Philip Levine, Fierce About Poetry
The U.S. poet laureate on growing up Jewish in Detroit, playing tennis in verse, and hanging on to his memories, which are the source of his art
To read a selection of poems by Philip Levine, including “Library Days,” “The Seventh Summer,” and “Growth,” click here.
This year, 83-year-old Philip Levine, poet of the working class, was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. Tablet book critic Adam Kirsch once pointedly noted that Levine “goes out of his way to tell us that he is essentially a peasant. … In his poetry he returns again and again to his pre-academic life as a manual laborer.” Having grown up in a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Detroit, Levine worked in factories until the age of 30, when he began teaching English and creative writing.
Here, Levine talks to Tablet contributor Jake Marmer about his writing, ethics, being Jewish, and more.
You’re best-known as the poetic voice of the blue-collar experience. Do you feel enriched or limited by this qualification?
I’d say I’m indifferent to it. I don’t embrace it fondly. Robert Frost wouldn’t write just because he was a nature poet. It’s something that’s there, and it’s obvious—and it’s limiting. I think I write handsome poems about a great range of subjects.
James Billington, the librarian of Congress, who picked you for the Poet Laureate award this year, called you a “very, very American voice.” Perhaps more than any other ethnic group in the United States, Jews have struggled with their dual identity. To what extent do your Jewish and American identities overlap and where are they disparate?
I think I’m a typical example of a certain kind of an American Jew. That is: liberal, radically left, independent, big-mouthed, angry, proud. I know a lot of people like me. My family did not come to the United States for religious reasons: They came to survive. None of them were religious, not in the conventional sense. They didn’t keep kosher, they didn’t go to shul. They didn’t much care about that at all. What they cared about was being proud, raising their children to be like them—strong, proud. Detroit was a viciously anti-Semitic city. It was the home of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford, that’s all you need to know. A Jew in Detroit felt he or she was immersed in a non-friendly milieu. I have this poem called “Zeide”—do you know it?
I don’t think so—it’s about your grandfather?
Certainly not about my grandmother! Of course it’s about my grandfather—or somebody’s grandfather. And I have another poem about my grandmother—who I identify as Polish. I don’t call her Jewish, because she regarded herself as Polish and became a Christian Scientist—how do you like that? Born in a little shtetl in what was then part of the Russian Empire, and is now Ukraine. I didn’t care much for my bubbe. But my grandfather, Zeide, I loved. He was lecherous, often drunk—but fun. Great to be with. A gambler. Made money and lost money. And you could never tell—he’d never show it.
What has changed about your approach to writing and what remained the same—you’ve been writing for 50 years now?
Seventy years. My earliest poems were not written with the benefit of the knowledge of poetry. Poetry was not particularly well taught in my school. My inspiration was largely based on the Old Testament, the King James version. I was also fascinated with Southern Baptists and that they used the biblical language and biblical rhythms. I never paid attention to the content, but I just loved the words themselves and the cadences.
Once I discovered poetry—and my first discovery was English war poet Wilfred Owen—he had an enormous impact. In college I found modern poetry. I had never seen poetry about the urban world. Everything we read in class was poetry about the natural world, bucolic. And then I see T.S. Eliot, and his “Preludes.” There’s the city, beautiful images of the city. I said, “Wow, I don’t have to fake this nature-love, I can write about what I want.” My early poems ignored the place I lived in—maybe it was an effort to remove myself, I don’t know. That was the first big change.
The second big change came about when I began to discover Dylan Thomas, the sudden musicality of his work. He at the time was touring the United States, and giving readings. His behavior was outrageous, which only endeared him to young poets like me. Unfortunately, he drank himself to death at the age of 40, but I forgave him that. And then, when I was 26 or 27, I studied with John Berryman. His standards were very high, and he had a huge impact on me. For one thing, he liked what I did, he liked the idea of the guy writing about Detroit. I never had a really terrific poet read my work and really admire it.
Berryman, of all the people I ever studied with, was the one who gave me insight into how to become a better poet, and I saw the ferocity with which he pursued poetry. I thought: “I’m going to have to be that ferocious if I’m going to make it.” And I became that ferocious. Poetry right at the center. The way Rafael Nadal, a great tennis player, puts tennis right at the center of his life. If he’s doing something that doesn’t contribute to his becoming a better tennis player, he doesn’t do it. He saw all those young girls were taking his energy away—he stopped fucking all those young girls—which actually I think was a mistake.
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