The Fresno-Detroit Link: Poetry, and the Unglamorous Home of American Dreams

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

Two days ago I mentioned that a “Fresno reborn” video had a similar tone and toughness to the famous “Imported From Detroit” Eminem/Chrysler ad from the 2011 Superbowl that was an early sign of rebound of the auto industry and its iconic home city.

A reader who knows both places writes to emphasize other connections. This reader is Rick Jones, who grew up in Detroit but now lives in one of the most fashionable parts of prospering California.

The first connection involves one of Fresno’s best-known contemporary figures. This was the late poet Philip Levine — son of assembly-line Detroit, former Poet Laureate of the United States, long-time teacher at Fresno State.

Philip Levine, at the time of his selection at U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011 (AP photo)

Jones says of Levine:

While most of his poems are staged in Detroit (this is an example), they evoke the Fresno of today equally well.

He goes on to spell out the link, playing off my earlier comment that “I realize I am becoming a sucker for places and cultures, like Fresno and Detroit, whose theme is: ‘OK, you want to look down on us? That’s just fine, go ahead and feel smug, because then you’ll be all the more surprised and unprepared when you see what we can do.’” Jones says:

I am a winemaker that lives in Napa but works with wineries in “the valley,” a label all of us in our profession use to name the big area between Sacramento and Bakersfield with Fresno at its center. [JF note: aka The Central Valley or the San Joaquin Valley.]

I also grew up and spent the first 18 years of my life in Detroit.  While I live in the middle of  glamorous Napa, every time I go to the valley I feel like I'm going home.

I think you're a bit hard on yourself, when you suggest your admiration for these formerly forlorn and neglected places is merely sentimental.

If the American idea or dream or project, or whatever we are calling it these days now is to have any meaning, that meaning resides in Fresno and in Detroit as much, if not more than in Cupertino or Boston.

Obviously I agree, and am trying to learn about, and tell the story of, how and whether that dispersed and less glamorous dream may take shape.