A Reading by Philip Levine
captured September 23, 2010 at Levis: A Celebration, a conference marking the acquisition
of the Levis papers by the VCU Libraries & presented here as part of Levis Remembered
Mary Flinn: Good evening and welcome to the keynote evening of the Larry Levis celebration, which is a reading by the wonderful Phil Levine. I have the pleasure of thanking some of the people who have made this conference possible. Central Virginia has someone who is a real benefactor of poetry in Carole Weinstein and helps to make it possible. So, we particularly are grateful to her for her kindness and thoughtfulness of poets and poetry. Also, we want to thank Larry’s family, particularly Buck and Sheila, his brother and sister, who are here; the VCU libraries; James Branch Cabell Library Associates; the VCU Friends of the Library; the VCU College of Humanities & Sciences; the VCU English department; Blackbird; VCU MFA program in Creative Writing; the VCU School of the Arts; the VCU Honors College; our media sponsor, The Community Idea Stations; Barnes & Noble; and Mamma Zu restaurant; and New Virginia Review. And now, here is David St. John who will introduce our speaker this evening.
David St. John: Well, it’s really a pleasure to be here. I’ve introduced Phil many times in my life. I have a special tie I usually wear, but I haven’t been back to the hotel since ten this morning. So, let me welcome all of you. As many of you know, Philip Levine is the author of seventeen collections of poetry, most recently Breath and News of the World. His many awards for poetry include the National Book Award for both Ashes and a second time for What Work Is and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth. Philip Levine ranks among the finest poets this country has ever produced. He belongs with those who are most thoroughly American. Writing in the great traditions of William Carlos Williams, eschewing opera in favor of jazz, the drawing room in favor of the kitchen, the silk covered settee in favor of the bus station bench.
What we admire about Levine’s poetry is the emotional riskiness, its large and deeply felt commitments. It is a poetry ultimately carried forward and transmuted by passion, by a stubborn will to remember and to testify. In our reactionary and forgetful time, his radiantly human and memorializing poems help us to understand our lives. Philip Levine’s poetic vision, nearly religious, transcends natural boundaries and transcends time. His voice blurs the line between poetic utterance and prayer. His lyrical compassion, anger, and hopefulness make him one of the most authentically moving poets of this, or any other, age. His poetry is tender without being sentimental, calm but not lacking in passion. Written in a diction as clear and lucid as spring water. Of all contemporary poets, he has probably remained most faithful to the world of the American underclass and its working class. For Levine brings the lives of ordinary working people into focus as they float up upon the breath of memory—a memory charged with affection and good humor. There’s a brave humanity in his work, the constant awareness of the deep and simple truth. And sometimes I wonder if any American poet since Whitman, since Whitman himself, has written elegies as consistently magnificent.
A reader one hundred years from now will learn more about the secrets of our time from Philip Levine’s poetry than that of any poet I know. Those are the words of Peter Stitt, Eddie Hirsh, Peter Davis, Phoebe Pettingell, Alfred Corn, John Martone, and Harold Bloom. They represent a spectrum of American critical understanding that Philip Levine is the poet of our time. And in my own words, he is not only the greatest teacher of poetry in America, he’s the person who’s made possible the poetry of my generation, the poetry of Larry Levis, and the poetry of American poets for years to come. Please welcome Philip Levine.
Philip Levine: Sit down. Thank you. Thank you. You have no idea what those blurbs cost me. I mean, really. But it was worth it. Today talking at Dave Smith, I said that one of my ambitions, my central ambition I suppose, was to be honored by the poets of my era, poets of my age. I wanted to be read by them; I wanted to be respected by them. And then I used an expression, “I want to be in the room with them.” Well, here I am. I am in the room with them and they have to listen to me.
