 40 have trouble believing it, but there was a 30-year period, from roughly the mid-1940’s until the mid-1970’s, when the United States of America truly had it going on. The economy was robust, the middle class was thriving, cars were big and fast and flashy and fun, and infectious pop music kept pouring out of Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Motown, and countless points in between.
It didn’t last, of course. It couldn’t possibly last. The buzz kill ’70s brought Arab oil embargoes, military defeat in Vietnam, the trauma of Watergate, and the simultaneous decline of Detroit and rise of the Japanese auto industry. And then, to seal the deal, along came disco, followed by Ronald Reagan and the long, systematic dismantling of the American middle class.
Those of us who lived through the so-called golden years of the so-called American Century tend to edit out certain inconvenient subtexts. There was the ever-present dread of nuclear annihilation; and if you happened to be a person of color, female, poor, or gay, there was (and still is) a good chance you were not enjoying a full share of the bounty. America’s swagger, it turns out, was built on flimsy hubris, a blinkered parochialism, and major inequalities. Oh, and cheap oil.
Yet there is no denying that something magical happened in America in the three decades after the Second World War, and it’s not surprising that writers continue to mine those years not only for their exuberant hardware, but also as a measure of just how much the world has changed. Almost always, that’s a way of saying just how much we’ve lost.
Timothy Walsh is the latest writer to revisit those expansive, metaphor-rich boom years. His third book of poetry is called When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive, an automotive metaphor that establishes Walsh’s attachment to a time before today’s de-sexed, front-wheel drive, fuel-efficient hybrid cars, which is to say a time before our globalized economy and its computers and ruthless efficiency and digitized everything. The book’s subtitle is New Jersey Poems, and while there is a strong sense of place — the Jersey suburbs and shore, the looming allure of nearby New York City, that “oversize Oz” — the subtitle could also have been Rust Belt Poems, for these poems will resonate with anyone who lived in America’s industrial cities at their peaks, places like Newark and Buffalo and Cleveland and Detroit, places that suffered horrifically when America shed its rear-wheel drive past and American industry moved overseas, taking a way of life with it.
Walsh — a white, Catholic, middle-class baby boomer — beautifully captures what it was like to come of age in that vanished world. It was a world of ice cream trucks, Halloween pranks, jobs delivering newspapers, and pumping gas, eventually moving on to the adolescent world of girls and garage bands, motorcycles and muscle cars. This sounds more Mayberry than it reads on the page. Walsh deftly renders a world on the cusp — it’s both palpable and in the process of vanishing. He captures what Elizabeth Spencer captured in her 1960 novella The Light in the Piazza — “America’s midcentury moment of confidence,” in the words of Michael Gorra, “the confidence of people who thought, however briefly, that they could do anything.” A sense of the imminent, inevitable loss of this confidence is at the core of these poems, and it comes through most viscerally when people are in cars. Here’s a memory of riding in a Buick Wildcat:
What I remember most were those butterfly windows,
those hinged triangles of glass that angle outward
so you could ride with the windows wide open
and not get blasted by road wind.
Butterfly windows – gone the way of telephone booths,
transistor radios, and fountain pens.
Now we drive, hermetically sealed in sleek,
engines silent as stealth,
traveling through the world like something preserved
in glass jars,
shutting out the sounds and smells of summer –
the drone of cicadas and lawnmowers,
the musk of new-mown grass.
I also hear echoes of Philip Levine, the great poet of my hometown, Detroit, who captured the drudgery, terror, and occasional beauty of factory work in such books as Not This Pig and What Work Is. Here is Walsh’s description of working at a gas station:
When the big tanker trucks rumbled in,
dropped their load of gas into the underground tanks,
someone had to climb up with a flashlight
to check that the truck was actually empty.
Peering into the truck’s gaping belly, gasoline vapors
swirling, a voluptuous fog,
the polished steel innards gleaming like a gun-metal dawn,
it never didn’t occur to you that one spark –
one errant static discharge –
and you were history – blown to smithereens,
your molecules and atoms salting the woods,
raining down on the river.
There is humor here, too, including a poem called “Slingshot in the Confessional,” which goes a long way toward explaining why Catholics tend to be among the most imaginative and inveterate sinners:
Kneeling in the dark confessional, speaking through the screen,
the dark shadow-shape of the priest lurking,
you’d recite your litany of minor disobediences, curse words,
lies, and fights,
the squirt gun or slingshot in your pocket
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
the priest would conclude,
sending you forth into the world cleansed and refreshed,
ready to embark on another round of transgressions.
