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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

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Philip Levine. (Geoffrey Berliner, courtesy Library of Congress)

Library Days
I would sit for hours with the sunlight
streaming in the high windows and know
the delivery van was safe, locked in the yard
with the brewery trucks, and my job secure.
I chose first a virgin copy of The Idiot
by Dostoyevsky, every page of which confirmed
life was irrational. The librarian, a woman
gone gray though young, sat by the phone
that never rang, assembling the frown
reserved exclusively for me when I entered
at 10 a.m. to stay until the light dwindled
into afternoon. No doubt her job was to guard
these treasures, for Melville was here, Balzac,
Walt Whitman, my old hero, in multiple copies
each with the aura of used tea bags. In late August
of 1951 a suited gentleman reader creaked
across the polished oaken floor to request
the newest copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships
only to be told, “This, sir, is literature!”
in a voice of pure malice. I looked up
from the text swimming before me in hopes
of exchanging a first smile; she’d gone back
to her patient vigil over the dead black phone.
Outside I could almost hear the world, trucks
maneuvering the loading docks or clogging
the avenues and grassy boulevards of Detroit.
Other men, my former schoolmates, were off
on a distant continent in full retreat, their commands
and groans barely a whisper across the vastness
of an ocean and a mountain range. In the garden
I’d planted years before behind the old house
I’d long ago deserted, the long winter was over;
the roses exploded into smog, the African vine
stolen from the zoo strangled the tiny violets
I’d nursed each spring, the mock orange snowed
down and bore nothing, its heavy odor sham.
“Not for heaven or earth would I trade my soul,
rather would I lie down to sleep among the dead,”
Prince Myshkin mumbled on page 437,
a pure broth of madness, perhaps my part,
the sole oracular part in the final act
of the worst play ever written. I knew then
that soon I would rise up and leave the book
to go back to the great black van waiting
patiently for its load of beer kegs, sea trunks
and leather suitcases bound for the voyages
I’d never take, but first there was War and Peace,
there were Cossacks riding their ponies
toward a horizon of pure blood, there was Anna,
her loves and her deaths, there was Turgenev
with his impossible, histrionic squabbles,
Chekhov coughing into his final tales. The trunks—
with their childish stickers— could wait, the beer
could sit for ages in the boiling van slowly
morphing into shampoo. In the offices and shops,
out on the streets, men and women could curse
the vicious air, they could buy and sell
each other, they could beg for a cup of soup,
a sandwich and tea, some few could face life
with or without beer, they could embrace or die,
it mattered not at all to me, I had work to do.

Excerpted from News of the World by Philip Levine. Copyright © 2009 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Zackary Sholem Berger says:


Perhaps more than any other ethnic group in the United States, Jews have struggled with their dual identity.” Perhaps – and perhaps not! 

J. Arnon says:

I must say, Levine’s poetry never did much for me. 

If I had ot choose between a make believe Jews like Levine and a real Goy like Berryman I’ll take the Goy every time. 

Berryman, is one of my favorite American  poets, btw.

Very typical of the majority of American Jews, completely ignorant of who he is and where he comes from.

I think the Talmudic term Am Haaretz best sums him up.

What’s up with the Nadal comments? I don’t think Levine is nearly that fierce! Unless profanity fierceness? Anyway, I always think of that poem about a cat sitting on top of the poet’s typewriter, swatting at his hands every now and then and that’s now poetic lines are made – perfectly describes the ones given here.

Thomas Graves says:

berryman probably turned levine into a drunk, though…as levine says in the interview, he was “proud;” no way berryman, who drank more as he got older, while levine drank less, was “proud…”  berryman wasn’t “proud.” that’s the difference…

Does anyone know who the Pulitzer-winning classmate who ‘became a Mr. Important’ is?

I suppose it might be W. D. Snodgrass. The dates roughly line up. ‘He wrote one other decent book, and after that everything he wrote was shit.’ Well, certainly Snodgrass’s career after ‘Heart’s Needle’ didn’t go quite the way he wanted it to.

Just a thought.

Shame on some of you…for some of the comments below. Levine is enough of a Jew. Read his work. His poems often take on an incantatory, almost prayerlike, intensity…like תְּפִלָּה. I love his work. Levine is the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His parents and their experience loom large in his poetry — as do his grandparents, and his extended family. All Old World Jews. All of them. Also, Levine has fought Antisemitism ever since he was a kid in Detroit. That informs his poetry, too.

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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