Interviews

Philip Levine, The Art of Poetry No. 39

Interviewed by Mona Simpson

I was first introduced to Philip Levine through the mail in the summer of 1976. I was studying literature at Berkeley, and my friends and I, all college freshmen and sophomores, were ardent readers of Levine, W. S. Merwin, Donald Justice, Gary Snyder, and Hart Crane. A friend from the college literary magazine, The Berkeley Poetry Review, introduced me to Ernest Benck, a California poet, who kindly sent some of both of our poems to Levine.

Levine wrote back to us, marking our poems assiduously. Since then I have received many letters from him, always on yellow legal paper with comments like, “I’m not sure my remarks, which are fairly nasty at times, really indicate . . .” His comments, though never nasty, were always serious, as if he took the business of correspondence to be part of the education of a poet. I had the feeling he wrote many such letters to young poets around the country: poets driving trucks, picking oranges, poets who were waiters and acupuncturists’ assistants and college students. Levine takes his role as mentor with the responsibility of a sacred vocation. He has sometimes had trouble from the administrations of high-tuitioned writing programs for allowing auditors—poets who were a little older, talented and too broke to pay—into his classes.

Levine was born in Detroit in 1928, and left that city, as he puts it, after a succession of stupid jobs. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, including 7 Years from Somewhere (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award), Ashes (the NBCC and National Book Awards), They Feed They Lion (inevitably mistitled in reference books), and, most recently, A Walk with Tom Jefferson.

The interview took place in my Upper West Side apartment. Levine arrived looking very much the same as he had when I met him ten years earlier in Berkeley: wiry, agile, with a mobile face, curly hair, a boyish habit of movement. He wore enormous running shoes, which seemed to emphasize his small frame, and he walked with a slight bounce, which made him seem an inch or two taller.

I told him that Paris Review interviews usually take place in the writer’s home and so I asked him to describe the place he lives and writes. He told me that in Fresno he lives in a small farmhouse in a district called The Fig Garden. Built in 1919, the house (“the oldest around here”) stands on an acre of land, fronted by a huge eucalyptus tree, fruit trees and cedars. In the backyard, amidst twenty orange trees, alders, Modesto ash, and more eucalyptus, his wife Franny plants a legendary garden of vegetables, fruits, and flowers.

“Our payments are 165 bucks,” he said. “We bought it fifteen years ago when anybody could buy a house. And people ask me why I live in Fresno!”

Levine works in a small study overlooking the back garden. The room is filled with bookshelves (“of course it’s cluttered because I’m something of a slob”) and a number of keepsakes, among them a black-and-white photograph of a drawing by the Italian anarchist painter Flavio Costantini, which in a smaller form is the cover of Levine’s volume Ashes; a Robert Capa photograph of Spanish Republican soldiers at a campfire cooking soup; a picture of Lemon Still Jr., a fellow grease shop worker and the subject of a poem in They Feed They Lion; and a poster of airplane drawings by Arshile Gorky.

“And there hangs from the ceiling a kind of mobile a friend gave me years and years ago. It’s made of thistles, thorns, dry weeds. I don’t know why it’s lasted but it just hangs there and turns around in the wind, hitting me in the eye . . .”

 

INTERVIEWER

In Twentieth Century Pleasures, Robert Hass says that rhythm in poetry provides revolutionary ground through its direct access to the unconscious . . .

 PHILIP LEVINE

We all agree with that. Rhythm is deep and it touches us in ways that we don’t understand. We know that language used rhythmically has some kind of power to delight, to upset, to exalt, and it was that kind of rhythmic language that first excited me. But I didn’t encounter it first in poetry . . . perhaps simply in speech, in prayer, preaching. That made me want to create it. My earliest poems were a way of talking to somebody. I suppose to myself. I spoke them and I memorized them. I constantly changed them. I would go out and work on my rain poem and improve it.

INTERVIEWER

Rain was always a favorite theme?

LEVINE

Rain was my first, and I guess, a constant theme. But things like wind in the winter, the trees, and my sense of relationship with them. You could actually see the stars, we were on the outskirts of Detroit, there were no factories around. So you could see the stars and, oh the world is, you know, a cosmos, is immense.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing?

LEVINE

Writing was something I did in school with some enjoyment because I did it well. And then, you know, I put it aside, the way you do—I guess I started getting interested in girls, what have you. I don’t remember doing any writing at the ages of say, sixteen or seventeen. I rediscovered poetry at the age of eighteen.

INTERVIEWER

How did that happen?

LEVINE

I read Stephen Crane. He really thrilled me. I read him and I imitated him. I really think my poems were as good as his. His poems are terrible, they’re very obvious—you know: I saw a man running towards the horizon. I said, why are you running toward the horizon? He said to me, because blah, blah, blah.

INTERVIEWER

Do you know a lot of poetry by heart?

LEVINE

My memory has faded badly. I used to know dozens of poems by heart. I memorized them when I worked in factories and recited them to myself.

INTERVIEWER

Did you work in an auto factory?

LEVINE

Yes. I worked for Cadillac, in their transmission factory, and for Chevrolet. You could recite poems aloud in there. The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear.

INTERVIEWER

How long did you work in the factories?