In his memoir called Downtown, Pete Hamill gives voice to a nostalgia much like Walsh’s, but filtered through the eyes of immigrants, including his Irish-born parents. Hamill defines this nostalgia as “an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanence of loss.” Hamill’s parents lost the world of the Old Country; Walsh and his post-war New Jersey clan lost an equally vibrant world. Hamill writes:
Every immigrant knew what Africans had learned in the age of
slavery: that there was a world that was once there in the most
intimate way and was now gone. Part of the past. Beyond retrieval.
On the deepest level, it didn’t matter whether you had that past taken
from you, as had happened to the Africans, of whether you had
decided personally to leave it behind. At a certain hour of the night,
the vanished past could be vividly alive.
When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive is that certain hour of the night. It understands that loss is imminent and inevitable, and that the things we have lost are beyond retrieval. That’s what makes it so painful, and so lovely.
1. A Sacred Vocation
“I was first introduced to Philip Levine through the mail in the summer of 1976,” Mona Simpson wrote by way of introducing her interview with the poet in The Paris Review in 1988. For my part, I was first introduced to Philip Levine through his second book of poems, Not This Pig, in the spring of 1976.
“I was studying literature at Berkeley,” Simpson continued, “and my friends and I, all college freshmen or sophomores, were ardent readers of Levine, W.S. Merwin, Donald Justice, Gary Snyder and Hart Crane.” At that time I was studying English at Brown, I was a senior, and I was an ardent reader of Merwin, Snyder and Crane, with heaping side orders of Baudelaire and Bukowski, Stevens and Williams, Ginsberg and Rimbaud. I knew already that I had no talent for writing poetry, but I loved to read it because I believed then as I believe now that its compression and precision make it the highest form of writing, even more exalted than the beloved novel.
Simpson went on, “A friend from the college literary magazine, The Berkeley Poetry Review, introduced me to Ernest Benck, a California poet, who kindly sent some of both of our poems to Levine. Levine wrote back to us, marking our poems assiduously. Since then I have received many letters from him, always on yellow legal paper with comments like, ‘I’m not sure my remarks, which are fairly nasty at times, really indicate…’ His comments, though never nasty, were always serious, as if he took the business of correspondence to be part of the education of a poet. I had the feeling he wrote many such letters to young poets around the country: poets driving trucks, picking oranges, poets who were waiters and acupuncturists’ assistants and college students.”
This is where Simpson’s story and mine, after nearly twinned beginnings, started to diverge. I never sent Levine any poems and he never sent me any letters. But I kept reading his poetry, marveling at the development of his craft, his earthy subject matter, and his unkillable passion for poems in a country that was doing its best to marginalize all serious writing, especially poetry.
Finally, Simpson summed up the lesson she learned from all the letters she has received from Levine over the years: “Levine takes his role as mentor with the responsibility of a sacred vocation.”
All of which is a roundabout way of saying I believe Philip Levine is going to make a sublime Poet Laureate when he takes over the post on October 17.
2. Not This Pig
When the pupil is ready to learn, says the Zen proverb, a teacher will appear. Without realizing it, I was ready to learn from Not This Pig when it came roaring into my life, unannounced, in the spring of 1976. I had never heard of Philip Levine and I don’t remember how I came to the book (or how it came to me), but I do remember being intrigued the instant I picked up this thin $2 paperback and read Levine’s remark on the back cover that the book’s 37 poems “mostly record my discovery of the people, places and animals I am not, the ones who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos – a gesture they don’t need – would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasaran’ or ‘Not this pig.'”
The book’s opening poems were an astonishment. Written in sparkling, almost stark language – with short lines and non-existent or haphazard rhyme schemes – the poems are populated with auto workers and other prosaic nobodies doing the most unspectacular things: driving home to Detroit after an all-night drinking spree in Toledo; stopping on the side of the road to piss in the snow; tripping the switch that stirs to life the “slow elephant feet” of a metal-stamping press; driving overnight from Detroit to Chicago to see what Lake Michigan looks like at dawn. This last poem, “A New Day,” ends with a stanza I can still recite from memory 35 years after first reading it:
And what we get is what we bring:
A grey light coming on at dawn,
No fresh start and no bird song
And no sea and no shore
That someone hasn’t seen before.
