Belated Farewell to Philip Levine

Philip Levine died last Valentine’s Day. He was 87, so we won’t call it an untimely death. But still, the news stung me. I was never willing to admit that I had a favorite poet for some reason. But I’ll be unabashed and just say that Phil was. And by a long shot for a few reasons, not all of which have to do with the skill of his writing. Being the working class crusader that I have been for so long, Phil’s work became obviously meaningful to me, the moment it fell into my lap in the 1990s. That was when I was looking, really looking, at poetry for the first time. I’d flirted with the enterprise of poetry since I was a teenager, but read very few of its’ practitioners and my attempts at writing poems were extremely naïve. Then, not long after I moved from Seattle to Western Massachusetts in a last ditch effort to save my folksinging career, I put the dipstick deep into the oil pan of poetry. I took some classes and started writing and learning the craft of free style verse.

In my younger days I had bumped into a few poets that had grabbed me. Carl Sandburg and his microscope of working class Chicago moved me when I was a teen and Kenneth Patchen got under my skin in my twenties. I don’t know how I came across Patchen, but I warmed to his tropes against the status quo and his affinity to the revolutionary voices and movements of his time. And his writing style seemed rebellious and revolutionary. He wasn’t a Beat, but he had something in him that had the same music as the Beats. But I didn’t go beyond that. I didn’t read Ginsburg or Ferlinghetti, for instance. I was too busy with my musical heroes, Woody Guthrie, Jack Elliott, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian Tyson, to have more than one poet at a time. By the time I had moved to Seattle and had settled into the cultural imprint in the northwest, I discovered Richard Hugo’s poems and the work of Tess Gallagher, poetry that wasn’t particularly political but pulled at my poetic sensibilities. I was writing straight up ballads about working people, laced with agitprop messages. But the little poetry that I was reading moved me in ways that songs didn’t.

When I got to Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1989, my musical career was in steep decline (not that it had ever hit any great heights) and I think I must have subconsciously been looking for a way to soften the blow of the great crash that was about to happen as far as my music and my disillusionment of the terrain I had been trying to navigate. I turned to poetry. First I took a night class at the University of Massachusetts and then I became part of the non-academic workshop scene in the Pioneer Valley north of Amherst and Northampton. I began reading a lot of poets; Pablo Neruda, Antonio Machado, Anna Akhmatova, Rainer Rilke and then closer to home and time, Galway Kinnell, Alan Dugan, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Ai, Stanley Kunitz, May Swenson, to name a few. When I came across Philip Levine’s poetry, a convergence of a sort took place in the creative workshop of my soul. I walked into a world that this great poet built out of factory filings and mystical alchemy.

You will be hard pressed to find the word, “union” in any of Phil’s work. (I’ll call him Phil because he spoke of himself in the familiar and made good use of the familiar in both his art and in his teaching.) So, why is someone who devotes his life to the labor movement drawn to a poet who writes about the Detroit working class without ever mentioning anything about the UAW? Phil’s poetry may not be concerned with the union struggle, although he is peripherally concerned with working class revolution, as evidenced in his poems that use the background of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. But his main concern is with the connections among working class Americans and how they reach for a sort of communism of the soul on the factory floor and in the bars and parking lots that are peripheral to the industrial web. Consider the woman in the poem Leviticus, who is making her way home from the swing shift at 2 AM: “Even before you washed up and changed your shirt/ Maryk invited you for a drink. You sat in the back,/ Maryk and his black pal Williams in the front/ as the bottle of Seven Crown passed slowly/ from hand to hand, even slow circuits/ until it was empty and Maryk opened/ the driver’s side door and placed the dead soldier/ carefully bottom-side down on the tarmac…”

Which poets are adept enough to put a woman in a car with two uneducated working class men and give her the dignity she deserves without sounding preachy or polemical? The scene of almost ritualistic communion comes off as natural as the night sky that Phil brings into the poem toward its end, the stars “Those tiny diamonds, though almost undone,/having been watching over your house and your kids”. Or to put into the poetic cast the fathers of fourth grade children in Among Children? Their backs “have thickened/how their small hands soiled by pig iron,/leap and stutter even in dreams. I would like/to sit down among them and read slowly/ from The Book of Job until the windows/pale and the teacher rises out of a milky sea/of industrial scum, her gowns streaming/with light her foolish words transformed/ into song…”

