My Lost Poet


On Poetry

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.

Levine said he’d learned to harness his emotions from another lost poet, Federico García Lorca, who provided an antidote to Whitman’s pervasive, sometimes unrealistic optimism. In Lorca’s Poet in New York, Levine found the key to his own poetry: “Never in poetry written in English had I found such a direct confrontation of one image with another nor heard such violence held in abeyance and enclosed in so perfect a musical form.” It was Lorca who taught him to use poetry as a weapon—who validated his rage.

I first met Philip Levine thanks to Lorca. In June 2013, I was helping organize an event to celebrate the exhibition of the original manuscript of Poet in New York at the New York Public Library, and I’d invited Levine to participate. It wasn’t easy getting him to join us. You might even say he was cantankerous. He had a lot of questions about the evening: How many readers were there going to be? How long would the event last? Which specific texts were going to be read? He was particularly annoyed when he’d heard that an actor would be performing Lorca’s lecture “A Poet in New York,” insisting that the lecture, much less a dramatic reading of it, did no service to the poet. But after numerous phone calls and e-mails, Levine reluctantly agreed to take part in the event, though he made clear it would only be “in his own way.” He insisted, in the meantime, that I read his essay “The Poet in New York in Detroit.”

After that, we had no further communication until the night of the event. I wasn’t entirely sure he’d show up, and even when he did—a wiry man with a sly smile, slowly making his way to the stage—I had no idea what to expect.

He told the audience he’d asked me if he should be a little comic or a little heavy, and that I’d told him, simply, Be grim. The audience laughed. I laughed, especially because he’d fabricated the whole exchange. Even as he promised us he was going to do his best to be grim, he had the audience laughing between poems. He read a poem by Rafael Alberti, Lorca’s friend and rival, called “The Coming Back of an Assassinated Poet,” followed by Lorca’s poem “New York: Office and Denunciation,” to which he brought a startling, steady intensity:

A river that sings and flows
past bedrooms in the boroughs—
and it’s money, cement, or wind
in New York’s counterfeit dawn

By the time he got to the poem’s famous accusation—

I denounce everyone
who ignores the other half,
the half that can’t be redeemed,
who lift their mountains of cement
where the hearts beat / inside forgotten little animals […]
I spit in all your faces

—his voice, though slightly hoarse, was loud and audibly shaking with anger. After he finished, I tried to catch his eye, but he didn’t see me. He ended up walking out during the actor’s performance.

We didn’t speak until six months later, when I called him to see if he’d be willing to participate in an interview series for The Paris Review. He was surprised to hear from me—about as surprised as I was that he even took my call—but said he’d loved to “converse on a theme of poetry.” I arrived at his home on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights just as he and his wife, Franny, were finishing lunch. We sat in his study, where he told me about his eleventh-grade English teacher, who’d changed his life by lending him a book of poems by the British war poet Wilfred Owen. He used to tell people he wrote long poems comprised of short lines, he said, because The New Yorker paid by the line. He described his earliest explorations with poetic voice, explorations he kept private for fear of being mocked by his peers. In “My Lost Poets,” Levine further describes what that voice felt like: “a voice that tried to consider the value of being alive, the sense of what it was to be alive, not so much as Philip Levine or any other Levine or any other Philip, just to be alive.”

He told me a story about his poem “Fixing the Foot: On Rhythm,” which describes a doctor who visited a woman at a house where Levine was staying. The doctor was Dutch, and though Levine couldn’t understand what he was saying, he was struck by the fact that the doctor never stopped speaking to his patient. The rhythm of his voice seemed to calm her, to ease her pain. With wonder, Levine recalled, “He was incanting a kind of curative message and I thought, He should be a poet.”

Toward the end of our interview, I asked him about a line from one of his essays in which he wrote, “Keats knew that beauty mattered, that it could transform our experience into something worthy, that like love it could redeem our lives.” Did he still believe that, that poetry could redeem our lives? He said he thought poetry could do a number of things, and that he didn’t think our lives needed that much redemption anymore. On the contrary, he said, “I have always believed that there is an essential goodness in all of us. One of the most significant things I’ve always felt about poetry is that it’s a vehicle for touching each other, and my life has made it clear that that’s true.” Levine maintained that persistent faith in poetry. When he was asked, in his 1988 Art of Poetry interview, where contemporary American poetry had gone wrong, he said, “maybe it stopped believing in itself.”

Thinking of his legacy now, I think of his rage—the catharsis that can be found in his poetry, but also the tenderness. In a 2006 interview with Alice Quinn, then the poetry editor of The New Yorker, and Galway Kinnell—Levine’s longtime friend, who died last year—Levine remarked that Kinnell had once mentioned “tenderness” as an aspect of poetry that meant the most to him. At the time, midway through Levine’s career, this made him realize how absent that sentiment was from his own poetry, and it transformed his vision of humans “with their grace and their courage and their independence.”

But Kinnell wasn’t the first person to make Levine consider the importance of tenderness in poetry. In one of the intimate scenes Levine recalled from the Miles Poetry Room, his Hart Crane–wannabe mentor read aloud a poem by an obscure British World War II poet. “There should be more of this in our poetry,” the man said, “especially in war poetry.” Levine asked what he meant by “this,” to which the former responded, “Tenderness.” “I had never in my life known or even guessed there would be room for tenderness in great poetry,” Levine said, “but the moment he used the word my mind began roaming over the poems I knew best, and of course he was right: there wasn’t nearly enough.”

As I listen back to the recordings from our interview, I’m struck by Levine’s voice, which has the incantatory quality he ascribed to the doctor. I think of an older poem of his, “A Last Answer,” in which the speaker describes a walk in a desolate forest somewhere in Holland. It’s cold and his companion takes his hand for warmth from the rain. She asks what he’s thinking and just at that moment, a sudden blinding stream of light forces the speaker to squint his eyes shut. He sees a vision of the end of his life, trees like flames and sword-bearing angels. He says nothing of the fiery image to his companion and simply holds on to her hand as they walk on. The poem ends in that prophetic voice that emanates from so many of Levine’s poems:

the sea saves its tears
for the rising tide, somewhere
we’ll leave the world weighing
no more than when we came,
and the answer will be
the same, your hand in mine,
mine in yours, in that clearing
where the angels come toward us
without laughter, without tears.

Elianna Kan is a writer and editor. She lives in New York.