Philip Levine Reads "The Mercy"

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Q&A: Philip Levine’s American Lyric

Michael Bourne

I like being the poet laureate of the United States,” says Philip Levine, who assumed the honorary post last October and will serve through next fall. “My wife has told me, ‘Shut up. Don’t tell people you’re the poet laureate. You’ve said it enough.’” He laughs. “Okay, I realize that. But I like it.” Levine, now eighty-four, has certainly earned the honor. Best known for his sharply observed poems about working-class life in Detroit, where he grew up, Levine has published twenty-four books within the past fifty years. Along the way he has won nearly every award available to an American poet, including the Pulitzer Prize, for The Simple Truth (Knopf, 1994), and the National Book Award, for What Work Is (Knopf, 1991). The poet, who divides his time between California and New York City, spoke about his plans for the laureateship and the range of influences on his work through the years.

Why do you think they selected you as poet laureate?
[Librarian of Congress] James Billington wrote that he was taken with the fact that my poems are populated by people, and not spectacular, heroic famous people, but in some cases spectacular, heroic unknown people.

What would you like to accomplish?
I’m thinking of assembling an anthology of lost poems, poems that I really liked—loved—that were inspirational to me when I was starting out, all the way back in the forties, that have fallen out of anthologies. They probably exist largely now in the minds of those who liked them, and since I’m talking about the forties and fifties, many of those people aren’t around any more.

How did you start writing poems?
It started when I was fourteen. I didn’t write them down. I composed them in my head. Then in my senior year of high school, I found remnants of modern poetry, first in Wilfred Owen, which was enormously moving to me because the war was on, and I thought, “I’m going to wind up in this thing.” I found the poetry intoxicating almost. I mean, here were all my fears and doubts connected with war being objectified in amazing poetry, and I thought, “My God, if I could write stuff like that.” So then, starting at about age eighteen, I got more serious about it. And bolder. Now I would write it down.

Were there other kids around you at the time who were writing poetry?
None that I knew.

So it was an entirely solitary pursuit?
Until my second year in college [at Wayne University]. I showed a poem to a teacher and the teacher asked me if I belonged to the Miles Poetry Room. He explained to me that there was a group of students and others who met once a month in a particular room named after a man who had taught at Wayne and then gone into the service—he was an officer in the Navy, and he was killed. He had a vast poetry collection—he was a friend of Berryman’s, actually—and he willed it to the school, so they decided to open this room. Just finding the room and this collection of con-temporary poetry was really quite astonishing. I met at least a dozen men and women of varying talent, some writing better than I. There was no course at the school in poetry writing, but there was a poet teaching, and sure enough he started coming to the Miles Poetry Room. I showed stuff to him and he was helpful.

You’ve written about being full of rage at that time in your life. Was that a help or a hindrance to you as a poet?
It was a huge hindrance because it meant I couldn’t write anything worth a damn about work life. I couldn’t get that disinterestedness that’s often required. I couldn’t get Wordsworth’s tranquillity. It took me until I was about thirty-five before I really wrote a poem that was about work. There is one poem called “An Abandoned Factory” in my first book. I looked at it the other day because someone wanted to reprint it, and I asked them not to. I thought it was hokey. It was skill-ful—it was rhymed and metered—but it has no one in it, and that’s the big difference between it and the other poems that I think work. The other poems about work are populated with people working.

How did you channel your rage to allow you to write poems that had people in them?
It happened because of a dream. I was living in Fresno. I had a dream that I got a telephone call, and, as things happen in dreams that are crazy, I could see the caller. He’s in a phone booth. He’s a guy I’d worked with named Eugene Watkins, a black guy I’d worked with in Detroit. Eugene tells me he’s in Bakersfield. He’s come to California on a vacation or something. “Where should I go?” he says to me. The answer he wants is, “Drive north for two hours, come to Fresno, we’ll have la-da-dee, you know.” I don’t give him that answer. I tell him how to get to L.A. and what he might do in L.A. to see the sights. I woke up and was furious with myself. How could I possibly not invite Eugene to my house? This was terrible. I was turning my back on my whole growing up. I was so angry with myself. I keep musing about, “Oh, what a schmuck you are. You’ve become an assistant professor at a second-rate school and you think you’re hot shit and you’re not going to invite a black, working man to your house, a guy who came to your apartment in Detroit, who shared your weekends with you. What kind of crap is this?” And then I realized, “Hey, I didn’t do anything. That was just a dream.” When I realized this, I said, “That dream is a warning. Go back and deal with those years and those people who were so dear to you, who were your friends.”

