December 28, 2015–January 3, 2016
For our final feature of 2015, we celebrate the great Philip Levine, who passed away in February at age 87. In place of our usual interview, we offer tributes in poetry and prose from Levine’s friends, students and admirers. He was a deeply beloved man, not only for his poetry and friendship but for his legendary, catalyzing teaching, which changed the lives of so many students, including the late Larry Levis, who remembered him this way: “When I try to imagine the life I might have had if I hadn’t met Levine, if he had never been my teacher, if we had not become friends and exchanged poems and hundreds of letters over the past twenty-five years, I can’t imagine it. That is, nothing at all appears when I try to do this. No other life of any kind appears.”
Levine was born in 1928 in industrial Detroit, one of three sons of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His father died when he was five, and he started working in auto factories when he was fourteen, later capturing these experiences in poems that are now among his most well-known. He sought, as he said, “to find a voice for the voiceless.” He was the first in his family to earn a college degree, taking a BA and then an MA in English at Wayne University (now Wayne State). He went on to earn an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, after first taking courses there as an unregistered student with John Berryman, whom he called his “one great mentor.” Awarded a Jones Fellowship in poetry to study at Stanford University, he moved to California, where he later joined the English faculty at California State University in Fresno. He taught there for over thirty years, meeting a young Larry Levis in 1964. Upon his retirement in 1992, he taught in distinguished positions at many other universities on the East Coast, including NYU and Columbia, splitting time between Fresno and Brooklyn Heights, where he and his wife Franny lived in a house on Willow Street.
The author of over twenty books of poetry, essays and translations, Levine’s many awards include the Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth (1994); the National Book Award for What Work Is (1991); both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for Ashes: Poems New and Old (1979); and the National Book Critics Circle Award for 7 Years from Somewhere (1979). He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2000 to 2006 and appointed Poet Laureate of the United States from 2011 to 2012.
Author photo by Frances Levine
Call It Music
Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song
in my own breath. I’m alone here
in Brooklyn, it’s late morning, the sky
above the St. George Hotel is clear, clear
for New York, that is. The radio is playing
Bird Flight, Parker in his California
tragic voice fifty years ago, his faltering
“Lover Man” just before he crashed into chaos.
I would guess that outside the recording studio
in Burbank the sun was high above the jacarandas,
it was late March, the worst of yesterday’s rain
had come and gone, the sky was washed. Bird
could have seen for miles if he’d looked, but what
he saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes,
shook his head, and barked like a dog—just once—
and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured him
he’d be OK. I know this because Howard told me
years later, told me he thought Bird could
lie down in the hotel room they shared, sleep
for an hour or more, and waken as himself.
The perfect sunlight angles into my little room
above Willow Street. I listen to my breath
come and go and try to catch its curious taste,
part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes
from me into the world. This is not me,
this is automatic, this entering and exiting,
my body’s essential occupation without which
I am a thing. The whole process has a name,
a word I don’t know, an elegant word not
in English or Yiddish or Spanish, a word
that means nothing to me. Howard truly believed
what he said that day when he steered
Parker into a cab and drove the silent miles
beside him while the bright world
unfurled around them: filling stations, stands
of fruits and vegetables, a kiosk selling trinkets
from Mexico and the Philippines. It was all
so actual and Western, it was a new creation
coming into being, like the music of Charlie Parker
someone later called “glad,” though that day
I would have said silent, “the silent music
of Charlie Parker.” Howard said nothing.
He paid the driver and helped Bird up two flights
to their room, got his boots off, and went out
to let him sleep as the afternoon entered
the history of darkness. I’m not judging
Howard, he did better than I could have
now or then. Then I was nineteen, working
on the loading docks at Railway Express,
coming day by day into the damaged body
of a man while I sang into the filthy air
the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me
before his breath failed. Now Howard is gone,
eleven long years gone, the sweet voice silenced.
“The subtle bridge between Eldridge and Navarro,”
they later wrote, all that rising passion
a footnote to others. I remember in ’85
walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school
where he taught after his performing days,
when suddenly he took my left hand in his
two hands to tell me it all worked out
for the best. Maybe he’d gotten religion,
maybe he knew how little time was left,
maybe that day he was just worn down
by my questions about Parker. To him Bird
was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note
going out forever on the breath of genius
which now I hear soaring above my own breath
as this bright morning fades into afternoon.
Music, I’ll call it music. It’s what we need
as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds
blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean,
the calm and endless one I’ve still to cross.
—“Call It Music” from Breath: Poems by Philip Levine, copyright © 2004 by Philip Levine. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Why I Loved Philip Levine
Philip Levine was one of the great friends of my life. I loved him for no particular reason, I loved him because he was ferociously loyal to his past, because he vowed to become (and then became) the great poet of Detroit, because he learned what work is, because he had the double knowledge of a twin, because he read Whitman and Keats and determined to live up to them, because the rage of his early poems could scald you, because he never stopped singing “Vivas for those who have failed,” because he put himself to school on the poets of the Spanish Civil War, because he became a poet of joy as well as of suffering, because he gave us “a true and earthy prayer / of salami,” because he wrote “They Feed They Lion,” “You Can Have It,” and “To Cipriano, in the Wind,” because he was stubbornly funny and had an infallible bullshit detector, because he believed in justice and mercy, because he was smart enough to marry a woman pure of heart, because he had a genius for friendship, because was like an older brother to me for more than thirty years, because he was always and utterly himself, because he fulfilled his destiny and became the person—the poet—he was meant to become.
