Thursday, March 16, 2017

What We're Reading: Philip Levine

My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry, by Philip Levine

This is a posthumous collection of essays by the late, celebrated American poet Philip Levine (1928-2015). Levine knew many of the major American poets of the latter part of the 20th century, including John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Thom Gunn, and he was a revered teacher and mentor for many years at California State University, Fresno. Roberta Spear, Larry Levis, and Gary Soto were among his students. In 2011, Levine was Poet Laureate of the United States. Among his many honors are two National Book Awards, for Ashes and for What Work Is, and a Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth in 1995.

Levine’s 1994 book The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, like this book, is a collection of essays, but it is a more personal and integrated collection than My Lost Poets. My Lost Poets is an eclectic collection of introductions and lectures and also includes a number of appreciations of students and mentors. My favorite essays in this collection are “My Lost Poets,” in which Levine talks about his early influences and his fellow students in the Miles Poetry Room at Wayne University (later Wayne State University) in Detroit, Michigan where Levine grew up. These are affectionately drawn portraits and formative encounters in which Levine tells us about some of the important moments, poets, and poems in his development as a young poet. In one of my favorite passages, Levine talks about the concern young poets have to develop a distinctive poetic “voice.”
"For the most part, American poets make this search for a voice automatically--it’s part of our native Yankee gift for marketing, this straining after a voice that will make one’s poetry sound utterly unlike the work of other poets and hence a unique commodity. It is something like the equivalent--to cite another Detroit effort in the same direction--of adding gigantic tail fins to our cars to make them distinctive. And like the tails fins, it’s a mistake…. Years later I realized that developing a voice before you knew what you needed to say was pointless at best, self-defeating at worst. You could spend years trying to sound as lyrical as Edna St. Vincent Millay or Hart Crane only to discover you wanted to write poetry incendiary enough to burn down General Motors or the Pentagon.”
Which was, as it turns out, the poetry that Levine came to understand he wanted to write, and wrote so passionately and movingly.

Another essay that will be especially enjoyable to those of us living in the Los Angeles area is an account of Levine’s trip here in 1960 for a poetry reading with John Berryman, Thom Gunn, and Henri Coulette, hosted by Christopher Isherwood at Valley College. For one thing, we know all the cities and landmarks in this little peripatetic remembrance, a familiarity that makes the story feel a little closer to us and oddly immediate in spite of the passage of time. But it is also a poignant story, in that it is a moment of realization and change for Levine, as he understands that a mentor he revered, John Berryman, has changed in tragic ways.

Prose by poets, a rarity, is always something special. It is filled with the same feeling and sharpness of observation as a poem, and there is a grace and a precision in the way things are said in all of these essays. These essays will send you back to the poets Levine admires--Keats, Whitman, and William Carlos Williams, and others, friends and students. But, most importantly, every one of these essays will tell you something more about Levine as a poet and about his poetry, and will prompt you, as a collection like this should do, to revisit his poems, something you will do with greater understanding and appreciation after reading My Lost Poets.

You Can Have It

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.
The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.
Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,
and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labors, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?
All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time
with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.
In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,
for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors' appointments, bonds,
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.
The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,
and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.
Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it. 

Night Thoughts Over a Sick Child

Numb, stiff, broken by no sleep, 
I keep night watch. Looking for 
signs to quiet fear, I creep 
closer to his bed and hear 
his breath come and go, holding 
my own as if my own were 
all I paid. Nothing I bring, 
say, or do has meaning here. 

Outside, ice crusts on river 
and pond; wild hare come to my 
door pacified by torture. 
No less ignorant than they 
of what grips and why, I am 
moved to prayer, the quaint gestures 
which ennoble beyond shame 
only the mute listener. 

No one hears. A dry wind shifts 
dry snow, indifferently; 
the roof, rotting beneath drifts, 
sighs and holds. Terrified by 
sleep, the child strives toward 
consciousness and the known pain. 
If it were mine by one word 
I would not save any man, 

myself or the universe 
at such cost: reality. 
Heir to an ancestral curse 
though fallen from Judah's tree, 
I take up into my arms my hopes, 
my son, for what it's worth give 
bodily warmth. When he escapes 
his heritage, then what have 

I left but false remembrance 
and the name? Against that day 
there is no armor or stance, 
only the frail dignity 
of surrender, which is all 
that can separate me now 
or then from the dumb beast's fall, 
unseen in the frozen snow.

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