In these poems, shorelines are not open places full of promise and possibility. They’re where the land dies, where things end, where Levine’s characters come up against the iron limitations of their small lives. This carries a predictable sense of resignation, but in this resignation there is no admission of defeat; there is, paradoxically, a stubborn refusal to succumb to monstrous and superior forces, in this case the great dehumanizing dynamos of the industrial Midwest. These are, remember, people who live at all cost and come back for more and say, “Don’t tread on me” and “Not this pig.” Their refusal to admit defeat is a triumphant twist, one that reminds me of Camus’ struggle to find the strength “to accept what exists once I have recognized that I cannot change it.”
Philip Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at the age of 14. For the next dozen years he worked a series of brain-killing factory jobs at Chevrolet Gear & Axle, at Cadillac, at Brass Craft, at Feinberg and Breslin’s First-Rate Plumbing and Plating – jobs that nearly crushed his spirit and his body but wound up providing him with rich and unlikely fodder for his poetry. “Those were my first good Detroit work poems – the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine told an interviewer for The Cortland Review in 1999. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work… I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it – that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
There are several reasons why I was so ready to learn from Not This Pig in the spring of 1976. First I, like Levine, had grown up in Detroit and was, like all residents of that once-proud, now-ruined city, attuned to the all-powerful rhythms of its auto industry. My father, like everyone’s father, worked in the industry, not in the oceanic roar of a car factory but in the considerably less brutal buzzing of the Ford Motor Company’s public relations hive. Second, there is a narrative quality to these early poems (and many that would follow), a straightforward telling of stories about unpoetic people that appeals to my own novelistic temperament. Levine once said, “One of the aspects of my own poetry that I like best is the presence of people who don’t seem to make it into other people’s poems… What I regard as novelistic about my work is the telling of tales, which is utterly natural to me. How can a poet or fiction writer tell the truth…if he or she can’t present the events in a meaningful sequence, which is what a story is?” And most importantly, when I first read Not This Pig in the spring of 1976 I was living in the gray borderlands between two worlds, getting ready to leave the world of school and go off into the world of work. It was a confusing time and a confusing place. I had known since the age of 10 that I wanted to be a writer – a real writer, a novelist – but after two years of college I’d become convinced that further schooling would be a waste of time. I was a 19-year-old kid from the middle class who had not yet lived, and I told myself that if I wanted to write fiction I would need a “body of experience,” to borrow Levine’s phrase.
So I dropped out of college after my sophomore year, loaded my dog into my ’54 Chevy pickup truck, and took off on an erratic cross-country odyssey that was equal parts Travels With Charley and On the Road, with a few pop quizzes from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test along the way. I got jobs as a racehorse groom, a farm hand, a dish washer, a fruit picker. I worked alongside rednecks, cowboys, Mexican immigrants, Okies and Arkies, people I was not, the ones who lived at all cost and came back for more. One day in northern California, while high in a tree picking fat green Gravenstein apples and listening to my fellow workers chatter in Spanish, I had an epiphany. This was the summer of 1974, the summer when Woodward and Bernstein were completing the ruination of Richard Nixon, and it occurred to me that if I wanted to be a writer I needed to quit picking apples and start getting paid to write. And the best way to do that would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter. And the only way to get such a job, given the “credentials inflation” of the day, was to get a pointless but prerequisite college degree. So I returned to college where, in the spring of my senior year, I came upon a book of poems that proved to me that art can be made from absolutely anything, from a night-shift job at Chevy Gear & Axle or a job picking Gravenstein apples, and that if I truly wanted to be a writer it was up to me to get busy making use of my own body of experience and, far more important, my imagination, my wits, and my will.
Philip Levine made me believe I could do it.
3. Small Heroics
In 1988, while I was struggling to write a novel set in Detroit during the 1967 riots, Levine published a book of poems called A Walk With Tom Jefferson. Like Not This Pig, the book came into my life, almost magically, at a moment when I was ready to learn from it. In one of the book’s first poems, “Winter Words,” I heard a thrilling echo of “A New Day”:
Friday night, after swing shift we drove
the narrow, unmarked country roads searching
for Lake Erie’s Canadian shore.
