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
And the same thing with me—not the young girls part, because none were clamoring for me—but I just put poetry at the center, and I realized that everything else in my life was secondary. Until I started having kids. And then I realized these things were equal. My love for my wife and my children, and my love of poetry. I somehow had to work out a way to be a good husband, and a good father and yet save enough time and energy to be a good poet.
Speaking of family, you seem to write more often about your parents and siblings than about your kids—is that accurate?
You got the ratio right. The past is much larger. The source of my poetry is my memory. I have a very good memory, and I remember a great deal. Coleridge commented that imagination has only the present and the past to work off of. Where else will it get its imagery? From things you actually see and remember. And I think much more from what you remember—what you heard, what you felt in the past. In the present, you’re just trying to write the fucking poem.
Even as you began teaching English and creative writing, for many decades you continued writing about Detroit and those early factory days. Did you ever feel compelled to write about your university life and career?
Who the hell wants to read about the life of a professor? Do you? I don’t.
The Poet Laureate award is one of the great many tokens of recognition you have under your belt—Pulitzer, National Book Award, etc. Have any of these influenced or altered your life in any discernible fashion?
Financially, that’s all. My editors love me because I sell lots of books. And I now charge a lot of money for readings. Ever since I got the National Book Award for What Work Is, my books started selling. It sold over 40,000 copies—that’s rare. And it’s still selling.
I have a copy!
Hang on to it! So, financially this award influenced me, yes, but in no other way. I have seen—I’ll leave this guy nameless—a classmate at one time who got a Pulitzer when he was 29 or 30. It went to his head in an appalling way. He became a Mr. Important. He wrote one other decent book, and after that everything he wrote was shit, and there wasn’t that much of it anyway. He had let the prize tell him he was significant. No prize tells you you’re significant, that’s just horse-shit. By the time I got these things, I’ve seen a lot of these prizes go to people who were unreadable but were politically in the right place at the right time. Because there’s a lot of corruption in everything—why not in poetry? By the time I got it, I said, “Great, I’ll enjoy it, but I just got to get back to work.”
What have you done over the years to grow as a poet, to improve your writing?
I stopped drinking to excess. I stopped smoking dope altogether because it’s bad for your memory. Because that’s where my poems-to-be are waiting, in my memory. I stopped lying, because I’m very superstitious. I have this feeling that I’m misusing language when I lie, and language is my medium—I can’t betray it. If I start lying, my poems won’t come to me.
But what about the craft itself?
I’ll go back to tennis here. Once you learn to hit a certain shot, you can hit it every day. And I constantly read poetry: often for pleasure, but also for obligation—students, fellow poets, etc. And I go back to some of the poets whose influence was powerful with me. I re-read the “Song of Myself” probably every year. I read William Carlos Williams almost every week. I read the 16th-century poet Thomas Wyatt constantly, studying how he handles the line, how he shifts in tone. And the contemporaries whose work I love—Galway Kinnell. I read some stuff for inspiration and also to see how they do it, I’m just constantly reading.
Are you excited about anybody in American poetry now?
Larry Levis. Book called Winter Stars. He thrilled me. Tony Hoagland is terrific—he’s funny, disrespectful, constantly surprises you. A young woman named Matthea Harvey and another one, Daisy Fried and another guy who just got picked for an award, Louis Asekoff—his last two books were terrific.
You were talking about getting that perfect “tennis shot” down and using it daily. And I think that very musical, fluid, free verse is your shot. Have you had any interest in the avant-garde?
No, I don’t enjoy reading it. They throw away the narrative, coherence. They throw away a lot. I have surreal elements in my work due to the influence of [César] Vallejo, a Peruvian poet I translated. In 20th-century English there was so much experimentation that proved successful but we didn’t follow through on. Like Williams and [Wallace] Stevens, their free verse feels so authentic to me. My first two books had rhyme and meter—I was a very disciplined writer because my life was so chaotic. But once my life got a real form and I knew where the next meal was coming from and I was teaching, then I got looser.
In their new yuk-fest The Three Stooges, the Farrelly Brothers deracinate a Jewish classic. But the brutish schtick got old a long time ago.