LEVINE

I started doing factory work at about the age of fourteen. When I turned college age I had to make a decision about what I was going to do about my life. My high-school teachers encouraged me to go to college. I stood in line at Wayne State University to enroll, and when I got up to the head of the line, this woman said, “Can I help you?” I said, “I’d like to go to college.” She said, “Do you want a bachelor’s?” I said, “I already have a place to live.” Because to me a bachelor’s was a small apartment. I had no idea that there was such a thing as a bachelor’s degree. The people at Wayne were incredibly savvy. Instead of laughing at me, she explained what my options were and what bachelor’s meant. They were used to us shlumps out of the city of Detroit. There, at college, I encountered modern poetry. And I loved it. Loved it.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start showing your poetry to other people? Were you sending out poems when you were on the assembly line?

LEVINE

When I was about nineteen I showed my poems to one of my teachers at Wayne. He said these were incredible poems, poems that should be published. I said, “Oh really?”—I was thrilled—“How would I go about doing that?” He walked over to his bookshelf and brought back a copy of Harper’s. He wrote down the name of the editor and said, “Send the poems to him. I met him once at a party, he may remember me. It doesn’t matter, the poems are so good. Just send them.” So I sent them. A month later they came back with a little printed note telling me they didn’t suit their present editorial needs. I was just shocked. I took it to the teacher and said, “Why, you assured me.” He said, “I don’t understand it.” He was a very sweet man, but he didn’t know the first thing about publishing. So I took the whole thing to another teacher who actually wrote poetry. I wanted an explanation. He looked at the note, then the poems. He asked, “Why did you think they would take your work?” I told him that I had been assured they were wonderful poems. “Well,” he said, “they’re talented but they are not that good. They probably weren’t even read at Harper’s; they looked at your name, they never heard of you, forget it.” I suddenly realized, of course, it’s like everything else in the world. It is a business. I didn’t try to publish again for a long time, until I was twenty-six or twenty-seven. I just forgot about trying to publish. It didn’t seem all that important. I didn’t know many people who published. I knew my work was going to get better. I had gone on supporting myself in other ways, so what was the difference. I went to Iowa for a year as a student. I thought I had a fellowship, but they didn’t give it to me. I was supposed to come the year before, but financial things kept me away. So I wrote them a letter and said please put if off until next year. They gave the fellowship to somebody else. I went there anyway and went to the classes without registering. There I met Don Justice, William Dickey, a poet named Henri Coulette, Robert Dana, W. D. Snodgrass. One semester, Robert Lowell was the teacher; the second semester, John Berryman. It was a fantastic year.

INTERVIEWER

What were your classes like?

LEVINE

Lowell wasn’t very helpful with my poetry. I don’t know how he was with the others; I think he was helpful with some of them. Berryman, on the other hand, also had the exterior of a patrician, but he was in love with the idea of being a slob.

INTERVIEWER

So Berryman liked you?

LEVINE

He liked me a lot personally, and he worked very hard with me. He seemed to feel I had something genuine, but that I wasn’t doing enough with it, wasn’t demanding enough from my work. He kept directing me to poetry that would raise my standards. He knew an enormous body of poetry, and he wanted me to open myself to it. He was very sure of himself, very confident, and I think I caught some of that confidence and some of the confidence he had in me. Another very nice thing: When the semester ended, he said to me, “I’ll let you send me some poems, four or five poems. I’ll read them and comment on them and send them back. And that’ll be that.” So about a year and a half later I sent him four poems. He made his comments, and once again he let me know this was the last time. He was right, absolutely right. Out of the nest, into the world.

INTERVIEWER

How would you characterize Berryman’s influence on your poetry?

LEVINE

First, he wanted me to learn much more. I quickly realized how much he knew and how much more resourceful he was as a poet because of it. I went back to Chaucer. That summer I read all the way through the huge Saintsbury History of English Prosody. It was the fifties, the country was going nowhere and neither was I; I had all sorts of time.

INTERVIEWER

What was it about your poems that interested Berryman?

LEVINE

There was something very particular in my poems Berryman liked, a combination of formality with a common American voice that wanted to be in contact with how Americans actually spoke. At the same time I didn’t want to write “talky” poetry; I wanted to make those voices eloquent or songlike. When I tried to bring these two “aims” together I usually failed, but John praised the ambition. I met him at just the perfect time in my life. He treated me as an equal. He was incredible fun to be with. At night he could be hopeless, drunk, and an imbecile, but at the time that seemed unimportant to me. In class he was true to us and to himself, and all of us were treated with equal candor and ruthlessness. When he lectured on the poetry he loved, somebody like Whitman or Milton, his excitement was so great he would quiver all over, almost as though that frail, wiry body couldn’t contain his emotions. It was extraordinary, an incredible experience. I’m sure all the people who were in that class must have felt it.

INTERVIEWER

So did Berryman first introduce you to Walt Whitman’s work? He seems the obvious and most central influence upon you, both thematically and in terms of the range and timbre of your poetry.

LEVINE

I came to Whitman at age twenty or so through Ulysses Wardlaw, God bless him. I went to Wayne with Ulysses, a black guy who I thought was a wonderfully talented poet. He wrote these loving, long, Whitmanesque poems, and I was writing much craftier things. He’d say, “Levine, if you’re going to be an important poet you are going to have to get into Whitman.” I was talking Stevens, Eliot—very highbrow poets who to him were far too artsy. Ulysses would urge me to get into the big American thing, the thing that was so much more about our actual lives. So I finally read Walt, and I was much more impressed than I’d expected to be, but I still wasn’t really overwhelmed. I think it was Berryman—yeah, I know it was Berryman—who gave a reading with commentary of the whole of “Song of Myself.” It probably took four to six hours. I don’t remember exactly how long. He gave it everything in him, and the poem took everything. It was ineffable, the finest poetry reading I’ve ever heard in my life, a light year beyond any other reading. I said to myself, Jesus Christ, this fucking stuff is just too much. It is so eloquent, it is so passionate, it is so up there and at the same time so totally in touch with what is down here.