I want to make references today to Larry, who meant so much to me and to many of you, a great many of you. I want to start by reading a poem about where I’ve lived since 1958. Mainly, I’ve lived there; I’ve managed to get out as much as possible—now half the time, because I live half the time in Brooklyn. I’d actually hoped to live in Manhattan. I’m from Detroit. I spent most of my life in Fresno. And I couldn’t get a visa for Manhattan, so I had to settle for Brooklyn and now I love it. This is a poem about the San Joaquin Valley, where David grew up and where Sam Pereira grew up. It’s called “Our Valley.”
[“Our Valley,” Philip Levine, News of the World: Poems, Knopf, 2009.]
You know, something struck me while I was reading this poem. Today we were talking — David and I made a point that Larry’s book Elegy was really put together by three people. First with the assistance, of course, of Greg and Mary, who sent west this box of manuscript poems — some handwritten — to me, and then I needed the help of David and a poet named Peter Everwine. And I don’t think without them I could have done it—or if I had done it, it wouldn’t have been as good as it is. And while I read this poem, I remembered that twice Peter Everwine told me not to put it in the book. So, what I respect from Peter is not that he’s always right — clearly you heard the poem, he’s dead wrong—but that knowing me, and needing me because I’m his main critic, he could tell me the truth—how he felt. Which, after all, is all you can do for someone else. You can lie, too, but that’s worthless.
I want to read now two poems from The Simple Truth that I can point to the places that Larry intervened when I called for help. “Larry, help me with this goddamn poem, please.” And I sent it to him and he really helped me with both poems, and in different ways. Now, I’ll read the poem and you guess. No, I’m kidding. No, he didn’t make it sound like him. He made it sound like me—for better or worse, and you can be the judge of that. It’s called “The Old Testament.” I am a twin, I’m not making that up.
[“The Old Testament,” Philip Levine, The Simple Truth: Poems, Knopf, 1996.]
There were two places in this poem that I couldn’t get right. I just couldn’t get ’em, and Larry came to my rescue. I say, “I wish I’d been that tiny kid who fought back through his tears, swearing he would not go quietly.” And then I had two or three lines, and then Larry said, “Pick that up, ‘I go quietly packing bark chips and loam into the roses.’” And it was just that little instant, frisson, as pretentious professors say—I’m thinking of Harold Bloom; I used to sit in on his class. And bingo, I was off.
And then in the second part. When I got to “I remember saving for weeks to buy a tea rose, a little stick packed in dirt and burlap, my mother’s favorite,” and he wanted me to keep going; I remember this, I remember that, keep the rhythm going, push it. And that’s so much Larry. Push it, push it. And when he said that to me in a letter, I remembered what John Berrymen, who’d been my teacher, said to me once, said to the class. He read us a poem by Robert Frost, and I can’t remember which one it was, in which Frost kept repeating something, a phrase. And Berryman said, “You see how much nerve he has? He dares you to get bored with that.”
This was not the last book that he helped me with. I want to read the other one. It’s called “The Poem of Chalk,” and Peter Everwine also—he told me to keep this poem. So, he wasn’t always wrong. And I don’t want you to tell him anything. Don’t tell him I said these things, because I need him and I might lose him that way. No, he would giggle. This poem was born out of an odd locution you could say. Juan Ramon Jimenez, the great Spanish poet, came to New York in the nineteen-teens and wrote a poem about a man he saw on the street and it’s a poem I knew and loved. And then, about fourteen years later, Federico García Lorca came and he saw a man on the street and he said it must be the same man and he wrote a poem.
And I was living on Bleecker Street; it’s pretty far downtown but not really far. And I used to walk downtown. Larry used to call it our only European city, and that was one of the things that made it European—that you would walk for entertainment, not for exercise but for entertainment. To stare into the—into the variety and beauty of faces and gestures and to hear people talking, sometimes in Russian, sometimes in French, often in Spanish, in Polish, in every language, in Arabic and it’s just wonderful. And one day, I saw a man who reminded me of the man in those two poems, one written in 1928 and one in 1915 or something. And I knew it wasn’t the same man—’cause he was my age and I wasn’t around then. Oh, I was in ’28, come to think of it. I was born that year. So, that’s what got the poem started, I guess. It’s easy now to construct a rationale, and it’s entertaining. And I think this is what happened. I know that I used to walk on lower Broadway and I know I did it to stare at people, especially in the summer when they were dressed rather skimpily.
