Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Philip Levine: The Other Half of the Story

In my last blog entry, I wrote about Philip Levine--his tremendous influence on contemporary poetry in general, and on my poetry in particular--the direct influence of his poems on the poems of other poets. This is the other half of the story: his second-hand influence through one Larry Levis, a "widening spell" of poetry's leaves that caught me up in its power and beauty the first time I read one of Levis' poems.

As most of you, no doubt, know, Philip Levine was Larry Levis' teacher at Fresno State. And Levis was proclaimed by Levine as "the most gifted and determined young poet [he] ever had the good fortune to have in one of [my] classes." Since Levis' untimely death at age 49, Philip Levine (along with Peter Everwine), edited Elegy, the "all but completed manuscript of poems" Levis was working on when he died at his desk writing in 1996.

I was introduced to Larry Levis in 2006 by Michael Waters, my first mentor in the poetry MFA program at New England College through one book from a list of twenty to read during the semester: The Widening Spell of the Leaves. Little did I know the transformation Levis' work would bring about in my writing life--lengthening my line, pushing against my pedestrian imagery, introducing me to a unique, virtuosic blend of the narrative and the lyrical that I had craved without knowing what it was I was craving. And without Philip Levine, I'm not sure how many of his six award-winning books Larry Levis would have written, because it was in Levine's class that Levis found a space where he could learn to be, at age 18, something he had committed himself to be two years before: a poet. And the reason he could, in addition to his own talent and dedication, was that he had a poet for a teacher. In an essay on Philip Levine, published in A Condition of the Spirit, The Life and Work of Larry Levis, Levis wrote:

"It isn't enough to say that Levine was a brilliant young poet and teacher. Levine was amazing. His classes during those four years at Fresno State College were wonders, and they still suggest how much good someone might do in the world, even a world limited by the penitentiary-like architecture and stultifying sameness of a state college. For in any of these fifty-minute periods, there was more passion, sense, hilarity and feeling filling that classroom than one could have found anywhere in 1964."

Levis goes on to cite example after example of how Levine was "always totally there in the poems and right there in front of me before the green sea of the blackboard." Forty-four years later I found Philip Levine to be just as accessible to this student as he was to Levis and his classmates in 1964.

I had decided to write my MFA thesis on Larry Levis' work. After reading all six of his books, I had a working premise about the influences upon Levis' increasing line length over time, concomitant with his departure from imagistic poems to more lyrical/narrative pieces. One day writing about this, I had the thought: "Wouldn't it be great if I could just ask Philip Levine about this?" I had never met Levine--I had only heard him read one time in Santa Fe, New Mexico (the night that George Bush bombed Iraq), with over 500 attending. But I had met Peter Everwine, Levine's colleague at Fresno State, the previous summer. I picked up the phone and called directory assistance for Fresno, California, got Peter's number and dialed. Peter remembered me, and when I asked him how I could go about arranging a fifteen minute interview with Levine he gave me his home phone number and said it would probably be fine to just call--that I'd probably get his voice mail which Levine would return to let me know if he'd grant the interview and, if so, when.

I jotted down a few notes and dialed Levine's number. To my shock, Philip answered the phone. After explaining my purpose in calling, and asking if there was a time he could grant me fifteen minutes for an interview, Levine said" What's wrong with right now?" Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for him, Philip was suffering from neck pain and had recently taken a codeine tablet. He had nothing to do but rest and sit quietly, and since his wife was out, it was a good time. The fifteen minutes turned into thirty and I decided that as long as Levine was doing the talking, I should just listen and count my blessings. Finally after forty-five minutes of continuous conversation and stories about Larry Levis, Philip sounded tired. I thanked him for his time, to which he replied that I should send him my paper when I finished it.

What amazing generosity! What a priceless experience! That Philip Levine would be so accessible to a graduate student he didn't know, and that he would grant so much time at the drop of a hat, told me everything I needed to know about how deeply he cared about students. About poetry. About his work. Which is our work. Which is the widening spell of the leaves.

