Philip Levine is the new Poet Laureate of the United States, and many have lauded his poetry for its depiction of “blue-collared American life.” Another poet of a bit of a different flavor, has been praised for something similar: Bruce Springsteen has been a working class hero for nearly four decades.
Rolling Stone calls him “a plain spoken visionary and a sincere romantic whose insights into everyday lives — especially in America’s small-town heartland — have earned comparisons to John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie,” a description that sums up what is most often written about him.
But to call him this alone rather misses the point. Springsteen’s voice is not only one of the working classes, but also one that is much more broadly American. With his work from Born to Run to his first live compilation Live 1975-1985, Springsteen writes the “Great American Novel” in verse many times over. He captures a fundamental idea of America that pervades across class boundaries.
What defines the people who inhabit Springsteen’s music is not their class, but a single attribute of ambition. They are either young men looking forward, aspiring to escape the unchanging experiences of life; or old men looking back, wishing they had been able to. In any case, there is always a wistful longing, an endless striving. That is the true American dream — not the white picket fence and two car garage, or even the comfortable living and a legacy for posterity. But rather, the ability to pick up and go out west, to try your hand at success, and to know what possibility means.
Springsteen’s protagonists are those who equate sameness with hopelessness. He sings about them in “Born to Run” where he declares, “This town rips the bones from your back…we gotta get out while we’re young.” In “Badlands,” Springsteen tells us, “All men want to be rich, rich men want to be kings, and a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.” Though his songs are often about working class men and women, anyone who has ambitions can feel the power of his words.
He is a poet because he has an incredible command of language. He expresses a whole range of understanding and emotion using metaphor and synecdoche. To understand metaphor is a great thing, and Springsteen certainly does. He understands that a good one is simple, almost too blatant, but when used well can also be incredibly compelling. His music contains countless examples of this — the road, the car, the motorbike representing both literal and metaphorical escape.
A most illustrative, elegant example is “The River.” The song tells of the young narrator’s life in a town by a river where “they bring you up to do what your daddy done”; the hopes he shares with his high school sweetheart, Mary; the idyllic days of youth spent with her by the river. They continue to hope even after they are forced to grow up too quickly. Mary becomes pregnant, but they still go down to the river. But soon, the hardships of life in the face of poverty means that “Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air/ Now I just act like I don’t remember/ and Mary acts like she don’t care.” The song ends with a last drive down to the river, though it, like the narrator’s dreams, has run dry. The very obviousness of the river’s symbolism is what makes it so brilliant.
A larger implication can always be taken away from the short narrative contained in a Springsteen song. The listener can feel all of the frustration and restlessness felt by the man in “Hungry Heart,” who drives to a bar where he met his sweetheart, this time to leave her; or the depressing heaviness of spirit in “Factory,” which tells the story of a boy seeing his father going to work in the morning and returning at night.
To capture in just a three or four minute song, or in twenty or thirty lines of words, an understanding and a sympathy from the audience is poetry indeed. But poetry exclusively of the blue-collared laborer it is not. Who hasn’t felt the hefty dread of going to work in the morning, and coming home bone-weary at night? Who has not wished for escape from the duties of life we have created for ourselves?
If anyone is our national poet, it is Springsteen. Philip Levine may be brilliant, but there’s a reason more people remember the words to “Jungleland” than those in “Coming Close.”