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Philip Levine, Fierce About Poetry

The late 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

Jake Marmer
April 16, 2012
Geoffrey Berliner/Library of Congress
Geoffrey Berliner/Library of Congress
Geoffrey Berliner/Library of Congress
Geoffrey Berliner/Library of Congress

Philip Levine died Feb. 14 at age 87. This interview originally appeared in Tablet on April 16, 2012. To read a selection of verse by the poet, including “Library Days,” “The Seventh Summer,” and “Growth,” scroll below the interview.


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.

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.

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.

The Seventh Summer
How could I not know God had a son?
the biggest kid asked. I considered.
No one told me. Did I ever go to church?
Yes, but they spoke a language I didn’t
actually understand. The three stared at me.
I could have answered that it was possible
God did not have a son and that this picture
over what was to be my bed was a fake—
for one thing it wasn’t a photograph,
for another it looked like an ad for Life,
but I was already sorry I’d said, “Who
is he?” referring to the figure displayed
behind glass in a plain wooden frame.
What I truly wanted to know was why God
had let anyone do such a thing to his son,
nail his hands and feet to a huge wooden cross
from which he sagged in what appeared
to be less discomfort than I would have felt.
“The Jews done it,” the biggest one said, as though
reading my mind. I felt a chill run through me,
sure that once more I was going to be blamed
for what I had not done or what I’d done
but done without meaning to, but the boys
—the oldest was sixteen, over twice my age—left
me to myself, for it was early to bed for everyone.
I lay awhile in the silent dark of the farmhouse
wondering if it could be so, that God had
a son he had let die, and if this were so why
no one had told me so that I might understand
why life could be so puzzling for all of us.
Days passed before Lars, the fourteen year old,
told me that it was OK, this Jesus had died
so that all of us could be saved, in the end
things turned out for the best. That was Sunday,
after the boys had returned from church—
to which I did not go—, and before we walked
into town to swim in the big public place.
I remember best how sweet was the lake water
we swam in, how I could even swallow
little gulps of it and not feel ill and how large
the bodies around me were, Lars and Sven thrashing
after the girls in their dark wool suits, the girls
squealing with mock hurt when they would catch
them up in their pale arms, for though their faces
were deeply browned their bodies were ghostly.
Sven, Lars, and Thomas, three boys as big as men,
who let me climb to their secret room beside
the hay loft, where they smoked and spoke of women,
the laughter rushing out of their great throats,
the strange words I had never heard before coughed
out in sudden spasms, and such hopes uttered
as they moved about the room in a half-dance,
half-sword-fight, calling out the magic names
of the absent girls as they stroked their own bodies
at chest and crotch or rolled on the floor
in mock death agony. August in Michigan,
the world spinning around me, my mother gone
in the grief of final loss, from which one day
she would awaken in daylight, one year
before the wars in Ethiopia, Spain, and China
could give me growing up its particular name,
and yet I sat at their table that night, head bowed
in the grace I did not say, thankful for corn,
beans, and poisonous pork, and understood it all.

Excerpted from What Work Is by Philip Levine. Copyright © 1991 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.

In the soap factory where I worked
when I was fourteen, I spoke to
no one and only one man spoke
to me and then to command me
to wheel the little cars of damp chips
into the ovens. While the chips dried
I made more racks, nailing together
wood lath and ordinary screening
you’d use to keep flies out, racks
and more racks each long afternoon,
for this was a growing business
in a year of growth. The oil drums
of fat would arrive each morning,
too huge for me to tussle with,
reeking of the dark, cavernous
kitchens of the Greek and Rumanian
restaurants, of cheap hamburger joints,
White Towers and worse. They would
sulk in the battered yard behind
the plant until my boss, Leo,
the squat Ukranian dollied them in
to become, somehow, through the magic
of chemistry, pure soap. My job
was always the racks and the ovens—
two low ceilinged metal rooms
the color of slick skin. When I
slid open the heavy doors my eyes
started open, the pores
of my skull shriveled, and sweat
smelling of scared animal burst from
me everywhere. Head down I entered,
first to remove what had dried
and then to wheel in the damp, raw
yellow curls of new soap, grained
like iris petals or unseamed quartz.
Then out to the open weedy yard
among the waiting and emptied drums
where I hammered and sawed, singing
my new life of working and earning,
outside in the fresh air of Detroit
in 1942, a year of growth.

Excerpted from What Work Is by Philip Levine. Copyright © 1991 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.

“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.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).