Hear Levis' final lines from "The Widening Spell of the Leaves":

That was the day I decided I would never work.
It felt like conversion. Play was sacred.
My father waited behind us on a sofa made
From car seats. One spring kept nosing through.
I remember the camera opening into the light. . . .
And I remember the dark after, the studio closed,
The cameras stolen, slivers of glass from the smashed
Bay window littering the unsanded floors,
And the square below it bathed in sunlight. . . . All this
Before Mr. Hirata died, months later,
From complications following pneumonia.
His death, a letter from a camp official said,
Was purely accidental. I didn't believe it.
Diseases were wise. Diseases, like the polio
My sister had endured, floating paralyzed
And strapped into her wheelchair all through
That war, seemed too precise. Like photographs . . .
Except disease left nothing. Disease was like
An equation that drank up light & never ended,
Not even in summer. Before my fever broke,
And the pains lessened, I could actually see
Myself, in the exact center of that square.
How still it had become in my absence, & how
Immaculate, windless, sunlit. I could see
The outline of every leaf on the nearest tree,
See it more clearly than ever, more clearly than
I had seen anything before in my whole life:
Against the modest, dark gray, solemn trunk,
The leaves were becoming only what they had to be--
Calm, yellow, things in themselves & nothing
More--& frankly they were nothing in themselves,
Nothing except their little reassurance
Of persisting for a few more days, or returning
The year after, & the year after that, & every
Year following--estranged from us by now--& clear,
So clear not one in a thousand trembled; hushed
And always coming back--steadfast, orderly,
Taciturn, oblivious--until the end of Time.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Unselected Mentors: Philip Levine

Of all of Philip Levine's twenty-some-odd volumes of poetry--many that I count among the most significant contributions to 20th century American literature (They Feed They Lion, the National Book Award-winning What Work Is, A Walk with Tom Jefferson, and his Pulitzer Prize winning The Simple Truth)--my personal favorite is Unselected Poems.

Levine describes these poems as "a small selection...that for one reason or another I chose not to include in those books and now wish I had. Until this book they too were unselected." The way Levine speaks, we would think them children kept indoors, away from the windows, poorly fed, seldom held, known only to their brothers and sisters with whom they interacted, but with whom they never went out in public: "I never meant to injure or insult any of my poems; it has always seemed to me that they've done far more for me than I've done for them. I am pleased with the opportunity to undo the harm I did to them. I can only hope those I've chosen enjoy their hour in the light and work like mad."

This latter phrase is a reference to a story Levine tells in his introduction to the book about a question his young son once asked him: Pop, how many poems do you think you have out there working for you? Levine goes on to explain: "My son, Mark's statement, made profound impression on me. Because of my working days in Detroit and the poetry that came out of it, I like to think of myself as a worker, but according to my son I was an employer, and when I thought about it seriously it was clear that while I worked at poetry, and it cound be impossibly difficult work at which I often failed, I was also unlike most workers completely in possession of the means of production. I controlled the fate of those little workers, the poems, I had created. I only hope those I've chosen enjoy their hour in the light and work like mad."

I hope that Philip Levine is enjoying his own season in the light. I know that he works like mad (still at 82), and that he's been working like mad all of his life. Even though I've been always been aware of him, it wasn't until recently that I realized that for me he was like his unselected poems: having a tremendous influence on my poems without, of course, his knowing it and, what is astonishing, without my knowing it. I didn't select him as a mentor, and he didn't select me as a menatee, it was his work that for years haloed around me like a cloud of invisible electrons. Every time I write about my work, portray a co-worker through dialogue or description, employ its unique vocabulary, comment upon its futile necessity, I pay homage, in some small way, to Philip Levine's virtuosic body of work.

So the time has come for me to acknowledge him as one of my mentors--unselected, but more than well-earned.

Hear now the final lines of the opening poem to Unselected Poems, a narrative that opens with a group of friends giving a "dull country laborer" a lift home in the wrong direction, after consuming many beers, and after breaking down on the side of a snow-frozen road:

"When the engine
failed, we stood in a circle
of our breathing listening for
the sounds of snow.

just before the dawn of the
second day of a new year
already old, we found her
under white heaps, another
city in another time,
and fell asleep, and wakened
alone and disappointed
in a glass house under a bare wood roof.

I called out for
you, my brothers and friends, and
someone's children came, someone's
wife--puzzled helpful faces--
saying "father" and "husband."
You never answered, never
heard, under the frozen stars
of that old year where the snow
creaked in great mounds and the air
bronzed from the slag heaps twenty
miles south of Encorse, for you were
happy, tired, and never going home."