I was the lucky person who, when Harry Ford died, became Philip’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf. His wonderful collection The Mercy was in the final stages of proof, and reading it was the best possible antidote to the sadness I felt about Harry. The title poem itself helped, with its story of his mother’s voyage to America, and her first encounter with unexpected kindness, a sort of recurring mercy, in the form of a sailor aboard ship who introduced her to that wonderful fruit, the orange. But in rereading the collection recently I realized that another line in another poem there expressed exactly the way I felt about becoming Phil’s editor. It is from the poem “And That Night Clifford Died.” Clifford is Clifford Brown—according to Phil, an “astonishingly gifted” Detroit jazz trumpeter, killed in an automobile accident at 25, back in the 40s, whose music he heard many years later driving home in the night to Fresno on “the FM station fading in / and out on the car’s radio, / the sound never to be forgotten, / a gift I did nothing to earn.” It is those last words that pertain—“a gift I did nothing to earn”—that seemed to apply to me inheriting Phil. Harry had taken him through the bulk of his career, and I was now reaping the pleasure of it. Not only the pleasure of working with Phil on new collections, but simply of knowing him and Franny, and watching his big successes. The year as Poet Laureate, for instance. And we didn’t forget Harry—particularly the Harry who loved to eat and drink and always took his writers out for lavish lunches or dinners. Every year, if at all possible, Phil, Franny and I celebrated what we called our Harry Ford Memorial Dinner at the most desirable—think expensive—place we could find a reservation. I’d like even now to raise an imaginary toast to Phil, with a glass of the red wine that both he and Harry loved, for sharing his beautiful, funny, sweet, semi-tough self with us both personally and in his wonderful poetry, his lasting gift to us all.
When I came to writing poetry, I was nearly 30—late by some standards—and discovering Phil Levine’s poems was akin to opening a door onto a forgotten part of myself. In those early years of familiarizing myself with poetry and stumbling toward my own poems, Phil and his poems were not only models for what art could be made of, but for how a life in poetry could be fed, shaped, and made real. For a young poet, this was a tremendous revelation.
How incredibly lucky I was, then, to study with Phil at NYU a few years later. Phil’s warm and grounding presence—his toughness, realness, empathy, humor, passion, and intelligence—deeply affected me. Here was a man who seemed to fully inhabit himself and without a trace of self-consciousness. Although he was hard on our work, he always spoke in service of the poem, and without cruelty. He famously had no patience for foolishness or willful cleverness, in our poems and person.
Often we remember our most beloved teachers not as much for anything specific they’ve said about us or our work, but for their resonant presence in our lives and our psyches—an unnameable quality that, when we bring it into our awareness, reminds us, even across time and distance, that we and what we make have value and deserve to be in the world. Over the years Phil’s words of encouragement have sustained me. I continue to learn from him and he lives on in my heart.
Greenwich Village, 2007
Because there were so many in our cohort who wanted to study with Phil, there weren’t enough spaces in his workshop to accommodate us all.
And so I would make weekly appointments during his open office hours to talk. There were days he passed the time rhapsodizing about Keats
or Berryman; sometimes he would read aloud from books he was aghast I didn’t know; sometimes he’d talk shit. Smacked of wisdom, all of it.
Once, I brought him a new draft. It was longer than anything I had shown him before. Narrative. We read it together. And when we reached
the ending, he was quiet for a little while. Then he started over, reading each stanza under his breath. When he arrived again at the end,
he said (and I’ve never forgotten this): Everything you wrote knew that you were trying to get to these last two lines. You hear that?
And then he tapped where the poem finished: Makes this feel like a punchline. Too bad the joke leading up to it just isn’t that good.
Now that you’ve done that, you start here for next time. He pointed again at the ending: See where this gets you.
—R. A. Villanueva
Before I opened up my MFA thesis that Phil Levine had commented on, I took a deep breath. I had heard the stories, knew how tough he was when giving feedback. As I read through poem after poem, a little mark kept popping up beside certain passages. It looked something like this: bs. I had taken an editing class as an undergraduate, but I didn’t recognize what this was shorthand for. What’s more, the symbol had arrows drawn from it to show that its meaning extended to not just one line, but mulitple ones. I figured when I wrote Phil back to thank him, I’d ask what the symbol meant. Halfway through my thesis, I was thinking, “This isn’t too bad” when I ran across a comment where Phil said a particular image was “bullshit.” Cue the ephiphany. The symbol was BS. I went back to the start to properly observe the devastation. When I finished, I knew what work was ahead of me. That was what Phil did, he simplified everything with honesty and kindness. Make no mistake, there was a lot of kindness. Without that kindness I wouldn’t have been able to move forward. I miss his spirit and his voice every day.
—Tomás Q. Morin
When it comes to feedback on my work, alarms go off in my brain at compliments, which register in my mind like flattery, and if you’re flattering me, you’re lying to me, and that’s dangerous, my brain says. I’d heard from friends who had studied with Phil Levine that he was the master of tough love—a straight-shooter who’d never blow smoke up your ass. So when I decided to return to grad school at 30, I moved from Milwaukee to study with Phil at NYU. My brain reasoned that, if I was going to sign on for $30K in debt, it might as well be with someone who would tell me the truth.
But I never got a seat in his class. He went on sabbatical during my second year in the program, and the first year, his classes were all full. “But I came here just to study with Phil,” I told the director. She just shrugged. It may be that he had looked at my work and didn’t want me in his class—this occurs to me now. Ah, fate. As a former friend once said, “It is already written.”
So I was stuck listening to his students tell hilarious Phil stories after class at the bar. “So this guy’s poem starts out and the speaker’s looking forlornly out the window and thinking about love and feeling lonely, and Phil says, ‘All over the world, young men are writing this exact same poem. At the very least, shoot for something original.’”
I finally met him: the summer I was doing my student teaching. Technically, I had already graduated. Ah, fate again. I was up in the office, pulling collated bundles of poems from the copy machine—suddenly he was standing behind me. I started, “Oh, hi!” “Hey.” I figured he was waiting to use the copy machine, and since he was a poet of note, his need constituted a copy machine emergency.
“Do you need to get in here? I can pause it.”
“What?” he thought about it, “Naaaaaaah,” and waved me on.
I’ve never been confident talking to Important People, or schmoozing—I come off like a shoplifter with severe Aspergers—but I did say something—I don’t remember what. Before I knew it, he was regaling me with a story about a recent reading he gave to some “old money bags” at a country club. “Honest to Christ, I read for 10 minutes, and they gave me $15 grand! They fed us lobster and steak. My wife was like, ‘What the hell is this?!’ Talk about a cake walk!”
