The Death of Philip Levine

The death of Philip Levine, one of the greats of modern American poetry, was announced yesterday. Bloodaxe published his selected poems, Stranger to Nothing, in 2006: http://www.bloodaxebooks.com/titlepage.asp?isbn=1852247371. Astonishingly, this was his first UK publication since Secker produced an earlier Selected Poems in 1984. Not as well known as he should have been in this country, there has been a good deal more attention given to him in very recent years.

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I’m ashamed to say I only came across him when Poetry London asked me to review Stranger to Nothing alongside Dan Chiasson’s Natural History and Other Poems (Bloodaxe, 2006). It was on the strength of the review that Anne-Marie Fyfe asked me to contribute to a Troubadour Poetry event in London celebrating Levine’s work. Sadly Levine was unable to attend on the evening due to illness and I had the honour of reading some of his work in his stead. For what they are worth, I’ll append the notes I made to myself on the poems I selected to read that evening at the end of this blog. Happily, I think I remember Anne-Marie later reporting back that Levine approved of my brief selection.

Some time later, Naomi Jaffa discussed his life and work with him at Aldeburgh in 2009. The Poetry Channel’s blurb for the recording of that conversation gives a flavour of Levine as follows: A giant of American poetry and now the newly appointed US Poet Laureate, Philip Levine memorably appeared at Aldeburgh in 2009 where he enjoyed a 45-minute conversation with Naomi Jaffa, The Poetry Trust director. In this absorbing, funny and wide-ranging interview, Levine covers growing up as a Jew in anti-semitic Detroit, working for General Motors, finding his voice as a poet, life at college with teachers Lowell and Berryman, his fascination with Lorca and Spain, his love of jazz (and loathing of Wagner), and which four writers he could bear to be stuck in a lift with: listen to that here: http://thepoetrytrust.libsyn.com/philip-levine-s-journeys

And as tribute to a truly great poet here is my September 2006 review of Stranger to Nothing:

On the face of it, the contrast between Dan Chiasson and Philip Levine could hardly be more striking. Bloodaxe have produced a fascinating selection from a poet whose relative absence from discussions of US poetry on this side of the Atlantic is a huge loss. Born in 1928 in Detroit, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the first poems included here were not published until 1963. Like Raymond Carver, to whom he bears some resemblance, Levine spent many years labouring in industry  and much of his later poetry recalls these experiences and the people with whom he worked. Whereas Chiasson is urbane and metropolitan, Levine is urban and industrial. Though encompassing a long writing career, this is not a selection that reveals very much in the way of artistic development; Levine’s characteristic style and tone seems to have come to him fully formed and he has seen little need to alter it. One reason must be the premium he clearly places upon being true to his materials – and in particular the experience of the American working people he portrays.

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Accordingly, there are poems in which Levine doubts the value of the imagination in its tendency to romanticise real experience. ‘Salt and Oils’ from the mid-eighties moves rapidly through moments in a life, but then concludes:

“These were not

the labours of Hercules, these were not

of meat or moment to anyone but me

or destined for story or to learn from

or to make me fit to take the hand

of a toad or a toad princess”

With very different results this might be seen as another attempt to achieve the “transparent eyeball” that Chiasson refers to. Things are what they are and it is in this sense that the collection title works. The phrase comes from an early poem in which a visit to a graveyard leads the narrator to contemplate the realities of life so that “in time one comes / to be a stranger to nothing”. This is also typical of Levine’s style – a loosely constructed, colloquial blank verse, driven along powerfully by the syntax across lengthy sentences that work by slow accumulation rather than the local explosions of linguistic surprises.