How did a poem like “What Work Is” come out of that inchoate rage?
By the time I wrote that poem, the rage had died. But something happened that reinvoked it. I was watching television one night and they ran a story about a father and son in Detroit who were dining in a restaurant and there was what they thought was a Japanese man eating there alone—the guy was actually Chinese—and they waited until he left the restaurant and they beat him with a baseball bat and killed him. I couldn’t believe it. The next day when I got up, I started writing the poem, and on the original draft I wrote: “Detroit is shit.” And I felt that way. But once I got into the poem, it became a different poem. It became itself, you could say.

Now you’re eighty-four. How has your poetry changed as you’ve aged?
I’ve learned to be more savvy about the energy I do have. I don’t start as many bad poems as I did when I was, say, fifty, and I certainly don’t stick with them. I can smell their failure pretty quickly now, and say, “Uh-uh, move on.” I think I have largely avoided imitating myself. If you read my books, there’s a consistent voice, but the techniques and the subjects and attitudes do change. If you look at a book like They Feed They Lion, there you see the rage. If you look at The Names of the Lost, you see something else. You see me becoming a guy with more of a vision of what might be a great life. And humor enters. Up until the book 1933, there’s almost no humor in my work. And then it starts.

What do you think brought that in?
A guy I grew up with who’s a poet, a man named Paul Petri, wrote me a letter once. He said, “You have a terrific sense of humor. Why isn’t it in your poetry?” Thom Gunn had also said that to me. “Why don’t you let it get into your poetry? It’ll enrich it.” And I said, “Yeah, why the hell not?” Also, I remembered how Auden could inject humor into really serious poems, and disarm you, and then you’d drop your defenses, and suddenly the poem would get even more serious, and really hit you with power. Berryman was another guy who could do that. I thought, “Yeah, let me get more cunning.”

What do you say to a kid now working in a factory job similar to the ones you had who wants to be a poet? Do you think your work and the work of other contemporary poets is relevant to that kid?
Sure. All good poetry is relevant to him. This kid—he or she, or they, the two of them—have to recognize that they don’t know what they’re going to write, because they’re just starting. So they don’t know what it is their poetry will be. They scarcely know their own feelings. It takes a long time to find out what your poetry is going to be. When I taught, I would tell my students, “Don’t strain to get a voice right away because you don’t know what it is you’re story is going to be.” I would tell them to read the best poetry, write everything that occurs to you, see where it goes. The voice that will suit you will arrive without you really even knowing it. That’s what happened to me.

What would you say your story is, now that you’re not fourteen but eighty-four?
I can’t answer the question. I don’t think about it. What I think about is, “What the hell’s the next poem going to be?” That’s what I’m always looking for.

Does it ever get any easier?
Nothing gets easier, except forgetting. That’s the only thing that gets easier.


Michael Bourne is a poet and fiction writer living in New York City, where he teaches at Fordham University and works as a staff writer for the literary website the Millions.

An Interview With Poet Philip Levine

Sally Dawidoff

Throughout his long career, Philip Levine has established a reputation for poems honoring the working class, beginning with the people he encountered as a young man laboring in the factories of Detroit. Though he has taught in writing programs nationwide since the 1950s, his poetry has maintained a stronger identification with the autoworker than the academic. He has consistently addressed themes of alienation and oppression, yet his body of work shows a poetry changing with the man.

Levine has published seventeen collections of poems, most recently Breath (Knopf, 2004), as well as essays, interviews, and translations; a bilingual edition of Tarumba: The Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines (translated and edited with Ernesto Trejo) was released in paperback by Sarabande Books last year. He has earned numerous honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, and is currently the Distinguished Poet-in-Residence at NYU.

Last November, at a public celebration that filled Cooper Union’s 900-seat Great Hall, a dozen poets read poems and told stories commemorating Levine’s contribution to American letters. In January, Levine turned eighty.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked him how his writing is going these days.

Philip Levine: Well, it’s not going the way it used to. I lack the pure energy that I once had. On the other hand, I have great patience. I think my greatest weakness as a young writer was impatience. Now I’m very patient, which is ironic because I don’t have all the time in the world. Last summer I wrote quite a bit, and at the age of fifty I would’ve kept going and kept going, but I knew at one point I wasn’t getting anything worth getting. It was time to stop.

P&W: How do you see your poetry as having evolved over time?

PL: Well, you know, at that eightieth-birthday thing, Eddie Hirsch made an interesting remark. He was reading a poem, “To Cipriano, in the Wind.” Eddie started talking about Spanish anarchism and how much it had meant to me, and then he realized if he were complete he’d be there forever, so he just said, “It took him from rage to elegy to celebration.” It’s a kind of simplification, but it’s not inaccurate when I look back at the work. What I see more than anything is a technical shifting: I began as a free-verse poet and in my early twenties began writing formal poems. My first book, which I published when I was thirty-five, is largely formal. Why? Because the poets I was reading were formal poets. And if somebody had said to me, “Who's the greatest lyric poet in the English language?” when I was twenty-five, I would have said William Blake. The funny thing is I would say the same thing today. I think he’s just phenomenal. Phenomenal—technically breathtaking, his insights are awesome. He just keeps giving you things you can live by.