And in sharing the story with me, as sweeping as he was in retelling it with its lobsters and velvet seats, he seemed to be saying, “Go get some of that.” If not that exactly, then, “There are things out there for the getting. They are not normal, but they are fucking awesome.”
—Jennifer L. Knox
How We Are Made
For months, I was a cannonball
dropped down the bore, reeling
in blurry vomitous swirls toward
the fuse; forty days with vertigo
is like that. My new equilibrium
was spinning inside chambers
of spherical blackness when the news
came. You, with your wiry limbs
of hard verse, inky gap-toothed grin
of gristle and work, you who grimly
told us to stop messing around,
to make this survival matter
like a factory line, like fish scaling,
like filament and rubble, you
who would say, most likely,
this was all sentimental crap, you
had gone on to cinders, blasted
into the ether without so much
as smoke. I stood then on the icy hill
under the expressway, filled
with the salt you had given me,
and for the first time that year,
the entire world stood still.
Originally published in Observer, 2015.
Knowing Phil Levine has been truly one of the great privileges of my life, one which began before we even met, through the gift of his poems. I won’t say much; we know what he gave us. “They Feed They Lion” echoes in me always, a reminder that the powerful dark undertow of Lorca’s duende is a necessary force if we are to hold close what sustains us.
Phil’s choice of my first book for publication was a deep affirmation—to be heard so well by someone so true. But, immense as that was, compared to the decades of friendship and mentorship that followed, it was mere paperwork.
Phil’s mentorship of younger poets is legendary. For me, that mentorship was like the experience we have when we first come to reading, and to books that confirm the existence and validity of a previously unavailable part of ourselves. Or it was like, with difference, what Keats says on soul making: “There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.” Phil was that kind of mentor—one who gave you yourself in that way. And what greater gift is there than that?
Finally, Phil was Phil because Franny is Franny, and because he and Franny traveled in single orbit. Over the decades, through a scattering of visits in NY and Fresno, and beginning in a time when I was so shy as to be effectively speechless, they extended their friendship to me. Their generosity of spirit, their kindness to one another, and most of all their sheer, deep sanity, helped me to grow into my own humanness and to trust my own sanity.
How lucky I have been—how honored I am to have known Phil Levine.
There’s a poem in Philip Levine’s The Simple Truth, called “My Father with Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart,” which so thoroughly captures a kind of before of trauma, personal or otherwise, the dull and maybe aggressive ordinariness of nothing-much-happening and the seeming randomness, sometimes, of things that do happen.
My great-grandparents managed to escape Tsars and Nazis but all the rest of their families, the ones who stayed in Europe, the parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, were mostly killed in World War II, and the destruction and death that was avoided by being in America caused its own kind of damage, and I had the sense, growing up around that old generation, that everywhere people were out to get us.
I’ve always been interested in that generation of American Jews, and how they were traumatized from afar by the Holocaust and how their sense of “otherness” was unshakeable. And I’ve always been interested in those ominous moments we don’t know are ominous because we have no idea what’s to come. (I spend some time knocking wood and keeping hats off beds.)
The poem ends “how utterly silent the piano” and it is extraordinarily loud. That’s what a wonder Philip Levine was. He got all of that trauma and survivor guilt and terror into one poem about one living room. It is a poem I think about frequently, and with gratitude.
Phil Levine is a poet for the ages. His imaginative integrity is breathtaking. He can sum up eras and make history volatile. A classic poem like “Belle Isle, 1949” speaks to reconciliation after World War II; written in the following century, “During the War” sees that period through a radically different lens. In our willfully segregated era, partitioned into gated communities of academia and the Internet, Phil stands for true universalism, the kind of inclusion Chinua Achebe envisioned when he attacked “colonial universalism”–though, like Achebe himself, Phil is sometimes too readily portrayed as a spokesman. His poems play for high stakes in the real world, but the “real world” is arduous and elusive, and Phil sets himself exacting standards. He discovers his America line by line. His work is poetry, and he loves its rigor.
The man’s humanity anchors the craft: Phil’s love for Franny, how consistently she found a way into his conversation, always as a truth sayer and touchstone. And Phil’s passionately concrete sense of justice. I saw him not long before his death, and he mentioned facing down a racist, noting happily, “He’s smaller than me.” I didn’t encourage it; to me, Phil at 86 looked quite frail. Then he was gone.
Letter to Levine from Sharon Hill
Dear Phil, earlier today I had my car checked out by the last trustworthy mechanic, Joe Willis, Sr., and what did I get? A bill for six hundred clams. Joe’s pushing eighty, two strokes, some palsy the Parkinson’s meds trigger. “Your brakes are shot-beyond-shot. Have been. Metal on metal. A God-damned spark-making situation,” he said. “You got ears, son? Your car’s been squealing for months. I know it. Hear it in my sleep. That sound bought me my house.” What could I do but shrug? Joe spit, then showed me where the rotor wore out its worth, how the steering would eventually give. “Friction,” he said, “then you’re gone, lost forever.” He spit again, took my hand, and together we tremored as we pointed at a framed photograph of his son doing his best Mike Schmidt stance: that aloof intensity we often fail to recognize as greatness in Sharon Hill. “Nineteen years old,” Joe said, “that there’s my boy…coulduh been the next Schmidty,” and he squeezed my hand hard. “Nineteen years. … Here, here, son, you’ve got to get this right. Lookee …,” and as Joe began his sermon on the necessities of brakes, as he showed me the guts of his pristine ’57 Bel-Aire, I lost my footing, maybe on some grease, maybe on a memory I had of you reminding me of some things—I know I owe God a death—or something about where we go when we die—I dunno … if you’re me, which you’re not, and if you believe in God, which I don’t, then you go to Detroit. Joe’s son left Sharon Hill in 1968 to fight in a war beyond his choosing, as most wars are for most of us, and came back draped in an American flag, a silver star stuck in a little black box with white silk lining its insides. Are we really what God wants back? Can we say no when we’re called? Joe squeezed my wrist, “You listening, son?” Should I have told Joe there’s no one left in his Detroit, his Sharon Hill, not Joe, Jr., not himself, none of us as plain as the grey sky of a mid-October afternoon? One of us coughed. A cop waved as he drove slowly by. Traffic lights hung on their wires and ticked off their colors. Some wind swept the lone oak draping the corner of Coates and Sharon, and its sound made the leaves simply be one last time, and I heard you reminding me: I don’t want to be some elegy. That’s a fair end to a life none of us asked for. But, when you make it back to your Detroit, show me. Anything. Make it a grey script of snow falling on my Darby Creek. Make me stop on this corner of Coates and Sharon and give alms to the roach, break bread with the rat, pray with the squirrel, bow down before the scorched and boarded rows of houses. Help me love my grief that much more so I can bear witness to that guy staring at me through the window of Raphael’s Barber Shop, shaving cream cresting his Adam’s apple, both of us wanting to turn away, powerless. Watch me drop the Daily News into a garbage can, douse it all with gin, and toss in a match. Watch me breathe in the smoke of your passage that rises with each stunned syllable of breath. Love, Alex
Originally published in Miramar, 2013.
