In Honor of Philip Levine, New U.S. Poet Laureate

I don’t know when I became such a big fan of Philip Levine. Possibly when I came across his Paris Review interview:

One of the aspects of my own poetry I like best is the presence of people who don’t seem to make it into other people’s poems. Much of our recent poetry seems totally without people….In others you get people you’d sooner not meet. They live in the suburbs of a large city, have two children, own a Volvo stationwagon; they love their psychiatrists but are having an affair with someone else. Their greatest terror is that they’ll become like their parents and maybe do something dreadful, like furnish the house in knotty pine.

Levine’s poetry is full of people you’d want to meet, as described in this New York Times article by Dwight Garner:

The work of Philip Levine, America’s new and 18th poet laureate, is welcome because it radiates a heat of a sort not often felt in today’s poetry, that transmitted by grease, soil, factory light, cheap and honest food, sweat, low pay, cigarettes and second shifts. It is a plainspoken poetry ready-made, it seems, for a time of S&P downgrades, a double-dip recession and debts left unpaid.

When I read that Levine is to be our next poet laureate, I pulled his book ‘Unselected Poems’ off my poetry shelf (which is really only half a shelf, the rest filled out with plays from A to I, Albee to Ives) and had another read. This one spoke to me and proves the points above.

The Letters

My friend Arnold wrote me how his life
changed the night he sat up in a car
speaking with a woman he’d met
while picking cherries. The woman
was unafraid of the future, she wanted
to live as much as Arnold, she had nothing
but the money she earned picking cherries.
Oregon in late June, the light hanging on
long past nine, the sky a radiant blue.
She reached one arm out of the car window
to gesture to the night sky as the stars
began to emerge. The car was her brother’s.
The three of them would wander the whole
Northwest in search of work and settle for
an autumn outside Billings where Arnold
built fence and Bailey, the woman, waited
tables in a small cafe on the Crow reservation
taking crap from no one. Winter just behind.
They never waited for spring and the cloudless
great spread of sky and the fields running off
in all directions yellowed with clumps of broom,
they never bent to the wild orchids hidden
in grass or the spikes of phlox at the roadside.
They headed south and spent two nights trapped
by snow in a mountain pass. The brother
dropped out, not — perhaps — out of their lives
but out of the letters, and when they got
to west Texas there were only the two
crossing the bridge at Juarez to find
the bus to Guadalajara. The story gets fuzzy
just here. They sold wood sculptures weekends
while Bailey painted and Arnold wrote
his first stories. I could go back to search
out the letters, six in all I kept that arrived
within a few weeks probably twenty years ago
when Arnold and Bailey were living in Oakland
two blocks from the freeway. They’d married
so many years earlier they’d become one person
in my mind. I know I won’t find the letters.
I know it hardly matters. In the dark
I can see Bailey’s hand, dark itself, stained
by the juices of the sweet cherries, reaching
out to speak to the stars clustered above,
I can see the sky deepen and disappear before
the early dawn stills the two of them,
stunned by how much they’ve shared
in just this one night and with words only.


2 Replies to “In Honor of Philip Levine, New U.S. Poet Laureate”

  1. I grew up in Detroit (1927-50)but not in the same city as Mr.Levine. I had to work factories as well after my GI Bill ran out, to finance my Ph.D. in American Lit. But I relished the contact with blue collars:it made me as well a lifelong spokeman for the deprived in Detroit. Levine (born 1928) seems to make a shtick of his factory work.I wrote no publishable poetry, but wrote essays on the pretentious self delusion that America was a dreamland of upward mobility.It’s a prison with exploding incarceration rates for the black and brown. Levine flaunts his anarchism in Barcelona. He needs to concentrate more on Baltimore. See my review of his award ön the website of the U of the Arts,Philly, where I lived for 50 years(1957-2007) until I moved to Weimar, Germany. Patrick D.

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