A Look At Philip Levine,  Poet Extraordinaire

 

Philip Levine is a contemporary poet that proves what dedication and determination can do for anyone that has a passion for a particular subject.  He has authored eighteen books (his last being The Mercy in 1999), winning great respect in 1991 by receiving the National Book Award in Poetry for What Work Is and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth.   Levine has accomplished these awards through a lifetime of devotion to his art form.  His first attempt at writing poetry was at the age of fourteen, and now at the age of seventy-three he is still productive.  While his biographical information always refers to Levine as having grown up in Detroit and having worked industrial jobs (General Motors), it must be noted that he graduated from Wayne University in Detroit.   His childhood and early adulthood (to age 26) was spent in the Detroit area and many of his poems reflect his memory of this era.  While his roots are in Detroit the greater part of his life has been spent elsewhere.  He was a blue-collar shoppie during a small part of his life, but more so he is an educated scholar who has spent his life learning the art and craft of poetry.  He taught English and poetry at California State University in Fresno California for many years until his retirement.    His work took him to numerous places around the globe during his career including California, Spain, North Carolina, and New York.

It is not by chance that Levine has been labeled one of America’s finest and most important contemporary poets.  A prolific writer all of his adult life, Levine had a vision and a desire from an early age that led him down the path to success.  His mother, whom he proudly refers to as a Jewish-Russian immigrant  (also a Detroit factory worker) fostered his love for reading and writing.  His father died when he was only five but he had also loved to read and inspired his family to do the same.  This has had a lifelong impact on Levine.  

Levine’s ability to draw from personal experiences through life and enable us to visualize where he has been and what he has seen is to his credit. Pouring over poetry for years has allowed him a unique understanding of language and the art of creating poetry.  Cesare Pavese, Williams, Hart Crane, Antonio Machado (Hirsch, 1999), Yeats, Whitman, Chaucer, Hardy, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas are a few names he speaks of as influencing his writing path (W. Stephenson, April 1999).  He has drawn from the greatest of poetic masters to create a style all his own.

Levine realizes the importance of poetry being a universal language, appealing to the human side of everyone from now to eternity.  His approach at writing narrative style elegies has worked in his behalf as evidenced by the many awards he has received throughout the years.  In an interview for The Atlantic Monthly Levine admits he that he likes to try and live in the past, the present, and the future all at once in his poems by using “…a narrative-lyric mode as uniquely his own as the stories he tells” (Stephenson, 1999). 

At a glance, Levine has memories, both good and bad, that he wants to relay to his audience; he has a story to tell from his diverse and various life experiences. He seems to do this over and over again with deep conviction stating the obvious and “simple” truth about our human condition of life and death.  The tone of many of his poems seems to be almost that of anger as he speaks the truth from his heart.

Gaining a good sense of who Philip Levine is became essential to my reading, understanding, and responding to his poetry.  Reading a number of poems from The Mercy, What Work Is and then The Simple Truth helped me to focus on an approach best for evaluating his work.  I selected Levine to study because I became intrigued with him while watching the video “The Journey Within” during our Lesley University Poetry Workshop.  He seemed like a down-to-earth guy who spoke from the heart and had a message to deliver.  In my research I find that he is extremely accessible with much credit to his name.  This has been a real asset in being able to find, read, and understand his work.  Hailed by many critics as one of America’s finest contemporary poets, it is clear that his work is representative of mankind’s plight and will surely endure the test of time.

The Simple Truth, a collection of narrative and unrhymed poems, gives one an overall sense of defeat and hope at the same time.  To focus on one poem, I have selected “Tristan.”  Written in first person perspective, I see this as a story of a boy whose friend eventually dies while at sea in his boat.  Recounting how he longs to go with his friend Tristan, the boy is prohibited by his mother from participating in the boating (perhaps of a relationship at all.)  Levine writes “Either I shut up or she would take her stick to me, and seeing how red her brow became, how the veins in her neck thickened, I would quiet” (Levine, 1994, p. 39).  Vivid pictures are painted with the word choices Levine employs, always appealing to ones’ senses: “…rain blowing… elms behind the house wailing… bobbing up and down…I could feel the glass, cool and dark…”(Levine, 1994, pp 39-40).   Levine’s masterful approach to the use of imagery is obvious.  Midway through the poem Levine offers us hope as the boat (“nameless”, as we all are in the end) becomes a planter in his back yard.  The image of new life and renewed hope leaves one with the feeling that life does and will go on when Levine writes:  “…filled with fresh black dirt…Small green shoots sprouted here and there where mother had tamped them down by hand: Thyme, mint, sorrel…” (Levine, 1994, p. 40).  The boat serves the purpose of perpetuating life as well as a memorial to Tristan as his mother plants herbs and flowers. Renewed hope for all life is evidenced by this gesture.

I think this poem is representative of many of Levine’s pieces in its style and character.  While he writes in a way that is simple enough to understand, he also leaves the reader questioning a deeper understanding of both the characters and the setting of the story.  Levine uses techniques and language that encourage his audience to use their imagination, looking beyond the surface of his words.  In his poem “The Simple Truth” Levine states “I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes, took them home, boiled them in their jackets and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt” (Levine, 1994, p. 44).  The image that Levine is portraying is poignant and one would have to agree nothing much simpler in life than potatoes with butter and salt.   

While Levine writes about everyday life experiences, people he has known, places he has been, it is easy for most to identify with the people he portrays in his poetry.  One needs to look at Levine’s poetry as thoughts of wisdom that the ordinary man can comprehend, yet provides the imagination an outlet to wander in personal reflection.  In an interview with Edward Hirsch, Levine sums up his work with the statement  “…but I keep writing about the ordinary because for me it’s the home of the extraordinary, the only home” (Hirsch, 1999, Spring). 

Bibliography

 

Bugeja, M. (1994).  The art and craft of poetry.  Cincinnati, Ohio: 

            Writer’s Digest Books.

 

Collom, J. & Noethe, S. (1994).  Poetry everywhere.  New York: Teachers and Writers

            Collaborative.

 

 Hirsch, E. (1999). How to read a poem and fall in love with poetry. New York:

            Harcourt Brace and Company.

Hirsch, E. (1999, Spring).  Interview: Philip Levine.  American Poet. Retrieved

            November 29, 2001 from The World Wide Web:

            http://www.poets.org/poems/Prose.cfm?prmID=2533

 

Levine, P. (1999).   The mercy.  New York:  Alfred A Knopf. 

 

Levine, P. (1994).  The simple truth.  New York: Alfred A Knopf.

 

Pinsky, R. (1998).  The sounds of poetry.  New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

 

Stephenson, W. (1999, April 8).  A useful poetry: an interview with Philip Levine.

            The Atlantic Monthly.  Retrieved November 29, 2001 from The World Wide Web:

            http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/poetry/levine.htm

 

About the Author:  Susan Hines-Elzinga is an art’s educator in Washington State. She recently completed her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis on integrating arts throughout the curriculum.