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for
I met Phil Levine for the first time after a reading he gave at the Tempel synagogue in the Kazimierz, Krakow’s old Jewish Quarter. My friend Lorraine Doran and I had spent the day orienting ourselves to the city: the bones of the Krakow dragon (whale, mammoth, rhino), Mickiewicz’s statue, our new favorite bar whose name (Pierwszy lokal na Stolarskiej po lewej stronie idąc od Małego Rynku) served as directions to the place, if you could read Polish. In the synagogue, as Phil read “The Mercy” and “The Simple Truth” and then listened as his poems were read again in Polish, I took down lines and stray thoughts to keep myself grounded and awake (jetlag, buffalo vodka) in the dim, almost vesper light.
I recollect only scraps of our conversation after the reading: salt mines, Franny’s garden, Lorca. But I know we didn’t get into what I’d been thinking about all day, since the morning talk he’d given on “Writing Under the Sign of Memory.” He’d talked about his decision to leave Detroit when he was twenty-six, how his friends had convinced him there were better ways to live. “I was being exploited,” he said. But what had lingered with me was this: “My anger,” he said, “my anger was so large that I couldn’t find a technique to find my way out of it.”
For him, this wasn’t an abstraction—he needed to find a practice of poetry that would allow him to write beyond his anger. He wanted to write about the world he knew, the people he’d grown up with, worked alongside. But he hadn’t yet found a way to write about this life—or, more, he hadn’t found a way to let his imagination translate these memories and experiences into a new life, a new reality as poems. “Memory is all the imagination has to work on,” he’d said, riffing on Coleridge. His memories of these men and women had only been snapshots before, he said. But then he gradually found a way to see these people “as noble as they truly were.” Only then, he said, “could I write them as Caravaggios.”
I’d carried the pressure of this thought as Lorraine and I had walked the city until we finally found ourselves in the cemetery. We lingered there, surrounded by the shattered gravestones carefully arranged into a mosaic wall. We listened to the leaves, the sound of metal on stone as two men levered a stone free of the undergrowth. And later, when we entered the dark quiet of the synagogue and settled inside the sphere that Phil’s poems created, I tried to listen for and hold what shards of memory and lyric and imagination swerved towards me:
mercy is something you can eat again and again
(German soldiers in this synagogue, their silhouettes
(my grandfather’s tweed jacket, cologne and sweat and rain
I began a career in root vegetables—
(they do not see this language as the scrawl of frightened birds
In that temple used as a stable after its congregants—bankers, writers, mothers, grandfathers, industrialists, their children—were taken to be murdered a hundred kilometers out in the countryside at Birkenau and Auschwitz, I knew I hadn’t found it yet. I hadn’t found the technique that would allow me to shape these meanderings and impressions, these snapshots I had collected. I look back now and see myself full of fragments. I see myself seeking a physic that would allow me to craft some new mosaic from these broken pieces of the world. Even if that mosaic—these poems I hadn’t yet found a way to write—left so much unanswered.
Excerpt from “It’s Beautiful Whether or Not You Let It Be,” originally published in Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, edited by Mari L’Esperance and Tomás Q. Morin, Prairie Lights Books, 2013.
Poet Of The Lower Working Class
I’m thinking of Phil,
A Detroit poet,
Of the dayshift.
That blue collar
Tattoo, the dirt
Around a collar,
The hours we swallow,
The scuffed way
The day pulls,
When it’s in a
What did my father
Know about work,
It isn’t that they
Don’t give you
It’s that they tell you
It’s better for sipping
You have a song.
They way Phil
Sang it, like a
A Buick, which
My father would
Have told you
Is a working man’s
Philip Levine is a poetic father. My own father held a full time job in sales and built our family’s house, even as we lived in the first constructed rooms. My first memories are of him silhouetted against the sun, hammering roofing tiles. My mother also worked full time, spent her lunches working yard-duty at our elementary school, and volunteered at church. This is to say I think of my parents as the type of people praised by Levine, people who sacrificed, who knew the meaning of work, who came home late as I heard “the bed groan and [their] shoes drop / one by one.”
In college I felt distant from my peers. I was studying and working night shifts when Levine’s What Work Is reignited my love of poetry. I still remember those first speakers donning their boots and standing at the polishing wheel. Levine showed the beauty and triumph in work. He showed me how to go back and write about the people I loved. This is to say that at a time when I was unsure of myself, when I was twenty and “in the wrong clothes, crusted in dirt / and sweat,” he allowed me to love myself and the place I came from. He showed me how to write with a measure of pride, to find the penny my parents “paid / the earth, and rub / its face for luck / and shine it with spit / until it glows again.”
The other night before bed I read Breath, one of Phil’s later collections, and thought back to several months prior when we lost him. I stayed in bed for several hours that day feeling like I’d had the wind knocked out of me—and I’m not even one of his students or close friends. I never met Phil in person, though I did hear him speak once at a photography show in Manhattan and loved hearing his clear, unapologetic voice. He mentored Dorianne Laux, who in turn became my mentor, and I’ve always felt a magnetic kinship to him for the trail he blazed for poets of witness like us who focus on working class lives and voices.
