Poem of the Day: ‘The Lesson’ by Philip Levine

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In “The Lesson,” from our October 2003 issue, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine imagines a conversation with a sage, cigarette-smoking doctor against an industrial backdrop. At one point, the poem’s speaker recalls his birth into this setting:

Years before, before the invention of smog,
before Fluid Drive, the eight-hour day,
the iron lung, I’d come into the world
in a shower of industrial filth raining
from the bruised sky above Detroit.

As he does here, Levine often returned in his poetry to the working-class Detroit of his childhood. Of the way he portrayed this world in verse, our former poetry editor Peter Davison wrote in 1999:

If Walt Whitman’s vision contained multitudes, and if Emerson’s vision of nature transcended what it saw with its own eyes, Levine’s poetic vision, nearly religious, transcends class, transcends natural boundaries, and transcends time. …

Philip Levine’s vision of the American city may on its surface appear grim, yet there are always flowers blooming in the empty lots and along the half-deserted avenues. Poets are enabled to notice such things.

You can see more of Levine’s vision in 1997’s “The New World” and in an interview he gave in April 1999.