P&W: You once joked, “We all know what a Levine poem is: ‘I go to work in the factory, I go home…’”

PL: Well, I don’t think there’s such a poem in my last book. I don’t think there’s one. But I still think people who read a lot of poetry would recognize my poems.

P&W: They’d recognize the voice?

PL: Yeah, that’s right.

P&W: What else?

PL: The characters themselves: who they are, what class they come from. I mean, you’re never going to pick up a poem of mine (unless it’s a comic poem) about wine mavens, right? Or real estate agents, you know, or CEOs. They’re going to be autoworkers, or they’re going to be guys working on a construction site or women complaining about how the grease eats into their hands because of the jobs they do. So there’s this whole social class I think that you would recognize, of the characters who move through my poems. As far as landscape goes, there’s New York now, there’s Detroit, there’s California, there’s Spain—the places that I’ve lived. There’s even North Carolina; I lived there for a while. I guess my poems have particular rhythmic structures. There used to be the notion that I wrote in a slender line. And I even have a poem in which I have fun with that.

P&W: The poem about your cat Nellie, “A Theory of Prosody.”

PL: Yeah. “A Theory of Prosody” was about the cat line, that narrow line. And people would say, “Why do you write in that line?” And I would say, “Well, The New Yorker pays by the line!” But that had nothing to do with it. What it had to do with was my total entrancement with Yeats’s trimeter line and an effort to convert some of that energy that he could get in long passages into free verse. I wanted to write something that moved with the beauty and force of “Easter 1916”: I thought, “You can’t write a form more beautiful than this. This is so gorgeous.” And when you want it to be epigrammatic, you can hold the lines up and make the rhymes consistent, when you want it narrative you can let it overflow—it’s just such a supple, wonderful form. I had tried to do it in rhyme, in metrical poems, earlier, but now I was trying to do it in free verse. I just loved doing it, when I could do it right. You know, which certainly wasn’t always.

P&W: When you look at other poets’ bodies of work, do you admire steady, recognizable poets or somebody like Roethke, who you could say reinvented himself with each book?

PL: Oh, I’m much more taken with someone like Roethke, with the willingness to voyage out into a new voice, to voyage out into a new structure, to voyage out into even new material, to write those beautifully formed metrical poems and then go to the free-verse poems, the greenhouse poems, then go to those mad poems like “The Lost Son” and then go back to a Yeatsian structure, and then finally wind up with a kind of Whitmanian poem—this to me is breathtaking. The poet I see of late who’s doing something like this is Louise Glück. I’m full of admiration for her willingness to leave a style she’s mastered—a voice and style so many young poets admire and imitate—for this new thing, and I take my hat off to her. These new poems of hers are wonderful.

P&W: By the way, do you still feel that Whitman’s the greatest American poet?

PL: Oh, yeah. I don’t think anybody else comes close. He has a vision of not only what America might be but what a human being—a man or a woman—might be. And our relationship to the earth and our relationship to each other and our relationship to other creatures—I think it’s all there in Whitman. I mean, Emily Dickinson’s a fabulous poet, but you don’t find that kind of vision there. The vision that I do find I often don’t like. Sometimes she sounds so persecuted by her own notion of what God is. Whereas the creator in Whitman is this incredible force that gave us all the gift of our bodies and our spirits—yeah, I’ll take Whitman any day.

P&W: Whitman revised and republished Leaves of Grass for decades. Your friend and colleague Galway Kinnell has revised many previously collected poems for later collections. I wonder if you’ve ever had the impulse.

PL: Yes, but by and large I resisted. I did revise the poem “1933,” which appeared in the book 1933, when my Selected Poems came; I had never been satisfied with the poem, and I thought, I’ll rewrite it, and everyone will admire the new version. No one noticed! But that isn’t the reason that I don’t revise much after a poem appears in a collection. I think the reason came earlier: I knew a man who was writing accomplished but not very good poems when we were both about twenty-five or -six, and he published a book when he was in his early thirties, and then some years later he published the same book again, rewritten. He was now like forty-something. These are the same poems he was working on at twenty-five, and I thought, “There’s a lesson for you. Just keep fucking with the same poems and making them better or worse or who knows what.” He didn’t make them better. Meanwhile, of course, there was nothing new coming. Then finally I did see a new book by him, and it was so wretched I thought, “Well maybe he was right: go back and rewrite those old poems!”

P&W: What’s a Levine poem now?