After falling asleep while reading Breath, I had a dream in which Phil and I were walking down a paved street near sunset. I can’t remember the exact location—I don’t think there was one—but he smiled wryly and said, “Your book is good even if no one reads it,” and an hour or so later I woke up wondering whether or not I had been visited by his spirit or simply imagined it. Either way, he was and is (I think he will stay with us as long as poetry stays with us) a man for whom my love continues to grow each time I read or think about his work. The mourning for someone who lived that long and wrote that well and mentored others so tirelessly is an endless mourning. As a tribute to his memory, I wrote “Into the Valley Oak That Will Not Sing, That Will Not Even Talk,” which uses Phil’s short “cat lines” and focuses on what I’ve left behind in rural Texas. It has a little of his grit, his music in it, which I hope he’d smile at now that he’s left the earth. It borrows its title from a line in an elegy he wrote for his student Ernesto Trejo, whom he ultimately outlived.
—J. Scott Brownlee
I don’t know how to write about Philip Levine without writing about being poor. I was poor throughout my childhood. After my father left, my mother raised three boys in Palm Bay, Florida off a hundred dollars a month plus food stamps. Working poor was a term I didn’t hear until much later. We just called it working. My mother worked fast-food jobs well into her late forties, and my father, whose house we visited on weekends, worked the graveyard shift as a jail guard up at Sharpes for many years. My own first job, at age fourteen, was spraying out portable toilets from construction sites, for which I was paid $4 an hour, under the table. I quit that job in four hours. By the time I entered high school, I’d become acutely aware that all forms of poverty weren’t the same. In my community, the white kids residing in squat stucco houses pushing into the underdeveloped backwoods and swampland interior of the mainland lived very different lives from the black kids crammed into three-hundred-square-foot cinderblock homes on University Drive down by the river. And all of us, we assumed, experienced life differently from the kids living in those beachside mansions we drove by at night with our windows down, sneaking peaks into yards landscaped in such a way that palm trees and bamboo and elephant ears became fences. I learned that poverty contained its own divides—racially, culturally, economically—and those divides were played out in middle schools and high schools all along the Space Coast. Opportunity was sparse all around. I knew very few people who had attended college; it wasn’t uncommon to drop out of high school. After graduation, many in my class found jobs as roofers, brick and block layers, temp assistants, burger flippers, cashiers, waiters, drug dealers, and construction workers. Some said fuck it and joined the service. Others took classes at the local community college, myself included. I washed dishes full-time to pay for it, though a lot of folks used their loan money and Pell Grants to pay off credit cards. Only the rare few set their sights higher, escaping to U of F or FSU. A good amount, it should be mentioned, ended up in prison, or died. I’ve had a fair number of friends die by gun violence, overdose, and drunk diving. Violence was an everyday occurrence. One early morning around 4 AM, after getting off work stacking newspapers in a warehouse at Gannett News Service (USA Today/Florida Today), I drove over to a friend’s house hoping to catch the tail end of a party only to discover the front of the house had been shot up by an AK-47, my best friend’s face swollen from having a bottle crushed over his face, and my younger brother gone missing, after a gang of kids busted in to steal the keg and exact their revenge after a woman from one gang was caught flirting with a guy from another. It was this sort of harsh reality that ultimately led me to leave Florida at eighteen in search of something better. Since I was five I knew I was going to be a writer, which I felt I could do anywhere, so I jumped in a car with my girlfriend and her mother and headed to North Carolina, where my girlfriend planned to audition for a well-regarded dance conservatory. I remember being very excited, full of hope, when we settled into a mouse-infested weekly rental hotel on the outskirts of town. My girlfriend’s mother had the only car and found a job early, I believe in retail down at the mall, though she was a trained ophthalmologist’s assistant. I took a bus each morning to a job at Blockbuster Music, when such a thing existed, and later as a teller in a bank, before deciding to enroll at the university, if they would have me. All of which is to say I understood what work was, what being poor meant, and what struggle and death looked like, at least from one perspective, very early on. Up until I discovered Levine’s work in a small bookstore in Greensboro, my reading had consisted primarily of literature written before Mark Twain or after Stephen King, with only a few jaunty sidesteps toward Salinger, Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, and Malcolm X. And most of that writing had been oriented around what I considered largely middle and upper class concerns. Levine was one of the first writers I read who spoke to class and poverty in a way that seemed real to me, that exposed the hardships and violence while celebrating the joys, the rituals, the food, and the experiences of people to whom I often had little in common save our commonality of having little. His writing never sought to reduce people to the hoards of automatons one might find in academic theories of civilization or economy. I find that people who were ever poor rarely use terms like proletariat, referentially. They say poor. They say working. The word “masses” has always chimed in me a kind of Pavlovian revulsion and distrust for the speaker, though I admit this isn’t always fair. I never felt Philip Levine regarded people in any grouping as masses. It seemed he thought of them as folks. When I entered into my first year of college, I learned I was severely behind in my reading—though some of the AP classes I took at my public schools introduced me to some great writers and thinkers—and so I spent the next two years trying to out-read everyone in my class. Part of that experience was discovering What Work Is in a book shop near campus, and later They Feed They Lion, my favorite for a long time, which I would tell Mr. Levine personally on a cold winter’s night in Iowa City, away from the other party goers, the two of us overlooking a cemetery and speaking of animals in poems and old loves and fly wheels and California. He talked briefly about a job he had but I can’t for the life of me remember what that job was. I was twenty-four and he was a big deal. But he was easy to talk with and relate to, in the way I still find his characters easy to relate to, easy to fall in love with, these voices of factory and plant workers. Levine was good at getting those small-light moments right, the minor miracles of everyday life, or relating that on-your-feet tiredness I knew so well. The last time I saw him was in 2011 at an awards ceremony for a friend here in New York. He was just as lively, quick to grin. He was my Lowell, in terms of poetic music I tried incorporating into my early poems. The conversational tone, the simple quip, the depth of voice, those instantly galvanized images that remained with you late into the night, up through breakfast, and into the working day. I’m still very much enamored with his long skinny saturated lines punctuated, almost habitually, it seemed, by a certain restlessness of spirit and need to get it right, whatever it was, holding as truth a philosophy of shareable experience. And I very much still believe in that, in the shareable experience, where writing can reach across thousands of miles and into the hands of a young person who suddenly finds herself inside another person whose consciousness she never fully considered.
after Phil Levine
We have the train coming through town,
the 5:38 a.m., but it’s three minutes late,
my husband’s breath heavy
and warm. Last week, I watched him skip
rocks on a northern inlet, but we’ve come south.