[“The Poem of Chalk,” Philip Levine, The Simple Truth: Poems, Knopf, 1996.]
Somebody today—I think it was Dave — you spoke about Larry and Zbigniew Herbert, and I hadn’t thought about that in a long time, although I know Larry’s poem about that time and how much Zbigniew meant to us and Miłosz. There was a time when the two of them travelled in California giving readings. That was a year or so before Herbert came to teach at Los Angles State, where they did not re-hire him because they wanted to find someone more distinguished. He might have been, and very likely was, the greatest poet in the world at that moment. And he meant a lot to both Larry and me, and if you know Zbigniew Herbert well enough, you will hear him—if I can find this goddamn poem where I stole something from him. I once had an audience wait for about fifteen minutes while I searched for a poem and then I remembered I hadn’t written it. I mean, I tried, but it was such a flop that I—you know, I said, “Oh shit” and threw it away, as you so often do.
That was another thing that we shared: ruthlessness, which I got first from Berryman. He said to me, “Be ruthless with your poems or someone else will be ruthless with them,” and I thought, that’s good advice, you know, get rid of them before somebody else tears them apart. It was David Wojahn talking about being with Stanley Kunitz and tearing his poems apart. And I was with Larry when he found out that Stanley had picked his book, and he was so thrilled because he so honored Stanley Kunitz. Stanley Kunitz—go read him, after you read me.
I don’t know what Larry would have thought of this poem; I wrote it long after he died. I’m sure he would have recognized what I swiped from Zbigniew Herbert, and that I’m not going to tell you. “During the War.” The war here is World War II and there are references to two terrible battles in the Pacific.
[“During the War,” Philip Levine, News of the World: Poems, Knopf, 2009.]
I wrote a poem about Larry’s revisiting me in dreams but I don’t remember the name of it anymore. It’s probably in one of these books. But I don’t say it’s Larry. You won’t think of it. Just pay attention to me, stop thinking.
I think I’ll change the tone and read something depressing. ’Cause, as you can see, I do have a sense of humor. This is funny and not so funny. No, that’s the wrong book. Oh, God, it’s such a burden having all these books. Okay, this is a poem about poetry, or it’s about poets, I should say: García Lorca and Hart Crane. I live now in Brooklyn, very close to where they met, where this meeting in this poem took place. Unfortunately, although it’s a space, it’s gone. I know exactly where it was but it’s gone. The building was torn down. I went there and there was a dormitory there, and I walked into the dormitory and I said, “Do you know that Hart Crane lived here?” And they said, “Do you belong here?” It’s a dormitory that belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and one look at me told them I didn’t. And so they pointed to the door that I’d come in and told me to use it and I did.
At any rate, those two great poets met in Brooklyn, at least once. We don’t know if they met again, because the one time was documented. Both would soon die. This was 1929. In ’32 Crane would leap into the Atlantic and die, and in ’36—the summer of ’36—the Spanish Fascists would take García Lorca to a hillside, and along with a number of other less famous people, and shoot them. “On the Meeting of García Lorca and Hart Crane.” I should tell you by the way that Crane was an alcoholic at that time but García Lorca was very vigorous and healthy.
[“On the Meeting of García Lorca and Hart Crane,” Philip Levine, The Simple Truth:Poems, Knopf, 1996.]
As I was reading that, I said—you know—I had said, I’ll change the tone and then the poem got depressing as hell. So, let me try to find something cheerful, because I have had a rather cheerful life. This poem is called “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School—Detroit 1942.” Last summer, I wrote the introduction for a book of photographs about Detroit called Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore. And what it showed were factories, dance halls, movie theaters, and how abandoned—people had come in and stolen the copper tubing and this, that, and the other thing and they were just wrecked. They were graves and houses that people still lived in although they looked hideous, but that was the best people could do. And it was my city and my neighborhoods and so I began looking to see if I could find on the Internet pictures of places that I knew even more intimately than factories.