But if the fantasies of imagination are dismissed, Levine holds firmly to its role in the re-creation of the past. Often precisely dated, he vividly and lovingly portrays scenes and people from his past. A truck-driving uncle from “black Detroit” is sketched through telling detail – his “two hands kneading / each other at the sink” – and this summoning up into a type of art remote from the original life is, Levine seems to suggest, a kind of redemption or dignifying, so that the Uncle can at last “rise / above Belle Isle and the Straits, / your clear eye / rid of our rooms forever”. Throughout this book, lives are invoked in this fashion in finely-judged poems that neither underplay the poverty and misery within them, nor uncomfortably rose-tint the strength and humour such individuals need to survive.

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Perhaps for some, there will be something too fatalistic in these portraits of working-class America. Ought there not to have been more overt political agitation? But Levine works the vein of the individual, the idiosyncratically human and, I’m sure, for him that represents political position enough. In the very recent poem ‘Our Reds’, he again memorialises three characters from school days (1930s/40s?) and their promotion of Communist doctrine. Though the poem indeed acknowledges that what the future brought was “an America no one wanted” it is to “bless” the three that the poem intends: “bless / their certainties, their fiery voices / we so easily resisted . . . their faith in us, especially / that faith, that hideous innocence”. It is perhaps only in moments that working lives are felt redeemed as in the stunning ‘An Ordinary Morning’ with its plain recounting of workers arriving in the city on a bus. The driver and a passenger strike up a song – “O heavy hangs the head” – and as dawn breaks the other passengers wake, momentarily allowed the nobility that their exterior lives seem to deny:

“the brakes

gasp and take hold, and we are

the living, newly arrived

in Detroit, city of dreams,

each on his black throne”

Levine has said that the tradition of poetry he inherited in the 1940s was “utterly lacking” in the kind of people and experiences he had grown up with. His intention was to add to US poetry “what wasn’t there” before. To have done this so consistently – to record the plight and resilience of the poor and inarticulate in America without breaking into the angry simplicities of blame or party politics or caricature is a monumental achievement. This is a collection that deserves to become a significant feature in the twenty-first century landscape of UK poetry.

And here are my notes from the Troubadour event (page numbers here refer to the Bloodaxe edition of Stranger to Nothing):

Reading Philip Levine’s poetry I was immediately put in mind of Carver’s admiration for Chekhov – he quotes Chekhov’s letter again and again in which he says “you don’t have to write about extraordinary people who accomplish extraordinary and memorable deeds”. Also like Carver, Levine worked in industry for many years – born in 1928, his first book didn’t appear till 1963. Both seem fully paid up members of the working classes – Carver said he could never write down to his own people. ‘Saturday Sweeping’ – p 26

I like the way Levine’s poems seem to meander organically from one thing to another – without a hint of irrelevance. He also plays great tricks with chronology – memory of his working years often playing such a large part in his current thinking and writing. ‘Sweet Will’ – p 84

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Levine – like Carver – would sign up to Pound’s dictum that the only worthwhile morality in writing is “fundamental accuracy of statement”. But there is another current in Levine which can take him towards the surreal. This poem reminds me of Ken Smith’s ‘Fox Running’ (both 1981). ‘The Fox’ – p 68

In later Levine, the political anger is often transmuted into a kind of less deceived tenderness – an amazed sense of good fortune. ‘Philosophy Lesson’ – p 150

Levine often writes of visits to Europe – particularly Spain – and the Civil War clearly stimulated his imagination. Here though – I take it – he is also commenting on one of the great American poets who came to Europe – one I guess temperamentally very contrasting to Levine and I think this has to be intended partly as literary critical comment. ‘The Trade’ – p 127

Levine is also unfashionably willing to walk naked – emotionally. Some will think he sails the wrong side of sentimentality but I’d disagree.’Starlight’ – p 55

Working on Rilke for so long in recent years – I see him everywhere. In the Elegies he claims that even the street girls – prostitutes – are momentarily aware of the visionary possibilities his poems are concerned with. But here – lastly – is Levine working from a position of a good deal of factual knowledge and communicating the same thing – moments of vision without the religious baggage. ‘An Ordinary Morning’ – p 86

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