A READING BY PHILIP LEVINE
Introduction, by David Wojahn
Over the past several years we've witnessed many of the things which we regard as American institutions to become endangered. Slowly but inexorably they're being taken away, or sold off, or worse yet, killed off. It's a fairly long list of things, among them the First Amendment and the separation of church and state, and sometimes I wonder what is worse: that we have to mourn the loss of those institutions or that we have to live with ourselves after so easily letting them slip away.
When I worry about how perilous our situation is, and when I fear that in the next four years it can only get worse, I am deeply grateful that the poetry of Philip Levine exists. And I am reminded that he is himself an American institution, and I like to indulge in the fantasy that he is at least one American institution which the powers that be will never go after, because they are afraid of him, afraid of the truths he tells, afraid of his compassion, and afraid of the just rage which so animates his poems.
The America which Philip Levine speaks for is the other America, the authentic America, the one you won't see in the delusional claptrap of our president's campaign commercials. It is often a bittersweet place of inequality, of festering injustices, and of class and racial divisions which run deeper than any of us would care to admit. And for Levine our understanding of what matters in America often comes too late, and thus his poetry is suffused with elegy.
But Levine's America is also a place of wonder and astonishment, and it has room for every sort of eccentric, outcast, and hopeless dreamer aching for the Big Score, a weird and tragic but genuinely inclusive society, such as the one that Whitman envisioned, and Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams. Philip Levine is the principal living heir to this great triad of poets, their heir not just because he shares their vision for this country, but also because he shares their music, their absolute faith in the richness of the American vernacular. He has been an important presence in American poetry for over forty years now, and the example he has set for poets of subsequent generations, both as a writer and as a teacher of writing, has been an extraordinary one. He has published eighteen books of poetry and a memoir, and he has translated the work of a number of important Latin American and Spanish poets. He has won just about every award available to American poets, among them the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, The National Book Critics Circle Award, the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Ruth Lilly Prize, as well as various fellowships.
And he is one of those exceedingly rare poets whose testimony gets deeper and richer with every one of his books, and his new collection, Breath, is one of his very best. There's an exquisite poem in the new book entitled "Keats in California," in which he talks about first reading Keats when he was twenty, and then going out to wander "the streets of Detroit/under a gray soiled sky." It's the Detroit we all know very well from his poems. But in the poem he also gives us a glimpse of himself reading Keats at the age of 70, reading Keats as if "for the first time" at the age of 70. The poem contains one of those meetings which abound in Levine's poems, in which the past and the present commingle, in which who we are and the histories and traditions which have fashioned us become one incandescent whole. In such visionary moments, those moments which Crane calls "intrinsic myth," he speaks for both Philip Levine and for all of us who dwell in the other America. And here's how the poem ends:
It's a pleasure and an honor to welcome Philip
Okay, let's have dinner.
Thank you, David, that was such a generous . . . are you reviewing these days? That was such a generous introduction.
He said what I would have said about the current situation, so I won't belabor you except to say that I'm going to commit suicide by voting for George Bush. No, I wouldn't. . . . I would probably vote for Mussolini first. He had a sense of humor. For example, when he met Ezra Pound, he turned to his son-in-law, Count Ciano, and said, "Where did you find this idiot?" And Ezra couldn't understand him. Ezra thought his Italian was perfect, but . . .
Well, I will read from my new book, and I thought I'd start out by reading from my previous book, The Mercy. I'm going to read a poem called "Smoke." I'm going to read a Detroit poem—it's not that old, really—but that represents the city that I knew and loved and hated when I lived there. I lived there twenty-six years.
["Smoke," by Philip Levine, from The Mercy, published 2000 by Alfred A. Knopf.]
There is a curious poem in this book that I want to read to you because it's really about someone who lived in this town. He lived here, and a lot of you knew him, but you wouldn't know it was him because I make him Italian, which he wasn't, and I make him an Italian poet. I make him Cesare Pavese. But I never knew Cesare Pavese. I knew this guy. But I read both of them. I read everything they wrote. It was easier for me to write about Cesare Pavese than it was to write about this other man, because this other man was close to my heart. So I wrote about Cesare Pavese and said what I wanted to say about the other man. That's the way poems are born. Or die. I mean, you never know whether it's a poem or not. "Cesare." I don't know if you know Pavese's work. If you don't, you should find it, it's fantastic. It's just come out in a new translation by a guy named Geoffrey Brock (see Blackbird, Vol. 2, No. 1), published by Copper Canyon, thank you.
["Cesare," by Philip Levine, from The Mercy, published 2000 by Alfred A. Knopf.]
I'm very pleased with this new book of mine, I know you . . . I really like it. I like the way it looks. I mean, I found the photograph . . . they didn't like the title: "No, the title's no good." I said, "Well, you think about it for a while." They weren't crazy about the photograph. I said, "Well, you'll get to like it." And sure enough, it happened. I was patient and stubborn. That's my nature. Patient and stubborn. I lived through Nixon; I lived through Reagan. I was born when Herbert Hoover was the president. I survived that shit . . . I'll get through this son of a bitch. You have to be patient and stubborn, you'll get your chance. Or you won't. But you certainly won't get it unless you stay around.
