About Philip Levine

by Kate Daniels

Although Philip Levine turns eighty this year, he continues to be one of our most energetic and prolific American poets. A working poet for more than a half century, he is still writing and publishing new poems, mentoring younger poets, taking on editorial projects like this issue of Ploughshares, giving readings all over the country, and teaching one semester a year as Distinguished Poet in Residence in the graduate writing program at NYU. He and his wife, Fran (they have been married almost a half century), have adopted an active, bicoastal lifestyle, spending summer and fall in Brooklyn, and winter and spring at their longtime home in Fresno, California. Now the author of more than twenty volumes of poetry, prose, and translations, Levine has garnered almost every award that our culture has invented for poets: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, et al. The roll call of writers he has taught or mentored is a lengthy one, and he tends to remain connected to those whose early works he nurtured and whose dreams he encouraged. In addition to the family of three sons he and Fran raised in their "small California farmhouse on an enormous lot dotted with orange trees and with room for a large garden," Phil Levine has fathered a large family of younger poets spread throughout the U.S.

In many ways, it would be accurate to call him the great workhorse of contemporary American poetry—a felicitous description for someone born and bred in the fabled Motor City of Detroit, who is regularly designated America's "poet of the working class" and our only "proletarian poet." He first went to work at age thirteen, and, until he enrolled in the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop in 1954, he labored at a series of Detroit's factories, grease shops, and parts manufacturers while completing high school, and, eventually, college. It may be that this early, fundamental understanding of himself as a worker among workers is to account for his extraordinary work habits as a poet. Those habits transformed themselves into an unalterable discipline after Levine left Detroit for Iowa City. There he studied with John Berryman and Robert Lowell, part of a soon-to-be-famous class of young poets, including Jane Cooper, Donald Justice, and W. D. Snodgrass. After Iowa, he went to Stanford, submitting himself and his work to the bizarre and grueling tutelage of Yvor Winters (one of the many periods of his life about which he has written hilariously). By the end of his formal training, Levine had acquired the dedicated, thorough, and methodical approach to writing that he continues to practice today. "Whatever the drive is, we follow it," he says. "I've never known where I'm going until I've gone and come back, and then it takes me ages to see what the trip was about." His many decades of dedication to hard work and good writing habits stand him in even better stead now, during what he calls his "dotage." Though he's not expecting in late life to "stumble onto one of those great projects" like The Cantos or The Dream Songs, Levine keeps up his routines. His ongoing regimen of practice and repetition—the mantra so dear to the heart of athletic coaches—continues to yield well-built, memorable poems that he shares with readers through print, live, and electronic venues. His attitude toward his work as a poet is practical: "Work might keep me from turning into an ash tree or a cabbage or a horse's ass," he says.

Philip Levine was born in 1928 in Detroit, Michigan. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. Both traveled to this country alone, as children. He was a child of the Depression, whose family situation was further impoverished by the death of his father in 1933 when the poet was only five years old. What might have been a harrowingly deprived childhood was cushioned by the ongoing presence of an extended family—grandparents, aunts, uncles—who stepped in to fill the gaps when Levine's mother went to work full-time to support her three young sons. Adding to the tonic effect of being surrounded by "a strong family," were the robust and feisty working-class neighborhoods of mid-century Detroit which imprinted Levine's imagination from an early age. On his daily jaunts about the city, he encountered any number of unforgettable "characters," like Cipriano, the immigrant pants-presser, at work "in the back of Peerless Cleaners, / ... raised on a little wooden platform," and Stash, the drunk floor worker at Detroit Transmission who "fell / onto the concrete, oily floor / ... / and we stopped carefully over him until / he wakened and went back to his press." So many of these humble, hardworking people and their "small" lives—forgotten and unrecorded by history and literature—would eventually show up in Levine's poetry.

What he failed to learn in the classroom or at home, Levine picked up on the streets, and a cocky, defiant, near-brawling (though never violent) street style became characteristic of his poetry. "No. Not this pig," he asserted early on, and often. He accepted his anger at the injustice of the world, and refused to quietly accept that things were the way they were: not only profoundly political, but wickedly anti-Semitic, as well. Detroit of that era, Levine says, was "the most anti-Semitic city west of Munich." At an early age, he realized, "Something was very wrong with the world, and I was powerless to do anything about it." Those early years were made even more indelible by several "epic events" that impressed themselves on him as a young child: the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the growing influence of Hitler in Europe, and the material suffering and spiritual sickness of schoolmates and neighbors that came with the economic downturn of the 1930s. This confluence of events—bad and good, historical and personal—came together to create one of the most unique literary imaginations of the twentieth century.

