Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Philip Levine

Philip Levine is our new Poet Laureate. It’s about time. He has been mine for many years.

My earliest entre into poetry was in the late 70s after coming across a book by Philip Levine. It didn’t hurt that we shared a name. My middle name is Philip…swear-to-god. I told him this when we chatted after his reading at Beyond Baroque in Venice about 25 years ago. I assured him I wouldn’t trade on his name if he wouldn’t trade on mine.

His poetry has grease and sweat all over it. He wrote of auto plants in Detroit and the working class life in general. I was astonished to learn that poetry could be made of such stuff. It gave me permission to mine all that “un-poetic” material in my own life. Of course he lifted the grime to another level. Poetry is all about transformation and there was much to transform in that factory life. In his words we hear machines sing.

And at the end you saw the earth tip
and barns and trees and old rusted trucks
slide away,

In the end Levine is a Keatsean romantic. He has found the lotus growing in the mud. The stars are best seen from the bottom of the well. He is always close to ultimates, to what might yet be as well as to the soil from which he sprang.

You think I didn’t see
you open your hands
like a prayer and die
into them..

When he wasn’t writing about assembly lines or picket lines he was giving voice to victims of race riots or the brutality of life under Franco and more current indignities. But his language is particularized; both gritty and unstrained.

I own eight books of Philip Levine’s poetry which I took from my shelf to write this. In my search for lines to illustrate his poetics I had no need to go beyond the first half of the first one. Each of his poems rings with hard-earned truth. All these excerpts are from his 1976 book, The Names of the Lost.

I expect many young poets or otherwise will now be exposed to Levine’s body of work and be encouraged, as I was, to find their own voice not only as a way of seeing but also a way of saying. In the end poetry is the discovery of what is singing within and getting those sonic rhythms down on paper.

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