INTERVIEWER

Who else do you feel influenced by? Do poets of your generation tend to read each other’s newest work in the magazines and learn from each other?

LEVINE

The first big public reading I gave was with Gary Snyder back in 1958. I had never heard of him before that, and I was really knocked out. He read very well; I was lousy, a nervous wreck. I was impressed by his ability to use such an ordinary diction and get such extraordinarily precise images. It was his early work, the best work he ever did, “Riprap” and “Cold Mountain.” Now he talks about this great work he still has to do to save America, as though he’s Doctor Feelgood, Doctor Know-it-all. Then he was just a marvelous young poet; now he’s a serious and great man, and like all serious and great men he’s boring. I don’t think Galway Kinnell influenced me, but what’s more important, he inspired me. When I read his great poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” I said, My God, this is how good the poetry of my generation can be. I can remember exactly where I was when I first read it, on the second floor of the library in an armchair holding The Hudson Review and shivering with excitement.

INTERVIEWER

What about younger poets?

LEVINE

I read a great many of the younger poets. I happen to believe Keats was right when he said the poet is the least poetical of beings, and that he or she must be ready to inhabit whatever the world presents, be free to “pick about the gravel with the sparrows.” I think Sharon Olds is likely to join the sparrows, as are Ed Hirsch and Garrett Hongo, who both write so intelligently. I’m so weary of that anti-intellectual stance: I’m just standing here suckin’ on a beer writin’ these lines until the pool room opens. I love intelligent poetry—Stevens, Ammons, Tom Sleigh, Robert Morgan.

INTERVIEWER

Where does a poem begin for you? Do you take notes for poems? Do you get up in the middle of the night?

LEVINE

They begin in different ways, and over the course of my writing life the process has changed. When I was a kid speaking poetry I never wrote it down; those poems began with a phrase and then I would try to employ the vocabulary and the structure of the phrase to create a fabric of repetitions. When I started writing poetry at eighteen, the poems seemed to spring outward from a visual image. It was that precise visual image I was out to capture, that’s what excited me; the poem became the means for pushing forward the images I wanted the reader to devour. Then Yeats set me on fire. I mean the language is exalted, yet it sounds like somebody talking and singing at the same time. I thought, This is it. And I still kind of feel this is it. This is the perfection of form. It’s got speech, song, it’s high rhetoric and yet it doesn’t sound remote or false. A poem like “Easter, 1916.” I said, Jesus Christ, this is so much what I want. It doesn’t matter about his stupid attitudes. He wrote one poem about his daughter, such a sexist poem. But it’s so beautifully done. I remember telling a woman friend of mine, “Isn’t this an incredible poem?” And she got very angry with me; “It’s so sexist,” she said, “look at this!” I said, sure, it’s like Eliot’s anti-Semitic stuff, “the Jew squats on the windowsill”; fuck you, Eliot, but the poem is exquisite. Then somewhere in my forties I hit a kind of phase of automatic writing. I would really be taken, sort of seized, and just write the stuff! It would just come pouring out, hundreds of lines. Then the process of making a poem became quite different: it became seeing what was inside this great blast of language and imagery, and finding the core.

INTERVIEWER

How did you then revise? What was your process of shaping?

LEVINE

The process was reducing this, say, 500 lines to 150, tailoring and shaping it, finding the central imagery and throwing away what seemed excess or what was just part of the road to getting there. Then putting it together in some kind of dramatic, coherent, or narrative structure. That was fun, too.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve created your own recognizable sense of line. How did the Levine line come about?

LEVINE

The narrow line; it had two sources. In my first two books you’ll find a great many poems written in a seven-syllable rhymed line. After a while I discovered that almost no one heard the rhymes, which are very subtle, and absolutely no one heard the seven syllables. I became so confident of the line that I didn’t hesitate to vary it. I no longer needed that strict count. I began to rhyme irregularly and sometimes to write without rhyme at all. Lo and behold, I had become a free-verse poet! Lately, I’ve been writing long-line poems.

INTERVIEWER

Was that a shift in your way of hearing? Was the expansion to a longer line a conscious decision?

LEVINE

It wasn’t conscious. The material, the writing that came out of me, had a relaxed quality, full of details, events; it had a strong narrative line, and I felt constricted by anything less than a truly long line. It happens so quickly or so much on its own that you’re writing that way before you have an occasion to ponder it. This last autumn I had a wonderful season of writing up in Boston; I wrote two good-sized poems, both in long lines. They came in great bursts that totally consumed days and days. One is a true narrative poem. It’s called “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.” Tom Jefferson turns out to be a retired factory worker, black, in Detroit, with that name.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk about working with your editor, Harry Ford? Has he influenced your craft?

LEVINE

No, he’s had no influence on my craft because we never discuss that. What he’s helped me with is my ability to concentrate totally on my poetry. He took my second book sight unseen, and he took it because he believed in my talent. They Feed They Lion had been turned down about a dozen times, twice by Wesleyan, who had published my first book, Not This Pig—they didn’t like the title poem, or the title. I was dejected. I sat down and thought, Who would I want to publish me? The answer was simple—Atheneum or New Directions; they seemed the only publishers who cared about poetry or knew anything about it. I wrote both, saying, I’d like you to publish me. Harry Ford wrote back, “I don’t believe the person who wrote your first book could write a bad book.” He took the book without reading it. Can you imagine the joy in Mudville? Because he trusts me so much, I feel enormously obligated to give him nothing but the best I can do. Without him and James Laughlin at New Directions there wouldn’t be any poetry published by the big publishers in New York; they’ve done it all for decades.