Levine is, frankly, one of our most popular and well-regarded American poets. Decades ago, he liberated new territory in American poetry by focusing on work and workers. While this had been a significant part of Whitman's project in Leaves of Grass, Levine, writing a century later, had the advantage of the new Modernist era. His entire body of work is drenched (though invisibly) in the understandings imparted to the twentieth century by Marx, Darwin, and Freud. While Whitman gave us our first American portraits of ourselves as workers, carving the young nation out of the wilderness, creating a new culture from whole cloth, learning how to live together in our diversity, his essentially Romantic ideology required a radical revision by the time fourteen-year-old Phil Levine "discovered poetry" after an iconic summer, laboring miserably in a soap factory. Whitman's bountiful vision could not account for the complete breakdown of capitalism enacted by the Great Depression, and it had no coherent explanation for worker-on-worker labor strife, or the great wave of racism and anti-Semitism that swept through the west as material fortunes floundered. What Levine contributed to our literature was a continuation of Whitman's subject, but infused with a more realistic understanding of the hidden aspects of working life, the power of the unconscious, and the enormity of the historical, social, and economic forces stacking the deck against ordinary citizens. His personal experience of the dehumanization of the manual laborer in the era of mass production was probably what gave him that extra nudge up Mt. Parnassus. For Whitman the machinery of industrialization was almost completely marvelous in the way that it assisted Americans in wresting from the continent a new, democratic society, taming its wilderness, and extracting its rich resources. By the time Levine came along, however, industrialization's contributions to our prosperity had become more ambiguous. Levine wrote bleak, but beautiful, portraits of people who literally broke down on the jobs American demanded of them, leaving their minds, limbs, digits behind; who "dried and hardened," losing their identities, after being fired for injury or made obsolete through ever-more efficient machinery. For all the excitement of mid-century Detroit—"the epic clanging of steel on steel," the awesome, gargantuan scale of production—at the end of the day, there was no end of the day. The factories kept churning it out—whatever "it" was—24/7. And human workers kept filing in at start of shift, and reeling out, diminished, somewhat less human, eight hours later. The young Phil Levine was there beside them, not just recording it all, but suffering through it with them, as well. This early body knowledge has never left him.

Welding meticulous craft together with colloquial voice and ungenteel subject matter resulted in a new poem about work and workers that no one else has yet replicated. Even while Levine's poems remained connected to an aerie past of English-language poetry through their insistence on formal excellence, they broke every other rule in the book. Although he wrote his first poems in traditional metrics, and later in elegant syllabics, his most identifiable persona, from the beginning, was unwashed and raw: a voice infused with defiance, anger, and protest. Publishing his first poems during the height of the reign of the New Criticism, Levine matter of factly and unapologetically refused to accede to the insistence that the only "world" that mattered was the world of and in the poem: "No. Not this pig."

Conscientiously anti-fascist from a young age, he progressed to an identification with anarchism that remained an important part of his personal identity until middle age. Levine still carries about him the innocent spirit of an early anarchist whose politics and hopes are futile, but whose intentions are pure. His insights and identifications—sometimes outrageously leftist, usually outrageously comical—almost always appear wholly formed and pure of heart, and his frequent indictments of everything from politicians and governments to the choices made by other poets seem free of personal rancor. Whatever he may be wracked with, it is not guilt: he calls it as he sees it with no overtones of apology or insecurity. This has been a strength of his teaching, as well as a hardship for some of those who made their way to his classroom. A significant part of Levine's reputation resides in his teaching. He taught creative writing and literature at Fresno State University for almost thirty years, and has served as visiting writer at dozens of other schools. Even now, when he might be taking it deservedly easy, he serves on the graduate creative writing faculty of NYU. Perhaps it is his inner anarchist that will not allow him to give a poor poem a break. There are legions of stories (surely not all apocryphal) that demonstrate his challenging pedagogy. At Columbia University's School of the Arts in the late 1970s, he was rumored to have reduced every member of his graduate workshop to public tears, the men breaking first. It's a tactic he may have learned from his beloved mentor, John Berryman, who encouraged him by his own example in the classroom:

 

His voice is there ... when I teach, urging me to say the truth no matter how painful a situation I may create, to say it with precision and in good spirits, never in rancor, and always to remember Blake's words (a couplet John loved to quote): 'A truth that's told with bad intent / Beats all the Lies you can invent.'

 

Like many who have suffered early, traumatic loss, Levine's tough love approach to teaching is tempered with tenderness. For every poet who has been discouraged or wounded by his forthright assessment of their fledgling efforts, there are many more who have flourished under his editorial gaze, and reared back at him, demanding more. Those precocious young poets—Larry Levis comes immediately to mind—have recognized Levine's challenges as a kind of confidence in their undiscovered abilities, and a invitation to join him in the shared enterprise of a life of poetry.

The rapidly expanding field of trauma studies has yet to discover Levine's poetry. Although he has written less about the early death of his father than about other subjects, his work remains marked by the impact of this early assault. It is a juicy irony, waiting to be remarked upon, that the honorary poet laureate of Detroit and Fresno, lavishly praised for the indelible portraits of both places that he has created in his poems, is not most accurately described as a poet of place. Rather, the primary energies of his poems reside in the psychological worlds of people being acted upon by forces greater themselves. Frequently, they succumb; other times, they pitch themselves into a battle they have no chance of winning. "I'm afraid we live at the mercy of a power," Levine has said, "maybe a God, without mercy." Such an outlook makes sense for him. The god of trauma is a merciless god, responsible for disappearing the young fathers of five year old poets and allowing the Holocaust. Although place and setting help to define and memorialize the characters in his poems, and their narrative situations, ultimately Levine is and always has been concerned with something less concrete:

 

When I closed my eyes and looked back into the past, I did not see the blazing color of the forges of nightmare or the torn faces of the workers. I didn't hear the deafening ring of metal on metal, or catch under everything the sweet stink of decay... Instead I was myself in the company of men and women of enormous sensitivity, delicacy, consideration. I saw us touching each other emotionally and physically, hands upon shoulders, across backs, faces pressed to faces. We spoke to each other out of the deepest centers of our need, and we listened. In those terrible places designed to rob us of our bodies and our spirits, we sustained each other.

 

That Levine has retained both his body and his spirit for almost eighty years is a cause for celebration. We have no right to expect someone who has contributed so much and for so long to our literature and our community of writers to continue laboring at his age. But he does continue. He is still at work. The job is not yet over.

Kate Daniels teaches at Vanderbilt University and is completing her fourth collection of poems, My Poverty.


 

Copyright © Kate Daniels


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