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."

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