On "1934," a Poem by Philip Levine
June 10, 2009
The May 25th edition of the New Yorker features a poem by Philip Levine, an American poet who can count among his numerous awards the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1928, and he often portrays that city in his poetry: the grit as well as the grace. He digs deep into the lives of ordinary people, if there is such a thing.
I don't know if he came to American Art to see the exhibition 1934: A New Deal for Artists. Perhaps he read about it and visited online. Maybe we'll be lucky and he'll read the blog post and let us know the backstory.
In "1934," Levine celebrates his ancestors who came from the old country, namely Russia and Ukraine, and the hard work that defined their lives. These are the merchants and the butchers who came from another world. "My father's brother had a shoe repair shop," he writes, while, "My mother's family was in junk." The poem conjures many of the same strong visuals that are in American Art's exhibition. I went back to take another look at the paintings in the show and was struck by how often these scenes of American life were painted by those born elsewhere. Saul Berman, who painted River Front, was born in Russia, as was Ilya Bolotowsky. His painting, In the Barber Shop, is filled with daily humanity, poignancy, and most of all, hard work. Harry Gottlieb, whose painting Filling the Ice House, shines another light on the toughness of the 1930s, was born in Romania in 1895.
In a way these paintings are like poems: contained worlds whose imagery calls forth something deep inside ourselves. In Philip Levine's poem, the speaker seems most taken by his uncle's shoe shop. He never got tired of watching his uncle work, which was probably good training for a poet. The poem even ends with a bit of magic, as the uncle has made the boy a knife, which became a kind of talisman: "Whenever you're/ scared,' he told me, just rub the handle/ three times and nothing bad can happen."
That sounds like the ending to a fable or a tale told long ago by someone who came from another time, another place.
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