This is called "Gospel." I live about seven months a year in Fresno, California. What kind of a town is Fresno? It's not dissimilar from this one, except it wasn't the capital of anything, not even California, much less the Confederacy. About half the people there come from Oklahoma and Arkansas, and they now think they're Americans. So they have two Buicks, and an SUV, and they rent dirty movies, it's the whole American thing. DVD's, yeah, they rent DVD's. They have computers. Anyway, there are mountains near there, the Sierra Nevadas, and they're fantastic. They're not Republican.
["Gospel," by Philip Levine, from Breath, published 2004 by Alfred A. Knopf.]
This is called "Absolute Water." It's amazing how well they can imitate the flavor of water with a little chlorine and that stuff for your teeth to poison your "precious bodily fluids." We are living in Dr. Strangelove. You remember that guy in Dr. Strangelove? He's now the president. General somebody-or-other.
I want to read a poem about my brother if my brother were somebody other than my brother. It's called "My Brother Antonio the Baker." The Canfield station is just a police station. The expression I use for what they feed you in the drunk tank is the expression the police use. How do I know? I read it in the paper. The Duero is a river in Spain. My brother is having an infatuation, a sort of little love affair with the poet Antonio Machada, and so he likes to pretend he can talk the way Machada writes, which is okay. This is all in the poem. I don't think it happens that often in daily life.
["My Brother, Antonio, the Baker," by Philip Levine, from Breath, published 2004 by Alfred A. Knopf.]
I had the good fortune to go to college at a time when the American political spectrum was very broad. The John Birch Society didn't exist, but there were people there who yearned for it, and if alive, are probably quite gleeful. I think they were too mean to stay this long on Earth, though. And then over on the left, we had Trotskyites, Stalinists, anarchists, the whole schmeer. It was great. You had Democrats and Republicans, you had everything. And it was kind of wonderful because we used to meet in these big rooms and have debates on serious subjects, like "socialized medicine," or "assassination," or "sedition." And we'd get very excited about it. And I wrote this poem in celebration of three people who really, who enter the poem. I don't know what became of them. It's called "Our Reds," R-e-d-s, "Our Reds."
Now, I give two of them pseudonyms. I don't know if many of you remember Ida Lupino? She was a film star, an unusual film star because she wasn't beautiful, but she was unbelievably appealing. I remember years and years after I saw her, after she was dead, my wife and I went to dinner with her husband, her first husband and his new wife. And I said to my wife, "I want to ask him about Ida Lupino." She said, "You don't dare." And I said . . . My brother and his wife were also there; I don't know people like this. He was a movie star, but I . . . Howard, Howard Duff, that was his name, God rest his soul, sweet drunkard. And a terrific guy. And I said, "But I've always been so fascinated by Ida Lupino." She used to play waitresses in movies, they used to make movies about waitresses, in dumps, and you had the feeling she was a waitress in a dump, I mean, she was just so authentic, and not powdered, and they didn't have to grease the lens or anything, they just . . . She was also the first woman director in Hollywood. She directed some movies, about waitresses, of course.
We sat down to dinner. My wife sat next to Howard. Within two minutes, I hear Ida Lupino mentioned. My wife who said you don't dare ask . . . She got carried away by the curiosity. "What was she like?" And Howard said, "I should have listened to my dog. He hated her." Then he had another drink.
["Our Reds," by
Philip Levine, from Breath, published 2004 by Alfred A. Knopf.]
I gave a reading once. There’s an organization called the Associated Writing Programs; it’s sort of the Modern Language Association of creative writers. It’s a place where you go, essentially, to die. Or to kiss ass, one or the other. But I was invited there, actually paid to come and read, and I read a number of long, resounding, rotund, sonorous poems, and a friend of mine—I also read this dinky little crappy poem—and my friend Stanley Plumly came rushing up to me and said, "'Home for the Holidays' is a marvelous poem!" I wanted to kill him. What about those big, serious, sonorous, epic poems? And he said it again, "'Home for the Holidays' is a wonderful poem. You should send it to The New Yorker." I said, "They’d never take it." "Oh, yes, they would." I don’t know if he’s got some kind of pull. They did. And they din’t change the language. For example, it begins, "Does anyone give a shit?" Now, that’s not the usual poem in The New Yorker. I mean, how did Stanley know? Okay.
["Home for the Holidays," by Philip Levine, from Breath, published 2004 by Alfred A. Knopf.]
Stanley was right. It's probably the best poem in the book.
