The Library of Congress announced the new Poet Laureate yesterday. Philip Levine is the 18th Laureate. He’s won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and received rave reviews from critics over the course of his long career. Hailed as a “working man’s poet,” many of his poems are about doing blue collar work in Detroit. I was driving home yesterday, listening to the radio, and I heard an excerpt of the poet reading one of his poems, titled “What Work Is.” I admit that my reading life does not include much poetry. However, I’ve always enjoyed poetry with great imagery, which this poem certainly has. Levine made me feel as if I were waiting in a long line of factory workers, desperately hoping I would be chosen to work a shift that day, and if I were not, it would be simply because of the whim of a man. The desolation and hopelessness were evident. I was especially struck by the last line because I think it could have several meanings. It made me want to go home and discuss the poem with someone. And I think that’s probably the sign of a great poet.
I also wanted to give you a little background on the history of the poet laureate. The position was created in 1936, and a poet has been chosen by the Librarian of Congress every year since – past poets have included Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop. The Poet Laureate is then responsible for choosing a project that promotes poetry – past projects have included sponsoring poetry conferences, having citizens choose and share their favorite poems, and bringing poetry into high school classrooms.