This morning, he sleeps in his childhood bed.
The sky and ceilings are low.
In 1951, my grandparents moved north
because the mills down south were going to kill them.
They died anyway, my grandmother only 30.
My daughters don’t know this story.
December now, my mother’s voice breaks.
The earth between us is flat and stained.
Days ago, I sat in a bar and listened to a man
tell me stories about a circus that burned
to the ground. I leaned into his shadow.
Most of what I write is true. My grandmother,
Maxine Newton, ran slubbers in the mill.
She wore a leopard coat. Her hands often bled.
The man in the car was not her husband.
She ate mussels. The train had no time to stop.
There had been booze. From the kitchen window,
I try to make out Andromeda while,
upstairs, my daughters dream of burning tents.
In the still darkness, I grow old, soft, irreverent.
To say “I barely knew you” would be an overstatement, but like many poets across generations your work not only meant so much to me, but also made me feel like a member of an extended family. In New York, we met twice: once at a book signing, and once after a reading where we took a picture together. My arm is around you, a copy of the Selected Levis is in my hand and resting on your shoulder, fanned out like a small wing.
Months later, fresh out of my MFA I wrote you, as so many have, asking for advice. Two weeks later I received a letter in return. It was typed but your name is handwritten at the bottom in a scrawl that makes each letter look like a lightning bolt. Your letter, so inimitable in style, made me feel like an old friend. As for advice, when you wrote “I’m old enough to be wise, but I’m not wise.” I laughed, I felt like I could be a real poet.
Later that year, I got up the nerve to send you a few of my poems. I wrote: “If there is any poet who I would want to scrutinize my own work, it would be you.” It was a Monday, by the end of the week you were gone.
Now I’m left with your poems, and letter. It seems too little after the loss of such an essential poet. I have no way to sum you up in a few words, but in the conclusion of your letter I find a kindness and generosity, a hopefulness that you shared with so many. Like your poems, those words were meant for me, and for everyone: “I hope this is some help. And I wish you good fortune. Be well.”
In thankfulness and admiration,
Remembering Phil Levine
It was at the Breadloaf Writers Conference back in the late 1980s that I first met Phil Levine. The summer before, Bob Pack had asked me for the names of some poets whom he might invite to the conference, and I mentioned how great it would be to invite Phil.
I was deeply drawn to Phil’s poetry for a number of reasons—his working-class background growing up in Detroit, much like my own growing up in Mineola, Long Island, the way he wrote about people in factories or in diners or at bus stops which most poets overlooked or disregarded, though certainly Walt Whitman had sung of them, as had Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson and Muriel Rukeyser and Theodore Roethke. Anyway, that was a big part of the draw.
And then there was the fact that I was writing a biography of John Berryman, and Phil had not only studied with him at Iowa, but had been as drawn to him as I was, and as he would make clear in a piece he wrote called “Myne Own John Berryman.”
So there we were, on the mountain up in Ripton, Vermont—a mile from the cabin where Robert Frost had written so many of his poems and who had come to know Berryman there thirty years earlier when Berryman was deep into his Dream Songs. And there was Phil and his wonderful wife, Franny, and Garrett Hongo and Eddie Hirsch, and Eddie took me aside one afternoon and told me that Phil liked me, which was a relief, because if he didn’t you knew it pretty quickly.
There’s a photo someone took of us which I cherish. I have my arm around Phil—I just felt that close to him—and we’re both grinning. And the sun is shining on us and in that snapshot we have all the time in the world.
I love his poems, whatever they sing about—whether that’s Fresno, where he taught two generations of poets, or Detroit, where he grew up in the 1930s and ’40s and early ’50s and worked at a number of thankless jobs, about which he has written with such angry, raw beauty. Or whether it’s Manhattan or Brooklyn—when he taught at NYU and to which he returned to his apartment on Willow Street with the lovely Franny, with his three sons and their families nearby. Or whether he was singing of Spain—the Spain of the 1930s with its terrible civil war, or when he returned to live there in the turbulent 1960s.
There’s a mystical quality to Phil’s poems, the way he refuses the consolations of the world, even as he yearns for those same consolations. The way he smashes the smug face of racism and anti-Semitism and intolerance. The biting wit. The rage of “They Feed They Lion.” Black graffiti on some factory wall.
The humor—the way he could make me laugh so hard I had to beg him to stop so that I could get my breath back, and then he’d be at it again. The way he saw through the scrim of things and got at the heart of the matter with his no-nonsense bullshit detectors. The mercy of it, the way he deeply felt another’s pain. The way he’d catch you and simply say, “Paul, do you really believe that?”
Then there are his wonderful letters, especially from the 1980s and ’90s and early 2000s, when folks still wrote letters and before emails took their place. And the times we poets gathered to celebrate his having arrived at a particular birthday, his year as Poet Laureate of America, his deep knowledge of Spanish poetry, of the blues and jazz, his deep understanding of the black experience in America, the sacrifices of those who fought against Franco, and most of all just his presence, which was such a gift for me.
I suggested on several occasions that I’d love to write a biography of him, but he was having none of that. You want to be my friend, right, he said, the intimation being that if I wrote his life, something more intimate would go out of the relationship. It was something which—if I didn’t understand—I was at least willing to honor.
The last time I saw Phil and Franny was at their Willow Street apartment in Brooklyn. It was shortly before Halloween. He seemed fit as ever and he loved to walk. So we walked the streets of Brooklyn Heights as evening came on and I asked some stranger (a young Englishman with his girl) to take a picture of Phil and me, with the East River and lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge for background, then it was back to the apartment for a shot of the best Polish vodka I’ve ever tasted.