Later, wrapped in rough blankets, barefoot
on a private shoal of ground stones
we watched the stars vanish as the light
of the world rose slowly from the great
gray inland sea. Wet, shivering, raised
our beer cans to the long seasons
to come. We would never die.
But it was the long title poem, which comprises the second half of the book, that spoke most powerfully to me. While revisiting his hometown some twenty years after the riots, Levine happened to meet an out-of-work autoworker named Tom Jefferson who was living in an abandoned house on a burned-out block, growing flowers and vegetables, eking out a humble but proud life. Tom Jefferson, who had come up from Alabama, needed just a dozen outraged words to sum up the history of Detroit: “We all come for $5 a day and we got this!” In that Paris Review interview with Mona Simpson, Levine talked about how the poem came into being: “I met a guy who lived in one of these (abandoned) houses. He didn’t own it or rent it, and in fact he didn’t even know who owned it. He described his life there, and the poem rose out of the conversation we had. It also came out of the hope that the city might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don’t see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities.”
“Nothing heroic is happening in Detroit,” Simpson says.
“Nothing epic,” Levine replies. “Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It’s the truly heroic. The poem is a tribute to all these people who survived in the face of so much discouragement. They’ve survived everything America can dish out. No, nothing grandly heroic is happening in Detroit. I guess nothing grandly heroic ever took place there; it was always automobiles, automobiles, hard work, and low pay.”
Again, Levine had passed along a valuable lesson – that heroics can be small, that there is something immense about animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be in the most hostile of circumstances. It was a revelation that helped me see my own novel with fresh eyes. I was trying to write with broad brushstrokes about big themes – race, rage, revenge – when I should have been concentrating on my characters’ personal daily triumphs and setbacks, the small heroics of getting through the day. Levine helped me finish writing that book.
4. A Message From the Kingdom of Fire
If Not This Pig contained Levine’s first good Detroit work poems, then 1991’s What Work Is contained his very best. The book won the National Book Award, justly so, and minted Levine as a major American poet after thirty years of steady toil. (Four years later he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth, and he has been awarded numerous other poetry prizes.) What Work Is opens with a poem called “Fear and Fame,” which comes on like a blowtorch and sets the tone of all that follows:
Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acid lowered to me on ropes – all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold
water rained on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Such crystalline, deceptively simple writing is the work of a master at the pinnacle of his powers. There is great dignity here, and rich humor too – this working stiff seeing himself as a knight, an adventurer, a chef preparing a lethal stew, and winding up amazed that no one, “oddly enough,” welcomes him back from his epic adventure down inside a kingdom of fire that is, in truth, nothing but a poisonous pickling tank.
5. Gifts That Change Our Lives
Though now justly famous as a poet – if “famous poet” is not too ridiculous an oxymoron in 21st-century America – Levine also happens to be a superb writer of non-fiction. His 1994 book, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, is less a memoir or straight autobiography than a collection of impressionistic essays about his boyhood and early manhood in Detroit, his later years in California, where he taught poetry, and his travels in Spain, where he fell under the spell of Gaudi’s architecture and Machado’s poetry and the legends of the doomed anarchists who’d inspired the Spanish Civil War. While writing the book, Levine reports, “I realized I was striving to account for how I became the particular person and poet I am.”
The book opens with a portrait of his two teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1950s, the disappointing Robert Lowell and the ferociously inspiring John Berryman. It was Berryman who instilled in Levine and his classmates – including Donald Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, Jane Cooper, William Dickey, and Robert Dana – the notion that writing poetry is a serious, nearly sacred pursuit, one that requires intensive study and a lifetime of hard work. Yet Berryman was not without a sense of humor. At the end of the semester, teacher and pupil had a conversation about what a poet should look like. “No poet worth his salt is going to be handsome; if he or she is beautiful there’s no need to create the beautiful,” Berryman told Levine. “Beautiful people are special; they don’t experience life like the rest of us.” (Lord Byron, apparently, was the exception who proved this curious rule.) After a pause, Berryman added, “Don’t worry about it, Levine, you’re ugly enough to be a great poet.”
Levine has reverential feelings for his two most influential mentors – Berryman, the future suicide, and Yvor Winters, who taught Levine that his soul is the part of him that leaves each time he lies. I’m convinced that this reverence goes a long way toward explaining why Levine came to regard his own teaching duties as a sacred vocation, why he has written so many letters on yellow legal paper critiquing the poems of Mona Simpson and all those other young poets who were driving trucks and picking oranges and struggling to be poets.