INTERVIEWER

You are very generous about corresponding with young struggling writers.

LEVINE

It all grew out of what happened when I went to Iowa and they let me in the class though I wasn’t registered. The class all knew I wasn’t registered; we would go through this charade every week. John Berryman would say, Levine, your name is not on the class list. I would say, Oh, isn’t that odd. And everybody would laugh. He would say, Do you want me to send the authorities a letter saying that Levine is worried about not getting credit? I’d say, Don’t bother. The class would laugh again. I felt welcomed by everyone, as though I should be there.

INTERVIEWER

Have you let people into your classes without paying?

LEVINE

Sure. When someone with real talent and no money shows, what are you going to do? At Columbia it came down to my offering to quit on the spot to keep a student in the class. At Tufts I’ve had some older people sitting in; the students seem utterly delighted to be able to meet these “real” poets and get a more adult perspective from them. I had a wonderful woman, Erica Funkhouser, a very accomplished, published poet, in the class. Several students thanked me for bringing her, although she’d come of her own accord. It was like having a second teacher, one much closer to them in age. Poetry has given me a great deal over the years, so when I see truly talented people, I want to help them. It seems like a natural thing to do.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel there’s some sort of integrity in the poetry world because there isn’t the lure of money?

LEVINE

It’s not that we have the sort of sharks you’d find in Hollywood or in the cocaine business or in a professional sport like boxing. There are ways that the satisfactions and needs of the ego can get to you and corrupt you. We don’t necessarily need money to corrupt ourselves.

INTERVIEWER

How have you avoided that?

LEVINE

I haven’t entirely. There are a lot of people in poetry who aren’t corrupted, who screw up rarely. We aren’t perfect; we are people and we do dumb things. I served two years selecting manuscripts to be awarded grants of up to $20,000 by the National Endowment. All my friends knew I was doing this; people I didn’t know knew it. In those two years I received only three pleas asking for special treatment, and two of them came from the same person, a friend. When I told him to get fucked, he couldn’t understand why I was so angry, which suggests he couldn’t even see where decent behavior ends. That is scary. Corruption is subtle, just like the Bible said. Many young poets have come to me and asked, How am I gonna make it? They feel, and often with considerable justice, that they are being overlooked while others with less talent are out there making careers for themselves. I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Wait and be discovered or don’t be discovered. I think I did it the hard way. I didn’t kiss anyone’s ass; I waited a long time; I didn’t go to a school that would give me advantages. I didn’t publish a book that anyone read until I was forty. But to be utterly honest, I think if something hadn’t happened about then I might have become a very bitter man. It was getting to me. If I’d had to wait until I was fifty I don’t know what lousy things I might have done.

INTERVIEWER

You treat some of the great novelistic themes—war and peace, power and class struggle and oppression in society, the shifts of luck and fortune with time—in your poems, particularly in your long poems.

LEVINE

What I regard as novelistic about my work is the telling of tales, which is utterly natural to me, and so is the presentation of characters. The other day when I was testifying in court in a civil disobedience case, the district attorney objected to my presentation because, he said, it was narrative. The judge sustained the objection; I tried to ask him what was wrong with a narrative, but he wouldn’t answer. I was deeply wounded. How can a poet or fiction writer tell the truth in court if he or she can’t present the events in a meaningful sequence, which is what a story is? The message is: Stay out of court. One of the aspects of my own poetry I like best is the presence of people who don’t seem to make it into other people’s poems. Much of our recent poetry seems totally without people. Except for the speaker, no one is there. There’s a lot of snow, a moose walks across the field, the trees darken, the sun begins to set, and a window opens. Maybe from a great distance you can see an old woman in a dark shawl carrying an unrecognizable bundle into the gathering gloom. That’s one familiar poem. In others you get people you’d sooner not meet. They live in the suburbs of a large city, have two children, own a Volvo stationwagon; they love their psychiatrists but are having an affair with someone else. Their greatest terror is that they’ll become like their parents and maybe do something dreadful, like furnish the house in knotty pine. You read twenty of those poems and you’re yearning for snow fields and moose tracks.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel a split between your life as a political person and your life as a poet?

LEVINE

I’m cowardly. I should stop paying my taxes. I know that the government in Washington is full of terrible people with terrible plans. They will murder people here and abroad to gain more power. Those who have dominated our country most of my adult life are interested in maintaining an empire, subjugating other people, enslaving them if need be, and finally killing those who protest so that wealthy and powerful Americans can go on enjoying their advantages over others. I’m not doing a thing about it. I’m not a man of action; It finally comes down to that. I’m not so profoundly moral that I can often overcome my fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I’m a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do? I guess we can hang on and encourage each other, dig in, protest in every peaceful way possible, and hope that people are better than they seem. We can describe ourselves as horribly racist people, which we are, as imperialists, which we have been and are, but we can also see ourselves as bountiful, gracious, full of wit, courage, resourcefulness. I still believe in this country, that it can fulfill the destiny Blake and Whitman envisioned. I still believe in American poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you think contemporary American poetry has gone wrong, and where do you find its greatest vitality?

