Philip Levine. That is all.

Facebook exploded last night with the official word that Philip Levine will succeed W.S. Merwin as our next Poet Laureate of the United States. No word yet as to what his poetry project will be, or if he plans one, but one thing is sure: this is excellent timing. Here are a couple links to the news (the Fresno paper's the best one):
The Washington Post: "Philip Levine was not expecting to be the new poet laureate of the United States. 'It just wasn’t something I thought I’d get,' he said, sounding a little amused by the whole thing." 
The New York Times: "The Library of Congress will announce on Wednesday that Philip Levine, best known for his big-hearted, Whitmanesque poems about working-class Detroit, is to be the next poet laureate." 
The Fresno Bee: "I don't know if they'd want me writing for official events," Levine said. "A poem to Congress? No, thank you."

Last night I reread some favorites from What Work Is and The Simple Truth, and tried to recall when I first encountered Levine's work.

I'm not sure of the year, but it must have been around 1998, my undergraduate Intro to Poetry class. Our assigned text for the course was A. Poulin Jr.'s anthology Contemporary American Poetry, 6th ed., and for whatever reason, Levine's poems weren't part of the assigned readings.

The photo in the Poulin anthology.
(link to photo source)
On this particular fall afternoon, I'd been reading Robert Bly in preparation for our next class discussion. I remember the college's small library, the table where I sat, a girl that smiled at me as she passed. My blue Bic pen in hand, I felt the slight warmth of weak light through the window bathing the huge book I held open to Bly's strange portrait, his puff of white hair and absurd necktie.

I remember this so clearly because I often think of this moment as the day I decided that, if I was going to write poems (this is long before I knew about workshops, publishing, the MFA, having a "career" in poetry, the po-biz), I was going to have to buckle down and read every single poem in this huge anthology. I figured if I could do that, I should be pretty darn ready to write my own poems. O the naivete...

I also knew that I had to make notes in the margins. I wasn’t exactly sure why this should be done, or to what end, but this is what I'd seen all the serious students doing. Had to be the "right way" to read poetry. Plus, if I opened up my anthology in class, all my peers and, maybe, the teacher, would see my marginal notes and finally recognize how bright and earnest I was. (Hopefully you can hear the nostalgia and sarcasm from where you are.)

And so I proceeded to read these poems, “Surprised by Evening” and “Waking from Sleep,” “Poem in Three Parts” and “Passing an Orchard,” and all the others. I wrote comments in the margins. Blue ink all over the pages.

A slightly embarrassing sample of my marginal notes.
I still have the anthology, and I’ve just pulled it off the shelf. With tongue in cheek, here are some of those insightful notes: “harsh/violent,” “reincarnation,” “no chance = offense.” Complex binaries like “awake vs. asleep,” “good vs. bad,” “morning vs. night.” Other comments like “suppressing imagery—like a chest cold,” “Interesting not ‘turn to dust,’” “interesting change off falling to tunneling,” “nature with human response and action qualities,” “Great waking image!”

I circled words, wrote dictionary definitions at the bottom of the page, drew lines connecting words, underlined all the words that rhymed with "Bly." I remember, too, that I read each poem twice, because that’s what my teacher said to do. “See? I’m a good student, right?”

I realize that none of this has been about Philip Levine. And that’s my point.

After I finished prepping for class, studying the Bly poems, inking my insights onto the pages of the anthology, I decided to do the same to one of the poets not on the syllabus. Figured I’d get ahead of the other students. Figured I’d read some outside poet and mention them in class. Drop their name. Separate myself from the group by doing that.

So I picked up the book and began to page through, front to back. Decided I’d stop at the first poet whose photo was as weird as Bly’s.

Photo by Christopher Felver
(scanned from anthology)
I only made it as far as Levine: his scraggly mustache, his eyes that seemed to be crying from joy, his goofy necklace and medallion, his teeth (!). He seemed to be looking right at me, and far into me, to the core of who I was and wasn't, and who and what I wanted to become.

The first poem I read was “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” and this is my point: I devoured all nine of his poems, and I didn’t scratch a single blue-ink note in the margin. Not a one. Nada.

I just read.

I read the poems over and over and over, and I never told anyone about him. Not the other students in the class. Not the teacher.

I didn’t want them to know about him because he was mine. He’d spoken to me.

Years later I teach his poems in my own workshops and intro to literature classes, always hoping that his poems will find a student just as they found me, that he would become theirs in the same way, that he would be there to teach my students to read poems, to see the connections of our lives.

Thankfully, now that he is Poet Laureate, we have a reminder of what poetry and poets can do. I'm grateful that Philip Levine remains, and is even more so now, all of ours.


Animals are Passing from Our Lives

It’s wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.

I’m to market. I can smell
the sour, grooved block, I can smell
the blade that opens the hole
and the pudgy white fingers

that shake out the intestines
like a hankie. In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble,
suffering children, suffering flies,

suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see. The boy
who drives me along believes

that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife

discovering television,
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.

Philip Levine
from Not This Pig

Other Philip Levine poems posted @ Against Oblivion:

"A Sleepless Night"
"To a Child Trapped in a Barber Shop"
"Sweet Will"
"The Sea We Read About"
"On 52nd Street"