There is a lovely essay called “Entering Poetry” about boyhood nights when Levine climbed up into trees in the woods near his home in Detroit and spoke to the stars. “I would say ‘rain’ and ‘moon’ in the same sentence and hear them echo each other, and a shiver of delight would pass through me,” he writes. One night, noticing that his hands smell of earth and iron, he says to the stars, “These hands have entered the ground from which they sprang.” “That,” he reports giddily, “was the first night of my life I entered poetry.”
Not long after entering poetry, Levine discovered his first poet. “When I was in the eleventh grade and the war was still going,” he said in an interview with The New Yorker in 2006, “a teacher read us some poems by Wilfred Owen. And after class, for some reason, she called me up to her desk and said, ‘Would you like to borrow this book?’ How she knew that I was responding so powerfully to these poems, I’m not sure, but I was. She said, ‘Now, I want you to take it home, and read it with white gloves on.’ In other words, don’t spill soup on it. It was probably the most significant poetic experience I had in my whole life, and I was only seventeen.”
In the essay “The Poet in New York in Detroit,” Levine describes his young self as “a humiliated wage slave employed by a vast corporation I loathed,” namely General Motors. The chapter opens with a frank portrait of this wage slave’s unlikely path to poetry: “In the winter of 1953 I was working at Chevrolet Gear and Axle, a factory in Detroit long ago dismantled and gone to dust. I worked the night shift, from midnight to eight in the morning, then returned by bus to my apartment, slept for a time, and rose to try to write poetry, for I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life – or at least the part my work played in it – I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.” I have not read a more succinct portrait of an artist as a young man bursting with an impossible and gorgeous dream. Speaking of his heroes Berryman and Winters, Keats and Whitman, Machado and Garcia Lorca, Levine wrote words I wish I had written about Levine: “That’s what they give us, the humble workers in the fields of poetry, these amazingly inspired geniuses, gifts that change our lives.”
Levine concludes, from long personal experience, that Diego Rivera’s graceful, colorful frescoes of autoworkers at the Detroit Institute of Arts are “nonsense.” I agree, partly on aesthetic grounds and partly because Rivera, that great communist and champion of the working man, was paid out of the bottomless pockets of Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. Likewise his ill-fated mural at Rockefeller Center in New York City, which was paid for (and destroyed) by another family not known for its liberal politics or the sympathetic treatment of the working man.
The only weak stuff in The Bread of Time is an essay called “Class With No Class,” in which Levine throws a roundhouse punch at the people who have grown rich at the expense of wage slaves like himself, all those country club swells in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills and Sherwood Forest. Levine, it turns out, is much better at celebrating than at denigrating. Yet “Class With No Class,” for all its flaws, had the salutary effect of revivifying the legends of class warfare all Detroiters grow up with. Now more than ever those legends demand to be remembered. In 1937, Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic, anti-union founder of the company my father would eventually work for, had sent his goons out from his River Rouge plant to bloody Walter Reuther and other United Auto Workers union organizers in the notorious Battle of the Overpass. A few months earlier, workers at one of GM’s Fisher Body plants in nearby Flint had shut down the assembly line and barricaded themselves inside the factory until the exasperated General Motors brass broke down and agreed to negotiate its first contract with the union. We’ve come a long way since those heroic days. We now live in an age of high unemployment when labor unions – that is, people who work for a middle-class wage teaching school and making cars and climbing down into pickling tanks – are being laid off and demonized for somehow causing the current economic malaise. Meanwhile, as vast corporations and rich individuals enjoy unconscionable tax breaks and immunity from the public’s wrath, the middle class doesn’t even realize that it’s been hoodwinked, or that it’s sinking faster by the day.
For this reason, among a great many others, I was thrilled when the Library of Congress announced that our next Poet Laureate will be a card-carrying member of the proletariat, a man who went to work in a Detroit soap factory at the age of 14 and, from that unpromising beginning, went on to write timeless poems and pass along his passion for poetry to hundreds of students like Mona Simpson and untold thousands of ordinary readers like me.
We’re an unmoored country that needs to be reminded what work is – and what it is not – and there’s no one more qualified for the job than Philip Levine.