LEVINE

I’m not sure. Maybe it stopped believing in itself. Back in the late sixties we were an amazingly lively, diversified, and yet united bunch, and almost all of us were committed to standing up and being counted against the war, and many of us were concerned with new ways of living, new possibilities. Think of the ambition in Kinnell’s work then, Body Rags and The Book of Nightmares; Denise Levertov’s Relearning the Alphabet; that brilliant long poem by Robert Duncan; Adrienne Rich in Leaflets and Diving into the Wreck. I don’t think all of the poetry was successful, but these poets were trying in their work to be whole men and women, to combine the “holiness of the heart’s affections” with their sense of moral indignation, to stand for what was best in the American soul and against what was the most corrupting and disgusting. They saw their poetry coming out of both their private experiences and visions and their sense of citizenship, to use an old-fashioned word. Yes, these were large manly and womanly undertakings that we as a generation of poets could take pride in. And these weren’t the only large undertakings: Lowell, Berryman, and Bishop were still writing very well. Rexroth and Creeley were at their best; Ginsberg was doing his last interesting stuff, and it was large; Wright, Merwin, Simpson were at the top of their form. Whatever you think of Bly’s work now, he and his magazine were then involved in a campaign to make us see the deepest consequences of living the American lie. It was a brave effort, as was George Hitchcock’s kayak, and marvelous poets were emerging out of these scenes, people like Haines and Simic. I think American poetry was right at the center of the American heart. But we did not change that heart. We did not stop the war. The war ended when the military wanted it to and Vietnam and her neighbors were plundered and leveled. We had such a powerful faith in the rightness of our cause, such a deep belief that if we articulated our vision it must become the American vision, for surely our fellow citizens didn’t want innocent blood on their hands. I can remember feeling full of the power of a just cause and believing that power would not fail me. It failed me or I failed it. We didn’t really change the way Americans lived, unless you take hairstyles seriously. I think it killed something in us, the way something died in Wordwsorth and many of his contemporaries when the French Revolution went first violent and later bourgeois. Everything we spoke out in behalf of got watered down and marketed and then forgotten. Maybe I’m nuts or maybe I’m just tired, but that’s partly what I feel. Maybe it’s also the proliferation of the writing workshops; maybe academia has managed to rent and spay us. Maybe the various endowments have institutionalized and neutralized us, when in fact we should have kept our outcast state, our poverty if need be, our discomfort, our rage; we should have turned and lived with animals. I think I may simply be talking about myself, but maybe not.

Don’t let me leave you with the impression that there aren’t wonderful poets out there, some superb ones who are all but unknown, poets who don’t have careers, who just write poetry. I’m thinking of someone like John Engels, who teaches at some dinky school in Vermont. He is an absolutely adult poet, as good as any in the country; his work is beautifully crafted, passionate, and truly moral. I’ll bet there are four or five others totally unknown who never learned how to bow down or manage a career or who didn’t start out at an Ivy League school. Gerald Stern was unknown until he was about fifty. Hayden Carruth is now writing unbelievable poetry. John Haines got a glimmer of the limelight years ago, but John has the bad habit of saying what’s on his mind; he won’t be pruned. These poets will go on getting bad reviews or no reviews, but the true poetry audience will find their work and love it. That’s happening right now with the work of Ruth Stone. Everywhere I go people are talking about her poems. It’s all word of mouth. Is Marjorie Perloff, the literary critic, going to tell us? Hell no. The other day I read a piece of hers that was so stupid it took your breath away. She was lecturing Adrienne Rich on how to become an effective feminist poet, as though Adrienne had failed. Perloff told her she couldn’t do it in her present voice because that voice had been influenced by the poetry of men, so she advised her to become a language poet and write incomprehensibly and thus revolutionize women’s attitudes toward themselves. Such impertinence. Given the chance, she’d have lectured Whitman on why he should have written “Song of Myself” in Esperanto. This is the criticism of the Reagan age, and its purpose is no more and no less than to neuter poetry, to deprive it of its authority, to utterly tame it. Perloff is out to make a little structuralist out of Adrienne, to deprive her of her guts, her sexuality, her deeply earned rage, all of which come out of her experience. The poetry has authority because you know that. Perloff and all these other dwarves sit back smugly and say, How can you believe such naive things, you’re all merely determined by your social and linguistic contexts. How dare you believe you know something in your blood, how dare you shout out your joy or weep your sorrow. Here we are as a nation going through terrible times, needing poetry as much as we’ve ever needed it, and this little circle of elitists and—what did Blake call them?—mockers are urging on us a poetry of irrelevance. If we get a little excited about the facts of our lives they call us Benthamites, romantics, or whatever the current evil is. Once Reagan came to power, you knew these lackeys were on the way; in fact they smelled his coming years in advance—they are those animals with noses to the wind to catch the latest currents. They will never give us a poetry of greatness; a poetry to help us face madness, exile, the grave. Like Reagan himself, they will pass; like Asian flu, they’re with us for a few seasons, and then a new disease comes along.

INTERVIEWER

Somebody once asked you what question you would like to be asked and you said the question was, Are you happy you became a poet? What’s the answer to that question now?

LEVINE

Oh, it’s the same. I’m very happy I became a poet and for the same reasons. A few years back I was about to leave California and go east to teach at Tufts; I was alone, my wife had gone ahead to find a place for us to live. I was feeling a bit down—end of summer blues. Then the phone started ringing. I got six calls in the space of a day, all from people I’d met through poetry, all enormously affectionate calls either welcoming me back to Boston or bidding me farewell.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of the new generation?