And then we walked over to a Polish restaurant a few blocks over which he and Franny loved to frequent. It was a good meal, and great service by a young Polish woman, and, when it came time for the check I said, “We’ll get the check now,” speaking with that papal we, and he shot back, with that sly grin of his: “No, you’ll get the check.” Which was fine with me, of course, but I couldn’t help laughing with the comic Jewish brusqueness of it, and then, under a night sky glowing with electric lights, he and Franny walked me to the train station under the old St. George hotel, where I hugged them both and then turned as they disappeared and descended into the subway (the same one Hart Crane used to take into Manhattan and the one I showed James Franco when we made that film of Hart Crane), and then Phil was gone.
When I wrote Eddie Hirsch with my sad condolences about our mutual loss, he wrote back to say that he missed Phil and all he wanted now was his friend back. I want him back too and still can’t believe he’s really gone. But we’ll just have to get used to the fact that he belongs to the ancients now, his pure poetry whispering its way through the streets of Detroit and the hills outside Fresno.
Originally published in Image, 2015.
Philip Levine and the Hands of Time
Among those poets who have been Philip Levine’s students at some point in their life—and I am assuming that includes almost all of the poets in this collection—there is a clear consensus that there simply was not and is not any more passionate, wise, hilarious, useful, fearsome, brilliant, loyal, or inspiring teacher of poetry, as literature and craft, than Philip Levine.
As I’ve told many times, I was eighteen years old and a freshman at Fresno State College when Larry Levis introduced me to Philip Levine. Over the semester break between fall and spring, Larry—who’d seen a few of my early inept poems—came up to me at a rock concert we both happened to be at and told me that Phil was teaching a beginning poetry writing class that next semester. It was something he didn’t always do, and Larry said that I had to take Levine’s class. Larry was rarely insistent about anything, so I immediately said, Of course. Larry later made sure that I met Phil, and with both Larry and Phil as my models, my life in poetry had begun.
It would be impossible to overstate Levine’s charisma at that moment in the spring of 1968. Phil looked like a cross between Woody Guthrie and Paul Newman in Hud—lean, muscular, intense. For someone of such an urban background, Levine seemed incredibly connected to the earth, the land. Phil had—and still has—an extraordinary sense of humor, and I’ve always loved watching some recognition of an absurdity crackle in his eyes just before the delivery of the exact, withering comment it would deserve. He was capable of being fall-down-funny and vulgar as well as capable of talking with exquisite complexity about Donne (or Herrick or Larkin or Dickinson) in a way that was at once practical and devotional.
Phil taught from an anthology that was historical, called Poetry In English, and his class was my real education in the tradition of poetry. We might be talking about one of the student poems in our beginning workshop, and Phil would find a phrase he admired (or pretended to admire) and he would say to us, “This reminds me of that moment in Emily Dickinson when …” or, “You know, in Whitman, when he …” and then he would read us these great passages as instruction and example.
This did something else as well. His method connected us (and our own pitiful poems) to the larger tradition of poetry. It made us believe that what we were writing was actually in conversation with the poems and poets who had come before us. It allowed us to understand that poems don’t come out of a vacuum and to recognize the necessity of knowing the poetry of one’s own language and poetic tradition. I think this may be one of the most important things I have ever learned.
Yet Levine’s knowledge of poetry in translation, especially poetry from Spanish and Polish, also completely transformed my understanding of what poetry could do and be. In my later years as Phil’s student at Fresno State, I began to understand that poetry existed not only in the context and conversation of the poetry of—and in—my own language, but in the context and traditions of poems from all around the world. This too felt like a stunning thing to discover, and the world of poetry opened up for me again.
Just a few years ago, for a profile she was writing on me for Ploughshares, the poet Susan Terris asked me to talk about first meeting Phil during those early years in Fresno. This is what I said:
Levine was the most charismatic adult I’d ever met—brilliant, wittier than anyone on the planet except Oscar Wilde, and just as vicious when he wanted to be, and a poet who was about to explode onto the landscape of American poetry. He introduced me to a Who’s Who of American poetry: Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, Donald Justice—all poets who would become friends in later years, and Justice, of course, was my teacher at Iowa. Fresno was a quiet town then, and poets came to read and see Levine, so it was great fun. It was also the sixties, and nuts in its own special way, of course.
One of the things all of Phil’s students treasured were the extraordinarily detailed comments he would write on our poems. Always written in fountain pen, his precise line edits and more general comments in the margins served to focus our poems and to allow us to see our poems—and their possible revisions—in a completely new light. I have saved every one of those drafts with Phil’s comments on them from the very first, knowing their importance to me. Even when he was living abroad, in Spain (during the time when I was an undergraduate), and trying to escape his students, he would read and make line edits on the poems that I sent him with a care that was remarkable. He did this, of course, at the expense to his own time and writing, something that took me far too long to recognize and understand. Of course, Phil’s own poems are models of poetic instruction in both their vision and their craft.
Perhaps now is the place to say that Phil was also a model to us all, a living model, of how to be a writer in the world—an example of how to be an engaged and consistently humane presence in a culture that undervalued both poetry and, it has often seemed, its own citizens as well. His presence was fiercely political in the most human way; that is, he reminded us that poetry creates empathy for those marginalized by their societies, and that to live responsibly and to write with conscience were crucial elements of being a poet. Phil taught us that skepticism and a sense of humor were essential to any life, but especially to a poet’s life.
He also taught us that poetry is often about time—about how the use of memory in poetry helps us to recuperate the past, those events and individuals we have lost to time. Poetry is able to help us to recover and bring back into the present of the poem what otherwise might seem gone from a life forever. For Levine, the acts of memory and reflection were, in his poetry, constant threads in an ongoing poetic reckoning with his own experiences and the details of his own past, including his sketches of those men and women who helped to make up that past, and who were themselves now gone. But one of Levine’s lessons about time was, for me, of a more profoundly immediate nature. There was nothing abstract about this lesson whatsoever and it came from fiction, not from poetry at all.
