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.

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