LEVINE

The day before the last election I was on Studs Terkel’s radio program in Chicago. He was down, especially down on young people. He thought all the young college people were voting for Reagan. I said, “I meet these young people who want to write poetry, and they’re terrific, they’re just like the young people of the sixties.” He said, “Really, I don’t meet them.” I said, “Yeah, but you don’t teach poetry.” And it was true. The college kids he was meeting all wanted to be presidents of banks, but the ones I meet don’t want that; they want to create a life for themselves in the arts, a life they can respect. Money is something they know they need, but they have no itch for it or power. Studs is an extraordinary optimist, but the day before Reagan’s second election was not a day for optimism.

INTERVIEWER

Would you characterize yourself as an optimist?

LEVINE

Of course, although I try to protect myself. When I see a fight in the subway, I don’t try to stop it. My wife, the total optimist, is the kind of person who would rush over and say, Now, fellows. But I’d grab her and say, Honey, this ain’t our business. In fact this just happened in Paris; there was a fight going on and she wanted to make sure the bigger guy didn’t hurt the little one, and I said, “Honey, they will resolve it; this is local French politics.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep a journal?

LEVINE

Since 1973 or ’74. They are like diaries, but, reading them, you might never know what I did on a particular day. A lot is just physical description, details, surroundings, a particular smell even. I remember one entry I used for a poem. We were crossing the Pyrenees and our car broke down. I had to wait hours outside a garage while they fussed with it. It’s an awful feeling because I grew up owning old, bad cars, but I’m no good with my hands. I can change a tire or a water hose, but that’s about it, I’m hopeless. While sitting there, I noticed these guys at the garage had put in a huge garden. This was in Andorra, this little principality up in the mountains. I’d visited it in the middle sixties when it was an untarnished place, a sleepy Catalan town in an exquisite valley. But now it was this commercial hell hole with international skiers, and cute little chalets for rent. The air was fouled by all the Mercedes and BMW traffic, and the roar of motorcycles was horrendous—all the locals had money and wheels. But some things had survived in spite of the physical and mental pollution. These guys, when they weren’t fixing cars, were out there farming. So I took notes and later used it all. I find when I look back at my journals that a lot of material gets written when I’m traveling; it becomes a way of using the “unscheduled hours.”

INTERVIEWER

I would like to ask you about some specific poems and their geneses. What about the title poem from your early book, On the Edge?

LEVINE

I remember what “On the Edge” came out of very clearly: a lecture on Edgar Allen Poe, delivered in French, a language I don’t understand. I sat right in the front; I didn’t know it was going to be in French. The speaker was a very nice young man, an Argentine I’d met. There was almost no one there—maybe ten people—so once he began in French I couldn’t leave, it would have been too rude; so I sat through fifty minutes, an academic hour. I focused on small things, like the delightful way he said Poe’s name in this French way, ed-ga-po . . . so much more delicious than Edgar Allan Poe in a heavy Midwestern voice, the way my high-school lit teacher had said it. So musical, ed-ga-po. The French take Poe much more seriously than we do. I’ve always thought of Poe as the last poet in the world I would want to be, so I just imagined myself as Poe. The poem also came out of not writing. I was going through one of my extensive three-month dry spells, or maybe I was simply dissatisified with what I was writing. So I became Poe. The poem is really, I guess, about not writing, about the power one gains by not committing oneself; one becomes almost God-like. That was the vision of the poem, for God won’t commit himself. We don’t see Him, we have these rumors of His existence, hints of His immense power, we’re told of His enormous concern for us, and we don’t see it. So I said, Well, maybe I’ll be God-like, I will remain silent, I will give away nothing. I’m sure the idea came from my encounters with certain people who never seem to commit themselves and gain a temporary power, especially over a loudmouth like me.

INTERVIEWER

You often make casual references to the lives of poets; you always refer to them in a way that reminds me of what E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel, thinking of all the writers, dead and alive, writing in the same room. You seem to know a great deal and also intimate little bits about the lives of poets. Did you study their biographies when you were starting to become a poet?

LEVINE

Yes. And the letters of poets have been a great fascination. Often the poets come through so much more in their letters. If you have only Eileen Ward’s wonderful biography of Keats, he almost ceases to be a person, he’s so perfect; but in the letters there are his little smallnesses, his gossip, and the greatness of his mind and imagination. The miracles of him that never reached his poetry. He’s much larger and also more human. Wilfred Owen is so distant in his wonderful poems, and he can be so intimate in his letters. And Pound is such a complexity; he is so generous at one moment and such a petty little racist at another. And so funny and brilliant, and then by turns ponderous and self-assured. He’s ready to lecture Williams on delivering children.

INTERVIEWER

Have any of the poets’ letters surprised you and given you a completely different idea about the character of the writer?

LEVINE

Byron’s surprised me a great deal. I found such a passionate and human presence; in the biographies and in many of the poems he seems so distant, so Byronic, as though he were always aware of the figure he cut. Dylan Thomas’s letters were an incredible revelation, especially the early ones. The man was so sophisticated politically; by that I mean he saw the world much as I do, as a true Blakean anarchist. The later letters are awful, all the begging for money, all the complaining. But I’ll take them all just to have those magnificent ones he wrote to the young novelist he was in love with, so generous and visionary. I love Hart Crane’s letters. He was, at the start, just a Midwestern jerk, just like me, and he tells wonderful tales, he can really move you. One that describes Isadora Duncan in Cleveland is worth any number of his lesser poems. They are wonderful to have because there isn’t that much poetry, and so much of what is there is so difficult to enter, so alluring and so confounding; compared to them the letters are open. What’s so lovely about these letters is that they come out of the same sensibilities and often show the same amazing flair with language.