Every year, somebody—I forget who it is, it's a guy who teaches at Smith—publishes a book of sort of spiritual poetry. I forget what he calls it, maybe it's just Spiritual Poetry. And every year I'm in it. And I am the least spiritual person you will ever meet. I mean, I love things. I really do. I don't want an hour with God, I want a new chair. My typing chair is awful. You know, I want relief from my pinched nerves. I don't want a vision. And finally I sit down and I write a truly religious poem, and it doesn't get in. I don't know. I don't know what he's doing.
someone who might not know where the Williamsburg Bridge is, it's in
Brooklyn, and if you cross it, you get to Manhattan, unless you're in
Manhattan, and if you cross it, then you're in Brooklyn. There's a kind
of reciprocity about New York. For example, if you were to jump in the
East River, you wouldn't get wet because there's no water in it. You
would just smell foul.
["Houses in Order," by Philip Levine, from Breath, published 2004 by Alfred A. Knopf.]
Let me change the tone entirely, for at least for one poem. This is from The Mercy.
When I went to college, the new philosophy was Logical Positivism, and the people who preached it, they were like the people now who preach literary theory. They know everything. And everything that came before ain't nothing. And I, who loved Kant, and Plato, and the existentialists, I was an outcast among philosophers. I was banished. I pumped gas. They had no aesthetics, anyway. Most of them didn't eat, and that's why they don't live anymore. They hated digestive processes. So this is called "Philosophy Lesson." And I was into the existentalists at the time.
["Philosophy Lesson," by Philip Levine, from The Mercy, published 2000 by Alfred A. Knopf.]
I didn't stop writing just because I published a book. Some people do, you know, they publish a book, and the publisher says, "Tomorrow is the publication date." And they sit there waiting, like the phone's going to ring, or there's going to be a clap of thunder, or something momentous is going to happen. And my image is, it has all of the power of throwing a nickel into the Pacific. You look out. Did the ocean change? It looks pretty much the same. But in the long run, something does happen, so I never stop writing, I just keep writing, bad or good, I write. That's what I do.
This poem grew out of a kind of wonderful experience. After a reading I visited a class, I don't remember what school it was at. And a student said, "What was the best job you ever had?" You know, because I write about work. It must have been after I wrote What Work Is, a book I had by that name, and I started thinking about what was the best job I ever had. And I remembered that I once had a job that I didn't have to do anything at, and I got paid pretty well. I worked for Railway Express, which was the UPS of the Stone Age, and I was working there for a while, and then one day, I was notified that I was supposed to go with a particular driver. This guy said to me, "I'm going to have an operation in two days. And so today, I'm taking you out on my route. And you will do that route for three months. And then I will come back." And we drove to a parking lot, and he parked the car—we had loaded the truck with a few things—and he said, "Do you like to drink?" And I said—it was about 9:30—and I said, "Yeah, but not at 9:30." And he said, "Oh. Well, I'm going to that bar over there. I'll tell you what. Meet me back at the truck here"—the truck was parked behind a brewery"—meet me back here at 3:00, and we'll finish our day's work."
So I met him. I actually went to the library, and I came back and he said, "We're going to get there, we're going to get back a half hour late, we're going to have some overtime today, because I had to show you how to do the job. Tomorrow, when you do it for the first time, I want you to be an hour late. And then gradually, fifty minutes, forty, thirty. I don't want them ever to know that I don't do anything. And if they find out, I'll kill you. And that's how this began. It was absolutely fabulous.
There are references here. Prince Myshkin, of course, is the . . . see, I'm in the library, it's called "Library Days" because it was the only time in my life when I got paid to sit there and read. Prince Myshkin is the main character of Dostoevsky's The Idiot. Jane's Book of Fighting Ships, it's a book that lists war ships. And they bring it up to date, you can read about cruisers, battleships, whatever. Turgenev is here, Chekhov is here, War and Peace is here. But you've all read that.
["Library Days," by Philip Levine.]
This July I picked up the paper one day--it happened to be July 12--and I read that if he were still alive, it would be the hundredth birthday of Pablo Neruda. And I said, "Holy Cow!" because I was married on the fiftieth birthday of Pablo Neruda, and that day, I was married fifty years to my present wife. Nobody else. I was so stunned by this, by what a great day it was for poetry. My modesty just fled. There I was, Pablo and I. So I wrote a poem about it called "I Was Married on the 50th Birthday of Pablo Neruda."
["I Was Married on the Fiftieth Birthday of Pablo Neruda," by Philip Levine.]
I always like to read the last poem I wrote, no matter how good, bad, or indifferent it is. [Jacques] Prevert is a French poet, he's mentioned in here. Miguel Hernández is a great Spanish poet. [Henri] Michaux is another French poet. You know what a Lacoste is, it's one of those shirts with the little alligators on it. David Baer is my cousin, now dead. His name was David Baer Prishkolnik. He was my father's younger brother's son. He lived in Nimes, southern France. He was essentially a peddler. It's called "The French Have a Word for It." Oh, Alicante is a city in southeastern Spain. [It] once was a real working city; it's now largely a resort for the English and the Dutch.
["The French Have a Word for It," by Philip Levine.]