From the Worst Job to the Verse Job

The new poet laureate of the United States is Philip Levine, author of 20 collections of poems and perhaps the preeminent bard of the industrial workforce of Detroit.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Levine labored in the automobile factories of Motor City, an experience he commemorated in verse. “I believed 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,” Levine recounted in his autobiography, The Bread of Time. “I was a humiliated wage slave employed by a vast corporation I loathed.”

Levine’s antagonism toward of his employer wasn’t unusual. “The automobile industry is . . . the industry with about the worst relations between labor and management—surpassed by none in mutual bitterness,” Peter Drucker wrote in Concept of the Corporation, his 1946 landmark. “The years of sniping and backbiting of which the sit-down strikes [of 1937] were the climax have warped the perspective even of the sanest men on both sides.”

Image source: Smithsonian Institution

Today, the Detroit of Levine’s youth is long gone, the factories shuttered and the workers in many cases unemployed. Still, looking back Levine remains unsentimental. In a more recent poem entitled “An Abandoned Factory, Detroit,” Levine described a barbed-wire fence that surrounds the site: “Fears of idle hands/ Of protest, men in league, and of the slow/Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.”

“Nowhere can the problem of the worker’s citizenship be seen in purer form, and nowhere is the absence of a solution as grave a matter as in the automobile industry,” Drucker warned more than 60 years ago. “Detroit is the industrial city per se; and, for better or worse, as Detroit goes, so goes industry.”

What, for better or worse, is the emblematic city of our knowledge age, where the next Philip Levine might find inspiration? Is it San Jose or Bangalore, Beijing or Bentonville, New York or someplace else—and why?