INTERVIEWER

What about your poem “Heaven”? How did that come about?

LEVINE

“Heaven” is a very realistic poem. I worked with the main character; we were drivers together for Railway Express. We handled big trucks. He was on probation because he was incredibly lecherous; we would go to people’s houses and if a woman would answer the door, he would always try to seduce her, feel her up; so these women would call back and complain and say driver so-and-so did such and such. He had a former wife he had done time for beating. He talked about that, he even had a picture of her in his apartment. He was an awful man. That’s one element of him I never let into the poem; I only suggested that he was awful. He scared me, too; he was capable of a kind of terrible violence. But on one occasion he really charmed me. We went into some rather wealthy home, down into the basement to get this trunk. We filled out the forms. Then we went to lift the trunk and it was almost unliftable, it was full of tools. I mean it must have weighed five to six hundred pounds, full of steel tools, and as I tried to stand up with the trunk I ripped my pants. He said, “Put it down!” He said to the woman of the house who had let us in, “I’m sorry, your husband is going to have to pack more sensibly. You can’t ask two mortals to take this up that flight of stairs.” He said, “Look what you did to my buddy’s pants. Show her.” So I turned around and showed her that my pants were ripped. He said to this woman, who was rather elegant, you know, upper middle class, a doctor’s wife, “You are going to have to mend his pants, he can’t go out there like this.” He told me to go into the bathroom and hand the pants out; we did it quite genteelly, and she came down with a needle and thread and sewed the pants up. I mean, he demanded! You have to do this! He was nuts.

INTERVIEWER

The location and the tone of “They Feed They Lion” indicates a shift in your versification and in the intensity of your voice. How did the poem come about?

LEVINE

I had been to Detroit after the riots in 1968 and I was struck by a number of things. One was how scared I was. The riots took place in exactly the same neighborhood I grew up in. I went back with a set of rather standard emotions, or standard for me anyway, about how wonderful it was that black people were letting white Americans know what this place was all about. But when I got there I was scared. People were looking at me like I was exactly what I was—middle class, middle-aged, white. There was a kind of boiling up of different emotions that I hadn’t expected, and it was that complexity of emotions that really produced the poem—my own rage toward America, my own anger. I mean, this was the America of the Vietnam War, and to me it was as though we were fighting two racist wars, one in Vietnam and one in the cities of America. We didn’t have Asians, we had blacks to persecute and kill and firebomb, or morally, mentally, and emotionally firebomb. So a lot of those emotions just boiled up. I wrote the poem very quickly. I went to a party, a wedding party, and I got very drunk, and smoked a lot of dope, which is something I rarely do (I find it bad for my memory), and I had a good time. There was a lot of dancing at this party, and I danced and danced. It was a time of crazy dance parties. I went home and in the middle of the night I woke up with the idea for the poem. But I was still a wreck. I didn’t try to write it, and in fact I waited perhaps two or three days with the notion that there was this poem, it was going to look this way, the line was going to be influenced by Christopher Smart’s line in “Jubilate Agno.” I waited about three days, and then I felt really quite sane, fit, smart, and I wrote the poem, probably in an hour, hour and a half.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to ask you about the genesis of a very different kind of poem, “On the Murder of Lieutenant José del Castillo by the Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936.”

LEVINE

The immediate stimulus was a book and also a radio broadcast. The book was the Hugh Thomas history of the Spanish Civil War. I came across this familiar sequence of events that lead to the death of Garcia Lorca. It began with a building strike in Madrid. The strikers were attacked by a group of señoritos, young unmarried men of means, of a fascist persuasion. They pulled up to this building site, shot some strikers to death, and raced off in a car. Del Castillo saw this and pursued them. They resisted arrest, there was gunfire, and two of them were killed. About a week later a note was thrown into his barracks that he would be murdered in revenge. While he was off duty, walking in the park on a Sunday, this hired killer, Bravo Martinez, shot him to death. His comrades were enraged; they went out and grabbed a very powerful right-wing journalist named Calvo Sotelo, a man who had been denouncing the strikers day after day in his newspaper columns. They pretended they were arresting him, but they had no warrant; they bumped him off. They felt he was responsible for the death of their comrade. The war broke out a week later, and the official story Thomas tells is that the fascists in Grenada seized Garcia Lorca and took his life in revenge for the murder of their hero Sotelo, a writer for a writer. A horrifying chain of events. The death that most obsessed me was the anonymous one, that of this courageous cop who lost his life protecting the rights of strikers. The whole world mourned the loss of Garcia Lorca. Then I was driving home early one Sunday morning; I had the radio on and I got this black preacher from Chicago. My head was immersed in the Spanish thing. The preacher was blessing people who because of sickness or troubles couldn’t make it to church that day. He’d name the people and say something for each, and for this one man he said something like, Bless you, Charlie Smith, and hang on, old soldier. He used that antiquated expression I used to hear as a kid, “old soldier.” And I suddenly thought there are blessings still going out for that man, del Castillo, who gave his life for ordinary working people way back forty-some years before, and that this blessing the black preacher gave was, in a way, for del Castillo too. And I just went home and wrote the poem. Some years later a book came out that made it clear that del Castillo’s death had nothing to do with the death of Garcia Lorca—Ian Gibson’s The Death of Lorca. The people of Grenada who murdered Lorca did it for even more disgusting motives. Not even for his politics, which weren’t left anyway. They hated him because he was so fucking talented, because he was bisexual; they hated him the way dumbbells hate smart people, the way the graceless hate someone amazing. But it didn’t change my feelings for the poem at all.

