The Poet as Witness
By Anna Daniels
Editor Note: This poem and commentary was originally published on April 11, 2014 and has remained one of our most popular articles to this day. This is an encore presentation on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Assassination, April 4, 1968.
During the 1950’s Philip Levine was working in Detroit auto plants and writing poetry. In an interview at that time in Detroit Magazine he described how he found his compelling subject material. “I saw that the people that I was working with…were voiceless in a way. In terms of the literature of the United States they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be. …I just hope that I have the strength to carry it all the way through.”
They Feed They Lion was written in 1968, when Levine returned to Detroit following the race riots of 1967. It is one of his finest poems, reflecting the degree to which he found “the strength to carry it all the way through.” The poem is merciless in its judgements and propelled by the rhythmic insistence of the language itself. Levine provides this insight into the poem:
It is, I believe, the most potent expression of rage I have written, rage at my government for the two racial wars we were then fighting, one in the heart of our cities against our urban poor, the other in Asia against a people determined to decide their own fate. The poem was written one year after what in Detroit is still called “The Great Rebellion” although the press then and now titled it a race riot. I had recently revisited the city of my birth, and for the first time I saw myself in the now ruined neighborhoods of my growing up not as the rebel poet but as what I was, middle-aged, middle-class, and as one writer of the time would have put it “part of the problem.” Out of a dream and out of the great storm of my emotions the poem was born.
The powerful, emotionally raw video above splices actual footage from the time period with Levine’s reading of the poem. On the first viewing it can be difficult to connect the threads of the poem itself.
They Feed They Lion
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.
Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch,
They Lion grow.
Read the rest of the poem here.
“They feed they Lion.” “They Lion grow.” These words are a mysterious choice although the implied danger comes through in their repetition and the poem’s resolution– “They feed they Lion and he come.” There is an interesting back story to the title. Levine worked in a Detroit grease shop and one day he and his African-American co-worker Eugene were sorting through universal joints.
So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who’d then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in – burlap sacks – and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words ‘Detroit Municipal Zoo.’ And he laughed, and said, ‘They feed they lion they meal in they sacks.’ That’s exactly what he said! And I thought, ‘This guy’s a genius with language’. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn’t speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it.”
Philip Levine has been described as “one of our most resonant voices of social conviction and witness….Poem after poem confronts the terribly damaged condition of American labor, whose circumstance has perhaps never been more wrecked.”
They feed they Lion and he come.