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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)

“Ode for Mrs. William Settle”
In Lake Forest, a suburb of Chicago,
a woman sits at her desk to write
me a letter. She holds a photograph
of me up to the light, one taken
17 years ago in a high school class
in Providence. She sighs, and the sigh
smells of mouth wash and tobacco.
If she were writing by candlelight
she would now be in the dark, for
a living flame would refuse to be fed
by such pure exhaustion. Actually
she is in the dark, for the man
she’s about to address in her odd prose
had a life span of 125/th of a second
in the eye of a Nikon, and then he
politely asked the photographer to
get lost, whispering the request so as
not to offend the teacher presiding.
Those students are now in their thirties,
the Episcopal girls in their plaid skirts
and bright crested blazers have gone
unprepared, though French speaking, into
a world of liars, pimps, and brokers.
2.7% have died by their own hands,
and all the others have considered
the act at least once. Not one now
remembers my name, not one recalls
the reading I gave of Cesar Vallejo’s
great Memorium to his brother Miguel,
not even the girl who sobbed and
had to be escorted to the school nurse,
calmed and sent home in a cab. Evenings
in Lake Forest in mid-December drop
suddenly; one moment the distant sky
is a great purple canvas, and then it’s
gone, and no stars emerge, however
not the least hint of the stockyards
or slaughter houses is allowed to drift
out to the suburbs, so it’s deathless
darkness with no more perfume than
cellophane. “Our souls are mingling
now somewhere in the open spaces
between Illinois and you,” she writes.
When I read the letter two weeks
later, forwarded by my publisher,
I will suddenly discover a truth
of our lives on earth, and I’ll bless
Mrs. William Settle of Lake Forest
for giving me more than I gave
her, for addressing me as Mr. Levine,
the name my father bore, a name
a man could take with courage
and pride into the empire of death.
I’ll read even unto the second page
unstartled by the phrase, “By now
you must have guessed, I am
a dancer.” Soon snow will fall
on the Tudor homes of the suburbs
turning the elegant parked sedans
into anonymous mounds, the winds
will sweep in over the Rockies
and across the great freezing plains
where America first died, winds
so fierce boys and men turn their backs
to them and simply weep, and yet
in all that air the soul of Mrs. William
Settle will not release me, not even
for one second. Male and female,
aged and middle aged, we ride it out
blown eastward toward our origins,
one impure being become wind. Above
the Middle West, truth and beauty
are one though never meant to be.

Excerpted from The Simple Truth by Philip Levine. Copyright © 1994 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Knpf, 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

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