PL: I have no idea. I certainly don’t have any idea what the next one will be. I’ve been writing a lot of prose poems. And I probably have a dozen I can live with. Many of them are comic; there are several that are serious. The first one I ever wrote was in Amsterdam. It was a long time ago, I would say thirty years ago. My wife had gone off with a friend, and my kids had gone off to get stoned, and I had time. There was a park named Vondelpark, named after a poet, and I went there. I’m a guy who writes a lot. I enjoy writing; I feel I should be writing, keep my hand in it. So I started writing something, and I wrote a little piece about a Dutch doctor that I knew and loved. And it was the first good prose poem I ever wrote. And then I wrote a couple more, and they weren’t any good (I published them, but they stunk). And then about six or seven years ago, I wrote a bunch, and I didn’t do anything with them. And then one day a friend asked me if I had any prose poems—he wanted to publish them—and I went back and looked at those poems, and I could see that each one had a kind of germ in it, and so I began rewriting them, and then I got the idea for more, still more… And they were great fun to write, but I’m going go back to verse now.

Philip Levine New Poet Laureate, Kathryn Stockett Sued, and More

Evan Smith Rakoff

Every day Poets & Writers Magazine scans the headlines—from publishing reports to academic announcements to literary dispatches—for all the news that creative writers need to know. Here are today's stories:

The Library of Congress has named Philip Levine U.S. poet laureate for 2011–2012. A student of the poet John Berryman at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, America's new laureate is best known for poems that plumb memories of growing up in working-class Detroit. Levine succeeds W. S. Merwin, and will begin his term in October. (New York Times)

A class action suit has been filed in California by Seattle-based law firm Hagens Berman against Apple and five publishers over the pricing of e-books. The suit claims the publishers “colluded to increase prices for popular e-book titles to boost profits and force e-book rival Amazon to abandon its pro-consumer discount pricing.” (eBookNewser)

In related e-book news, Amazon has launched the Kindle Cloud Reader, an app designed for Apple's iPad that uses the Safari web browser to skirt Apple's proprietary app store rules.

Following a trend of newspapers retooling their books coverage, the Washington Post announced it's eliminating its books editor position and other staff will report to the new sections in which their reviews will run: the Outlook section, which will cover nonfiction, and the Style section, which "hosts most fiction coverage and reviews" (Poynter). For other happenings in the world of book reviews, the Observer breaks down the shakeups and new births.

The film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel, The Help is in theaters today. The story centers on relationships between white families and their African-American housekeepers in 1960s Mississippi. Her brother’s maid, Ablene Cooper, who claims the character Aibileen is based on her, has filed a lawsuit against Stockett. (Washington Post)

Meanwhile Stockett revealed in an interview on KCRW's The Business that she sold screen rights for The Help to her childhood friend, Tate Taylor, who wrote, directed, and produced the film, despite the objections of her husband, agents, and advisers.

Famed literary critic Helen Vendler provides an account of her favorite poetry teacher at Harvard, I. A. Richards. (Boston Review)

Novelists Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, and T. C. Boyle, among others, are included in a new anthology by Verso Press entitled I'm With the Bears. The intent of the collection is to use compelling short fiction to draw attention to the climate crisis. Royalties from book sales will help fund, an organization intent on reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Guardian)

Wells Tower, the award-winning author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, was a North Carolina garbage man. The Paris Review shares a few other odd jobs of well-regarded writers.

Philip Levine Speaks His Mind, Scott Rudin Options Eugenides, and More

Evan Smith Rakoff

Every day Poets & Writers Magazine scans the headlines—from publishing reports to academic announcements to literary dispatches—for all the news that creative writers need to know. Here are today's stories:

This morning Barnes & Noble unveiled its Nook Tablet in New York City. (eBookNewser)

Meanwhile, Amazon has launched its new Kindle e-book lending library. (Los Angeles Times)

Taking a look at digital sales at major publishers, paidContent breaks down percentages of total revenue derived from e-books, with Random House listing over 20 percent in the United States.

Poet laureate Philip Levine discusses in this past weekend's New York Times Magazine his least favorite jobs, an early dislike of the wealthy, and Poetry Foundation president John Barr, who is attempting to boost interest in poetry by encouraging the writing of more positive poems. Levine says, "I can’t believe this guy Barr is a poet, because I don’t think a real poet would think in that way."

Scott Rudin's taste in literature has long been evident—in the past he's optioned screen rights to novels by Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Safran Foer, among numerous other literary heavyweights. Most recently, the prolific producer acquired the film rights to Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. (Deadline)

RiverRun Bookstore, a New Hampshire shop in danger of closing, is looking to its local community for support to save it from shuttering. (Seacoast Online)

The 2011 New York City Marathon was yesterday—one of the forty-seven thousand who raced, Rob Vassilarakis, spent fifteen years homeless, addicted to methamphetamine, and is now a spoken-word poet and avid runner. (NBC)