INTERVIEWER

Do you know your own poems by heart?

LEVINE

No, I make an effort not to learn them by heart. I know a lot of people memorize their poems and give readings from memory, but I try to forget mine. I find that makes the readings more interesting for me; I’m often actually surprised by the phrasing, really quite delighted by it. Also, I don’t want to sit down and write my own poems again; I want my mind clear of them. At my age the big danger for a poet is that he’s going to rewrite his own work. One can feel very secure doing another version of what already worked.

INTERVIEWER

What about the poem “Let Me Begin Again”?

LEVINE

I got that phrase “let me begin again” in my head, and the images took me to an emotional field that must have been waiting inside me for some kind of release. I realized that I wanted to enter my life exactly as I had the first time but with one huge difference: this time I wanted to love my life and myself. I was suddenly struck by the fact that in spite of the impossible and unique gift of a life, it took me so long to learn that I and my life were loveable.

INTERVIEWER

What made this change?

LEVINE

Maybe it was the constant love that I was receiving from my kids and my wife and my best friends. I thought, Hey, I must be okay. At any rate, there was someplace in there where I began to feel differently about myself, and in the poem, I’m saying, Let me begin again. Once again I’m going to be born in a hospital named for an automobile—which I was, in Henry Ford Hospital. But this time I’m going to be wise with the knowledge that every human being is enormously unusual, different, and loveable. I think it’s a poem of affirmation.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written a great deal about family life.

LEVINE

Yes, about both my families, the one I was born into and the one my wife and I have created. To me they truly feel like two different entities. One exists mainly in memory, for most of those people have died. I’m very powerfully tied to the one we’ve created, to my kids, and now to the families they’re creating.

INTERVIEWER

It’s very hard to have a clear sense of the family you come from because you seem to fictionalize it in your poems. It’s not consistent. For example, did your father leave your family when you were a small child?

LEVINE

My father died when I was very young. But often the speaker in my poems is not me; when it’s me, he died, and when the speaker is someone else the father could have done anything. As a child of five his dying was leaving; I didn’t understand death. You’re absolutely right, that family is often fictionalized, partly to protect the innocent or the guilty, however you see those people. I’ve invented relatives I never had so I could talk about the ones I did have without the fear of insulting people I love. I have one relative I love a great deal who did a variety of things the world might call awful. I don’t see his or her behavior that way at all; I’m deeply moved by his or her rebelliousness and audacity.

INTERVIEWER

Another poem of affirmation is “One for the Rose.”

LEVINE

I like that poem. The other day I was talking to Galway Kinnell and he mentioned where he was at age twenty-five: Paris. He mentioned he was a very good friend of very famous people. And here I was at the same age, a schmuck working in a factory. So I’m saying, Why? I’m saying, Why didn’t I do it right, why did I have to go to this stupid wedding in Akron, and take all those buses to get there? I remember the poem appeared in The New Yorker, and they questioned that Akron is hundreds of miles south of Detroit. They’re wonderful; they must be inaccurate about nothing. I said, Why don’t you call the Greyhound Bus station and find out how you get to Akron from Detroit, and you’ll discover that going with them it is hundreds of miles. In the poem I take joy in the fact I did it the hard way. I might as well. When you get some place in your life, and you look back and see you did it the dumb way, you might as well find some reason for admiring the way you did it, because you’re stuck with it.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a more personal way, perhaps.

LEVINE

By not going to Paris to study at the foot of Gertrude Stein or going to Harvard to study with Harry Levin or Walter Jackson Bate or Archibald MacLeish, I stayed at home and studied with my equals, people of my own age, which may have been right for me. I was better off with my equals. What was I going to write about Gertrude Stein? I met a woman once who lived in a house here in New York with Emma Goldman, with whom she was in tutelage. I asked her what Emma was like. She said, “Well, first thing, she never taught me anything, because she didn’t like women, so she never really talked to me.” I said, “She didn’t like women?” She said, “No, she didn’t think women were serious.” She said, “My main remembrance of her was that in the morning she had a little glass bell; when she awakened she rang it. And we would bring her breakfast up to her.” I thought, My God, this great freedom fighter for anarchism and the rights of women and workers and everything else! Isn’t it marvelous. Who would have guessed?

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about the Tom Jefferson poem, your most recent.

LEVINE

I went back to Detroit last October. I discovered in some of the areas that had been burned out back in ’67 or torn down for an urban renewal that never took place, people had moved back in, leading what was almost a semi-rural life. Much of what’s in the city was absent; there were no stores around, very few houses, no large buildings. Lots of empty spaces, vacant lots, almost like the Detroit I knew during the war. And people were farming, too, gardening on a scale. They had truck gardens, kept animals, what have you. It was right near the ballpark, so at night when the Tigers were playing there would be thousands of people there. Then they would get in their cars and leave; the place would be almost empty. I met a guy who lived in one of these houses. He didn’t own it or rent it, and in fact he didn’t even know who owned it. He described his life there, and the poem rose out of the conversation we had. It also came out of the hope that the city might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don’t see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities.

INTERVIEWER

Nothing heroic is happening in Detroit.

LEVINE

Nothing epic. Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It’s the truly heroic. The poem is a tribute to all these people who survived in the face of so much discouragement. They’ve survived everything America can dish out. No, nothing grandly heroic is happening in Detroit. I guess nothing grandly heroic ever took place there; it was always automobiles, automobiles, hard work, and low pay.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.