One spring, I was taking a class from Phil on contemporary fiction that was being held in one of the auxiliary classroom buildings—like a series of trailers really—called San Ramon. They were adequate classrooms, if not terrifically substantial, and they were no worse than any other classroom. They were both new and temporary. We sat in the usual half-desks that torture students everywhere, and Phil sat at a small table at the front of the room, facing the students. Above him on the front wall was the typical round black-rimmed/white-faced industrial clock typical of most classrooms.
Our class was held just after lunch, and on this particular day I remember that I was late and so was hurrying across campus. I tried to come in quietly so as not to disturb the discussion, then I noticed that Phil himself hadn’t yet arrived, which was unusual. I slid into a desk and waited along with the rest of the class.
That day we were discussing one of Phil’s favorite recent books, one I had already read at his suggestion, Frank Conroy’s remarkable memoir Stop-Time. We were all looking forward to the discussion, having discovered during the semester that Levine was as brilliant talking about fiction as he was discussing poetry. Another few minutes passed after I sat down and Phil came in. He walked to the front of the room, and then sat at the small table. He looked at us in way that seemed both bemused and puzzled, as if he were thinking, Where did they all come from?
We all had our copies of the book on our desks in front us, alongside our notebooks, ready to be responsible students of creative writing. Then Phil began to lecture. He hadn’t taken out his own copy of Stop-Time and put it on the table in front of him, as he usually might. In fact, he clearly hadn’t brought his own copy of the book with him at all. Still, he began to lecture about time, about the nature of time and memory, about how Conroy played with these elements throughout the course of his memoir, and how he so brilliantly manipulated us, his readers, in those manipulations of narrative time.
While speaking, Phil had gotten up from the table and had begun to walk back and forth behind the table as he talked; then he’d walk over to one of those gray metal media carts (they seemed to be in every classroom awaiting some mysterious use) that stood at the front and side of the room. He’d put his hand on the cart somewhat thoughtfully as he lectured, then he would walk back behind the table, still talking about time. Phil had now begun to talk about what time does to us, how time wants often to destroy us and take us with it. Basically, he said, time (Time) has only one message for us: It continues and we do not.
I had come to know Phil well enough during these years to realize that he was, well, not drunk exactly, but eloquently soused. He’d clearly had a great wine with his lunch. He was so calm and composed, however, that I don’t think anyone else in the room had a clue about this. That is, until he pulled the chair away from the small table and moved it directly beneath the clock on the wall above him, the clock students stared at day in and day out in their academic imprisonment in that San Ramon classroom.
Phil stepped up on the chair, reached above him and took the huge round clock in both of his hands. He gripped it so that his fingers slid slightly behind the black rim of the clock, then in one incredibly authoritative gesture, he pulled that clock right out of the wall and ripped it off of its wires. He stepped down off the chair and walked over to the gray steel media cart and deposited the clock on its top shelf, where the stopped clock stared up like an open eye at the classroom ceiling.
He never stopped speaking once. He continued to lecture fluidly and fluently throughout this whole spectacular event—he was lecturing about time, even as he defiantly stopped time in our ridiculous and completely artificial classroom. What I remember vividly was looking up to see that the hole in the wall in front of me—the place where the clock had been—was not, as I had expected it to be, round like the clock itself but, instead, square as to match and hold the square metal box of clock works on the back of the clock. I have always considered this to be the day’s second revelation.
For the entire remainder of that semester the torn naked red and black wires that had once been attached to the clock dangled down from the empty square in the wall up above Phil’s table. The clock itself also sat for the remainder of that semester on the top of the steel gray media cart. No one came to repair the clock. No one came to start time again in Phil’s classroom. Either no one cared, or no one dared. After all, if the man who taught in that classroom could stop time, then who knew what else he might be able to do.
—David St. John
Originally published in Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, edited by Mari L’Esperance and Tomás Q. Morin, Prairie Lights Books, 2013.
Leaving Another Kingdom
for Phil Levine
I think this year I’ll wait for the white lilacs
before I get too sad.
I’ll let the daffodils go, flower by flower,
and the blue squill, and the primroses.
Levine will be here by then,
waving fountain pens, carrying rolled-up posters
of Ike Williams and King Levinsky.
He will be reaching into his breast pocket
for maps of grim Toledo
showing the downtown grilles and the bus stations.
He and I together
will get on our hands and knees
on the warm ground
in the muddy roses
under the thorn tree.
We will walk the mile to my graveyard
without one word of regret,
two rich poets
going over the past a little,
changing a thing or two,
making a few connections,
doing it all with balance,
stopping along the way to pet a wolf,
slowing down at the locks,
giving each other lectures on early technology,
mentioning eels and snakes,
touching a little on our two cities,
cursing our Henrys a little,
his Ford, my Frick,
being almost human about it, almost decent,
sliding over the stones to reach the island,
throwing spears on the way,
staring for twenty minutes at two robins
starting a life together in rural Pennsylvania,
kicking a heavy tire, square and monstrous,
huge and soggy, maybe a ’49 Hudson,
maybe a ’40 Packard, maybe a Buick
with mohair seats and silken cords
and tiny panes of glass—both of us seeing
the same car, each of us on
his own dirt road, both of us whistling
the same idiotic songs, the tops of trees flying,
houses sailing along, the way they did then,
both of us walking down to the end of the island
so we could put our feet in the water, so I could
show him where the current starts, so we could
look for bottles and worn-out rubbers, Trojans
full of holes, the guarantee run out—
love gone slack and love gone flat—
a few feet away from New Jersey near the stones
that look like large white turtles guarding the entrance
to the dangerous channel where those lovers—Tristan
and his Isolt, Troilus and you know who,
came roaring by on inner tubes, their faces
wet with happiness, the shrieks and sighs
left up the river somewhere, now their fingers
trailing through the wake, now their arms out
to keep themselves from falling, now in the slow part
past the turtles and into the bend, we sitting there
putting on our shoes, he with Nikes,
me with Georgia loggers, standing up
and smelling the river, walking single file
until we reach the pebbles, singing in French
all the way back, losing the robins forever,
losing the Buick, walking into the water,
leaving another island, leaving another
retreat, leaving another kingdom.
From Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992, Norton, 2010.