So, I looked up Durfee Intermediate School where I, in one blessed moment, discovered the poet Wilfred Owen when Mrs. Piperno, my ninth-grade teacher, said I could take it home and read it if I wore white gloves. And I looked at her puzzled and she said, “Philip, it’s a metaphor.” So I went home and looked up metaphor. But it was an enormously important book for me to read at that age, preparing to go into the Second World War, which fortunately ended before I was drafted. So, I go to the Internet and I look up Durfee Intermediate, and do you know what I found? This poem! That’s all that’s left, this poem. I was shocked.
I don’t know, maybe the building is still there. The school where I learned how to type—I went to a special class of typing, that was at Cass Technical School. Oh, it was a wonderful, wonderful school. I didn’t go to it. I just went there to learn how to type. When I decided I’m going to be a professional writer, I thought maybe it’ll be useful to learn how to type. But I was going to college then — not college, university—and they didn’t have a typing class. But they said, “Go down to Cass Tech. You can enroll there, it’s free.” But you know, I’m like twenty now and I’m sitting in a class with all girls. Can I use that word girls? This isn’t Berkeley; you may still call young females girls in Richmond—you can’t do that in Berkeley. Anything old enough to walk is a woman. So, I go to Durfee and there are these fourteen-year-old girls that are going, you know, a hundred and twenty words a minute and I am going doop-doop-doop-doop. And they’re howling with laughter and offering me cookies and things like that to lift my spirits. I lasted about a month and I said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m tired of being an idiot.” Okay, I’ll read the poem.
[“M. Degas Teaches Art And Science At Durfee Intermediate School—Detroit 1942,” Philip Levine, What Work Is: Poems, Knopf, 1992.]
And it has. Today, a young man asked me — he said, “Your reading starts at six?” I said “Yes.” He said, “Now, you’re not restricted, you don’t have to stop at seven, do you?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “So, you’ll go on?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “It’s work.” And as everyone knows, I am the poet of antiwork. So, there’s a certain buoyancy and joy in me now as I am approaching the end. And let’s face it, you feel the same way.
I’m going to close with a particular poem. But I forgot to mention when I read the poem about García Lorca and Hart Crane—of course, I give my books to my two brothers. And my older brother—I was in Italy at the time and I had a book sent to him. I was at this study center, and he sent me a letter telling me that I had misspelled Veracruz. Now it’s the first poem in the book, so I wrote him back and thanked him for getting through at least the first poem. It was very different with my last book and one of the reasons it was so different was this poem, which is partly about him, and others. It’s called “Innocence.”
My brother was in the 8th air force, in England, during World War II. And even though I made a terrible mistake in this poem about what happened, he didn’t seem to give a damn. In fact, he liked this book so much—he’s blind and I mention that in the poem—that I actually sat down and recorded the whole thing for him and, you know, brothers don’t do that for each other. I would do it for any library that asked, but for a brother! I don’t know if you know the architect Richard Neutra. He was actually Viennese, but he came to the United States in the ’20s and did most of his best work in California. It’s very modern—right angles, lots of glass, metal, brick. It’s nothing like—well that’s what it is, lots of glass. So naturally, California getting all that wonderful light, and that’s the house my bother lives in.
The German novelist is the novelist Sebald and the facts of this walking trip I took from his book. He made a walking trip in East Anglia and he was actually going to the home of a man I know—or knew; he died since then—Michael Hamburger the poet, and they’re both in the poem. And I want to thank you, you’ve been a wonderful audience and you’ve put up with my nonsense and my joy in reading to you—I was lying about how difficult it is—I mean my God, all you people listening to little me. It’s called “Innocence.”
[“Innocence,” Philip Levine, News of the World: Poems, Knopf, 2009.]