Just a note to the recent passing of so many fine poets — like Philip Levine — who I made an immediate Birdhouse memorial page to by selecting one of his poems from his Wesleyan title Not This Pig (1968). A book I pretty much marked up from here to Tuesday with favorite lines and favorite poems way back when in 1968, then I went on to buy and read every one of his books for almost the next half century. He had a wonderful run and the poems stayed true blue, often politically charged and even romantic.
However, Philip Levine wasn't a "working class poet," nor working class as often comes along with any word about him. He held a brief youthful stint at lousy paying jobs, including in an automotive plant, like dozens and dozens of American poets before and after him have done. Like Levine, almost all of that drudgery and work was over with by the time these poets hit age 30, when you're supposed to wise up, or not be trusted. Take your pick. Levine decided, and he did it very well, to mine the memory of that brief automotive time and give us many fine poems right from the guts and grease of that hardware and life. But he did this while going for his college degrees and his long standing job as a professor. He certainly should be honored there. He wasn't a working class worker.
To me a working class worker is one who has earned a paycheck from working class work, a mainstay of the earnings. This puts almost all the renowned poets out of the ranking. That working class paycheck also keeps the recipient in that ranking in almost all social order, meaning diminished. There is no tenure, no pension plan, no golden parachute, no big paycheck awards. Really, there's nothing, they're working until they can almost not work any longer. Far past any retirement age. If they had a state job, they may be in better shape but by then most minds have also been state-shaped. Not a versatile shape.
The self-employed worker is working often pay-check-to-pay- check. If they don't work, they don't eat. If they don't work, they don't buy shoes for their kids. If they don't work, they could freeze to death. Some have pride and would never take a welfare check or any welfare, they're workers. There's deep honor in knowing how to work with one's hands and build things, make things run, make things hold water, make things glow.
There are poets in America to this day who are working class. They work long hours and in deep shade of recognition. They naturally don't fit into the puzzle of poetry schools and poetry circles, they're working, they're getting by, they probably can't always afford to buy your poetry book but they'll check it out of the library. They have such real gem experiences and may not have the finesse or workshop models to make a poem swing into the New Yorker each week, but man their experiences are real stuff magic.