I wouldn’t know what Phil’s politics were. I never had the chance to talk to him and he kept his remarks to poetics anytime I heard him speak about poetics. Once when meeting with the poet Mark Doty, he asked me if I’d ever had an opportunity to have a beer with Philip Levine, as if this were the proper way to meet with Phil. This was in Johnson, Vermont when I was attending my first writer’s residency. Mark was the visiting poet and all residents had an hour with the master poet. Mark saw some Levine in my poems. He also mentioned others, but he asked if I had read Philip Levine and I told him, jokingly, that I wanted to BE Philip Levine. But had I had a chance to have a beer with him, I might have been disappointed to find out what Phil’s politics were. Or maybe not. It’s not clear. Some poets and writers find it necessary to stand a certain distance from letting on what their politics are outright and Phil might have been one of them. I suspect he was an anarchist, as were some of his heroes of the Spanish Revolution, which was chiefly an anarchist revolution.

It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. Politics are politics and poetry is poetry. The words that are strung together in the lines of poetry float above politics and I don’t mean to say that they are not political. I still believe what I believed decades ago, that all art is political. What rises up is the intensified language that goes beyond analytical essays or sloganeering, though poetry is probably much closer to sloganeering, as sloganeering is a sort of poetry. Think: Bread and Roses. Now there is a slogan that is powerful and enduring, but not as powerful as, say, lines from Phil’s They Feed They Lion: “Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,/Out of black bean and wet slate bread,/Out of acids of rage, the candor of tar,/Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,/ They Lion grow.” I’m told that the poem came from the aftermath of the Detroit riots of the late 60s. I’ve only heard that reference once, so I’m not sure, but the suggestion did bring the poem out in more relief to me when I first heard it. Previously I had been happy to have the language of the poem wash over me without knowing the context, though the anger and the injustice are apparent in the poem, as is the setting of industrial toil and frustration. I once heard Galway Kinnell read the poem (it must have been the occasion of Phil’s 80th birthday and a number of poets read). Galway was as good a reader as Phil was, but Galway gave a power to the poem that Phil’s self-effacing way of reading couldn’t have got. It was a tremendous moment.

I’m thankful to have heard Galway read that poem while both poets were still alive. And I am grateful to have heard Phil read a few times. He read two or three poems one summer day in Bryant Park along with some twenty of the nation’s best known poets as a part of the New Yorker Festival. In the middle of one of the poems, the crashing thunder of a passing semi-trailer with failing mufflers on 42nd street drowned out a line and Phil stopped and looked toward the truck and said, “That fucking shit” in a plain unapologetic complaint that could only have been voiced by someone who has made his poetry out of the railing against the industrial machine. And then he went back to his reading.

I’m thankful to have shared a moment on a subway in Manhattan with Phil sitting across the aisle from me and a work colleague. Recognizing him on the subway was for me equal to someone else’s experience of seeing, oh, Paul McCartney. I had to share the experience with my colleague, Lucille. I began to explain. Then, as so often happens in New York on the subway, a passenger made some noisy public display (the specifics of which I can’t remember) that makes everybody turn their attention briefly to the present eccentricity. When the moment was over, Phil’s and my eyes met. I took the opportunity to make verbal contact. I said, “I’m trying to explain to my friend here who you are.” He smiled, “Any luck?” One moment having the briefest encounter with a man whose art I admired as much as anyone’s was something unforgettable. Forget Paul McCartney or even Bob Dylan. This was Phil Levine riding the same subway car I was riding. With a poet, it’s possible. The poet is never celebrity to the masses in this country.

I’ve heard and read about how Phil was a great teacher and those that studied with him at Fresno came away from the experience a different person. Working class students were inspired by his subject, his approach and his way of turning on some to the world of poetry that perhaps no one else could have. Someone referred to him ironically as the “father of Chicano poetry” because of how many Mexican American students became poets under his spell. I would have liked to have been in the classroom. But classrooms and I don’t get along very well. That’s the way it’s always been for me. Phil’s books of poems have been my classroom (as were the books of so many others from his decade.) I’m lucky to have been able to find a voice that in my head is Levinesque, but that no poets I’ve worked with have found out without me telling them. That’s the trick. Mimicking until you no longer sound like the music you’ve stolen from. Like anyone trying to find a voice, I’ve stolen from many. But Phil’s the guy whose writing gets closest to being the teacher I never had. I’m often found counting my regrets and one of them has been not to have found and studied poetry when I was younger. Reading Phil Levine’s work has made up for a good deal of that regret.

(Others whom I miss of that great decade are Galway Kinnell, Hayden Carruth, Adrianne Rich, Jack Gilbert and Mark Strand. The likes of which we will never hear again. Read them. Your soul will be there better for it.)

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