Remembering former poet laureate Philip Levine

Former US Poet Laureate Philip Levine (1928-2015) was down to earth and humble. But he spared no rage towards those he deemed selfish and narcissistic. Brooklyn Book Festival/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Across the hall from my office in the English Department at Vanderbilt University, a colleague maintains a smidgen of bourbon – Wild Turkey, as it happens – on a shelf stuffed full of books on American cinema. After Philip Levine died earlier this month, the colleague reminded me that this is the very bottle we nearly emptied on April 18 1995 toasting Levine, who was Vanderbilt’s visiting writer that semester.

Throughout the spring of 1995, we’d known that Levine was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his most recent book, The Simple Truth. And on that afternoon in April, it seemed as though this delicious possibility was about to be confirmed. One of us had passed by his office with its open door – had overheard him saying into the telephone, “This is certainly an honor.” Rapidly, word spread through the building. When my colleague, poet Mark Jarman (a longtime friend of Phil and his wife Fran), hurried downstairs, Phil met Mark in the hall with an acknowledging smile on his face.

“Isn’t it sweet?” was all he’d said.

Only a couple of weeks before, at a standing-room only campus reading, Jarman had introduced Levine. “I want to begin by saying something unequivocal,” he said. “Philip Levine is the greatest living American poet.”

Now, those words seemed prophetic.

Although he was part of a near-legendary generation of American poets – Ashbery, Bly, Creeley, Ginsberg, Hecht, Hugo, Justice, Kinnell, Kumin, Merrill, Merwin, O’Hara, Rich, Sexton, Snyder, Stern, Wilbur, Wright (astonishingly, all born between 1920 and 1930) – Levine’s work carried a sociological gravitas that distinguished him from all the others.

He was dedicated – devoted, even – to creating gritty and empathetic portraits of American blue collar workers. It was an aspect American life that, save for Whitman a century before, was only marginally represented in the American poetry canon. Never straying far from his own working class origins, Levine remained faithful to a political conscience forged in the fractious, multicultural maw of mid-century Detroit. His poems belong to history and sociology as much as they belong to literature.

The public outpouring after his death has been effusive. But I don’t think it’s that difficult to understand why these particular poems were loved so much, by so many. When Levine began publishing in the 1960s, most Americans still had living knowledge of the Depression –- the long and dreary aftermath of the stunningly swift collapse of capitalism. Countless grandparents, parents, teachers had made it through that era, only to emerge from the trauma of World War II and be greeted by the equally-stunning prosperities of 1950s American industrialism.

In the early stages of our transformation into a consumer society, the good times appeared to be rolling unimpeded. By the 1960s, many came to understand the false promises of materialism – the real costs of the omnivorous juggernaut of American industrialism. One of Levine’s most iconic poems, “They Feed They Lion,” seems to capture the insatiable and amoral appetites of consumer capitalism.

“They feed they lion and he comes,” Levine concluded.

Well, that’s the public, Important Poet part of it. There was the personal part, too. Levine had the common touch. Most people just liked him and he repaid their affection with conscientiousness. He was a famous, generous teacher and mentor of younger poets. He was loyal, steady and funny (oh my God, was he funny). He was more disciplined in his work habits than any writer I’ve ever known. He also had an old-time sense of literary community: he understood the interdependency of both the dead and the living in literature, and how that relationship has to be nurtured.

Still, not everyone loved him. His humility and his down-to-earth personality were appealing, but there was a large part of him that was neither humble, nor humbled.

He had edges; he was often consumed by anger, which, he readily admitted, “was a major engine” in his poetry. He possessed a profound impatience – really, I’d call it disgust – for poseurs and narcissists, people who put themselves above others. He had a way of using the word “indecent,” to express that impatience.

To Levine, lots of things were “indecent” – but that was never an excuse not to write, not to pursue poetry in his life and the lives of others. While he had legions of fans, there were some readers who found his work “flat,” his music too closely tuned to the prose line, his choice of ordinary life as his primary subject matter not “poetic” enough. Others who sought poetry as an escape or a form of entertainment were turned off by his irreverence, his blunt politics, his sneering dismissal of the 1%. But that was okay: he was a scrapper, and felt no need to be adored by all.

He let us bring him back to Vanderbilt in 2003 on the occasion of his 75th birthday. When I first called him with the idea, he fussed at me, and brushed it away. Then I fussed back at him, and we recalibrated our thinking. He and his wife Franny would come “hang around” – as he put it – if I invited his closest poet friends.

His final stipulation? That I wouldn’t arrange them into stuffy panel discussions, where, Levine feared, they would be “sitting around talking about me and my poetry as if I had already died…”

Philip Levine toasts with his wife, Fran, (left) and the author in a 75th birthday celebration at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt University