Anger and tenderness in Philip Levine.
Photo: Frances Levine
In the spring of 2012, Philip Levine delivered a lecture at the Library of Congress called “My Lost Poets,” marking the end of his tenure as the eighteenth U.S. poet laureate. In the talk, which was later published in Five Points, Georgia State University’s literary journal, Levine takes us to Wayne University’s Miles Poetry Room in 1948, where, once a month, he and other aspiring poets gathered to talk shop and critique one another’s work. The group comprised four World War II vets and a number of Wayne University students, including a young man who would eventually be drafted to the Korean War, a narcissistic Hart Crane wannabe, a rural Southern Baptist woman from Kentucky, and a young black man obsessed with Walt Whitman. In the wake of the war, Levine explained, the group found urgency and vitality in poetry, regardless of their respective talents. This poetic camaraderie was short-lived, though. The Hart Crane fanboy died in a car wreck at an early age; the Southern Baptist disappeared into the jungles of Latin America; the Whitman worshiper saw his idealism dissolve in the face of fifties-era politics and Jim Crow laws. Still, it was these people, along with the war poets he discovered during that time, who helped shape Levine’s own poetic voice.
That voice, when he finally found it, decried the injustices of our society, of working-class life in particular, lending Levine’s experience a “value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own.” Unlike his great hero, Walt Whitman, Levine doesn’t seem to stand over us, exalting and exalted. Instead, he’s always among the multitude bearing witness to the historical moment. He looks out every so often to address his reader with a plural or a singular you that invites us to share his vision, expanding our own. His poems are full of unrealized dreams, with auxiliary verbs—would, could, should—signaling inevitable disappointments or a foreboding sense of what’s to come. This dissonance between one’s idealistic fantasies and reality conjure a tremendous anger in his work, evident especially in his earlier poems about factory life in Detroit. Read More »