books image

Getting to Know--Philip Levine

Originally published at Mass Poetry to coincide with Getting to Know..., my 6 week lecture series at The Peabody Institute Library.



The Mass Poetry Festival has an abundance of excellent poets coming to read this year in May. I’m honestly very excited! For past festivals, I’ve found it helpful to acquaint myself with a readers’ work prior to their event so that I’m listening to them in context.


To begin—I’m getting to know Philip Levine. I found out that he has published twenty-five poetry collections, including selected compilations, but I did not do an exhaustive reading. When a poet has such a large body of work, and I own few of their books, I take to the net like most folks. I always check out the wonderful resources at The Academy of American Poets site and the Poetry Foundation site, but I make sure I don’t merely peruse (sometimes crowd-pleasing) overly anthologized work. Recent work cannot have been excessively vetted. With it, I can wonder relatively alone: what keeps the poet vital currently? So, in my search I aimed for Levine’s millennial publications. In the same vein, I like reading poetry collections starting with the last poem first. “The last shall be first…” is straight out of a biblical parable, right? Well, it suits my taste to tear up—at least initially—a constructed-collection so I can more easily see the poems standing on their own.


I started with “A Story” from Levine’s most recent collection News of the World (Alfred A. Knopf), which came out before his first Poet Laureateship in 2011. It is a meta-commentary on narrative by “America’s great narrative poet,” as he was dubbed by Librarian of Congress James Billington. It is both true and invented:





Everyone loves a story. Let's begin with a house.

We can fill it with careful rooms and fill the rooms

with things—tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers

closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept

or big drawers that yawn open to reveal

precisely folded garments washed half to death,

unsoiled, stale, and waiting to be worn out.

There must be a kitchen, and the kitchen

must have a stove, perhaps a big iron one

with a fat black pipe that vanishes into the ceiling

to reach the sky and exhale its smells and collusions.

This was the center of whatever family life

was here, this and the sink gone yellow

around the drain where the water, dirty or pure,

ran off with no explanation, somehow like the point

of this, the story we promised and may yet deliver.

Make no mistake, a family was here. You see

the path worn into the linoleum where the wood,

gray and certainly pine, shows through.

Father stood there in the middle of his life

to call to the heavens he imagined above the roof

must surely be listening. When no one answered

you can see where his heel came down again

and again, even though he'd been taught

never to demand. Not that life was especially cruel;

they had well water they pumped at first,

a stove that gave heat, a mother who stood

at the sink at all hours and gazed longingly

to where the woods once held the voices

of small bears—themselves a family—and the songs

of birds long fled once the deep woods surrendered

one tree at a time after the workmen arrived

with jugs of hot coffee. The worn spot on the sill

is where Mother rested her head when no one saw,

those two stained ridges were handholds

she relied on; they never let her down.

Where is she now? You think you have a right

to know everything? The children tiny enough

to inhabit cupboards, large enough to have rooms

of their own and to abandon them, the father

with his right hand raised against the sky?

If those questions are too personal, then tell us,

where are the woods? They had to have been

because the continent was clothed in trees.

We all read that in school and knew it to be true.

Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows

of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes

into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,

there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles

of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.



Levine uses clues to piece together the Truth and to inform his invention: “…where are the woods? They had to have been/ because the continent was clothed in trees./ We all read that in school and knew it to be true.” Though they’re made of echoes thinner than memory, the family depicted is vivid enough. Why quibble over matching these characters with actual people when some like them have suffered. “You think you have a right/ to know everything?” Levine admonishes. Facts/schmacks. His concern is for “the earth we lost.”


His concern is for the downtrodden. In a November 2013 interview with Bill Moyers he discussed the Black Friday Protests and his rage at workers’ plights. He admitted to Moyers that he always seeks to maintain his rage. I don’t agree with this sort of maintenance, on a personal level: recognize and name, yes—maintain, no. But, it’s done wonders for Levine’s poetry. “There is a core of experiences that one transforms in the making of a poem and you need to be free to take it where it can go and be most meaningful,” he told Moyers.


He also said, “You’re always in danger of writing propagandistically.” Issue-oriented poets are often considered anathema to lyricism. However, in poem after poem Levine wields the lyric impulse and pulse masterfully. Case in point is the following poem, first published in The New Yorker in 1978:





Let me begin again as a speck

of dust caught in the night winds

sweeping out to sea. Let me begin

this time knowing the world is

salt water and dark clouds, the world

is grinding and sighing all night, and dawn

comes slowly and changes nothing. Let

me go back to land after a lifetime

of going nowhere. This time lodged

in the feathers of some scavenging gull

white above the black ship that docks

and broods upon the oily waters of

your harbor. This leaking freighter

has brought a hold full of hayforks

from Spain, great jeroboams of dark

Algerian wine, and quill pens that can't

write English. The sailors have stumbled

off toward the bars of the bright houses.

The captain closes his log and falls asleep.

1/10'28. Tonight I shall enter my life

after being at sea for ages, quietly,

in a hospital named for an automobile.

The one child of millions of children

who has flown alone by the stars

above the black wastes of moonless waters

that stretched forever, who has turned

golden in the full sun of a new day.

A tiny wise child who this time will love

his life because it is like no other.



He told Mona Simpson in his 1988 Paris Review interview: “We know that language used rhythmically has some kind of power to delight, to upset, to exalt, and it was that kind of rhythmic language that first excited me. But I didn’t encounter it first in poetry . . . perhaps simply in speech, in prayer, preaching.”


Levine encountered some of the 20th century’s greatest poetry teachers, including: Don Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. I think his work, early on, resisted categorization. His first full length collection, Not This Pig (Wesleyan University Press), released in 1968, was not Confessional, Beat-ish, nor nascent Language poetry—though, attention to striking, economical language is evident. Here’s the book’s axial poem:





It's wonderful how I jog

on four honed-down ivory toes

my massive buttocks slipping

like oiled parts with each light step.


I'm to market. I can smell

the sour, grooved block, I can smell

the blade that opens the hole

and the pudgy white fingers


that shake out the intestines

like a hankie. In my dreams

the snouts drool on the marble,

suffering children, suffering flies,


suffering the consumers

who won't meet their steady eyes

for fear they could see. The boy

who drives me along believes


that any moment I'll fall

on my side and drum my toes

like a typewriter or squeal

and shit like a new housewife


discovering television,

or that I'll turn like a beast

cleverly to hook his teeth

with my teeth. No. Not this pig.



This is an incredibly compassionate poem! Compassion like this doesn’t come without investment and hard earned maturity. And, I’m not talking about age here (though, Levine was forty years old when the poem was published). He brings a life of substance to bear in every poem—his factory work in Detroit from a young age, his upbringing by Jewish immigrant parents, and more. He has said, “Many young poets have come to me and asked, How am I gonna make it? They feel, and often with considerable justice, that they are being overlooked while others with less talent are out there making careers for themselves. I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Wait and be discovered or don’t be discovered.”


Write because you have to! Wonderful! Well, I’m more than ready now to read Philip Levine’s work from start to finish, and I’m looking forward to a dynamic program at the Mass Poetry Festival in May!



If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone. 

~Thomas Hardy