Levine y yo: In Praise of Poet Philip Levine




THE FIRST BOOK of contemporary poetry I ever read was Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion, in 1972, my first semester in graduate school at San Diego State. Lion had just been published by Atheneum, the biggest publisher for poetry at the time after Wesleyan University Press. Wesleyan had published Levine’s Not This Pig but turned down Lion, which went on to see many printings.

My teacher in the M.A. program at San Diego State was Glover Davis, a then younger poet who had been one of the first students to come through Fresno State College, where Levine began teaching in l958. Other early students then were Larry Levis, Bruce Boston, David St. John, Roberta Spear, Greg Pape, along with many others. It was Glover who ordered Lion for our class and I was hooked immediately by the power, righteous anger, and invention of Levine’s poems.

I met Philip Levine on a tennis court at SDSU. It was 1973 and poetry readings in those days drew substantial audiences. Levine read the poems that would go in his next book, 1933, in Montazuma Hall to 350 people. I had, during the summers, continued to teach tennis in Santa Barbara and was weighing the offer of a full-time job at a club there against the precarious prospects of becoming a worthwhile (read, “successful”) poet — a sure thing vs. the longest of shots. I had a good idea of the odds.

In the seventies everyone was playing tennis — Johnny Carson, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, businessmen, professors, students, and even administrators. Phil was an avid player and while he was in town he wanted to get in a couple sets, and Glover asked me to hit with him. I couldn’t believe my luck. What I then knew about poetry could be written on the back of a gum wrapper, but I knew who Phil was. He was staying at Glover’s house, and had Pablo Picasso walked out of Glover’s kitchen, it would not have impressed me more. I let Phil have what we called back then a “courtesy game” or two each set, moving him side to side, feeding him an occasional forehand volley put-away. Phil returned the courtesy the next day by mercifully passing quickly over my miserable poem in the special workshop, while others were held to more rigorous account. (A few years later, Phil seemed to have remembered our meeting a bit differently; he gave me a copy of On the Edge and Over and inscribed it, “For Chris, who lost 6-0, 6-0, with grace, under pressure, Phil.”)

Later, I was invited to a small reception at Glover’s house which Levin attended, where I said hardly anything. Just into my twenties and struggling to finish one or two poems a semester, it didn’t occur to me that I might see Levine again, much less become his friend.

From San Diego State I went to the University of California Irvine for the MFA and began to write reviews. The first I published was of 1933. No one seemed to notice that I was still a kid in my mid twenties, and I placed that review and others without too much trouble. At Irvine, two of my best friends were poets Jon Veinberg and Gary Soto, both from Fresno and former students of Levine’s. I started visiting them in Fresno and occasionally we would drop by Levine’s for a chat or drink, though I was not entirely comfortable doing so.

After Irvine, I taught part time at several community colleges in southern California until Proposition 13 cut the funds from the colleges and put the money in the pockets of big real estate interests. Out of work, I moved to Fresno and eventually picked up part time teaching at Fresno State, and as luck would have it, I was given office space with Levine as his office partner was out on medical leave. My classes were over by the time Phil came in to prepare for his in the afternoon, but, as often as I could, I stayed at my desk correcting papers until he arrived so I could ask some question about what was happening with poetry, or question some lousy poem in APR, anything to get him going, and as often as not he would tell me stories and give me the low-down on the poetry scene for half an hour or more. I got to know him better there and felt a little more relaxed around him. Living and teaching there for two years, I became part of the Fresno group of poets, the best group of talent I’ve ever seen in one place.

Jobhopping took me to Murray State Univ. in Kentucky, and during that time I published an essay on his poem “Belief” from One For The Rose. In 1985 (I had escaped Murray and returned to teach at UCSB) I published a review of Sweet Will; by then I was sending Phil the published copies of what I wrote and he was gracious in his responses. While at UCSB I invited Phil to campus for a reading in the series I had organized; he was very generous to his friends and I guess by this time I had become a friend as he let me underpay him severely for the reading. He was coming south anyway to see his mother in L.A., and also he wanted to visit his brother Eli who had moved into an amazing house on the Riviera in Santa Barbara. He gave a great reading and Eli provided an elegant reception at his house overlooking the harbor and lights of Santa Barbara. Eli encouraged me to bring along two of my students; they were timid and quiet but at least managed to ask Phil to sign their books. Already, things had come full circle.

In 1989 I received a fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers conference and asked to be assigned to Levine for 1. an assistant workshop teacher which was our duty, and 2. for a conference on my new manuscript which was my privilege as a fellow. He went through the ms. of my 5th book, Blue Autumn, and gave it a thorough going over, with many cuts and slashes, completely candid, no punches pulled, and it truly helped tighten and shape the book.

I had recently taken on the job of editing the critical collection on Phil for Donald Hall in the University of Michigan Press’ Under Discussion series, and so I spent a good deal of time discussing reviews of his work with him, setting chronology and bibliography, obtaining general background. (On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger To Nothing was published in the University of Michigan Press’ series in 1991.) We regularly played professors doubles on the clay tennis courts and ate dinner with a group, all of whom could be counted on to contribute wine to the table. Most nights it was Bill Mathews, Mark Jarman, Rick Jackson, and one or two others; we took turns contributing bottles of decent and occasionally interesting wine; at Bread Loaf, if you want wine you have to bring your own, and wine-moochers at dinner are a perennial problem. By that time I had taken a position teaching and directing the creative writing program at a small state university outside of Philadelphia where again Phil came to read for next to nothing as he was only a short train ride away reading in the city. This was in 1989 and he read the poems that would be published in What Work Is and which would soon win the National Book Award. Before Phil came for a reading, I arranged a printing project with my colleague Michael Peich, publisher of Aralia Press, and he printed a limited edition letter press chapbook of a few of Phil’s new poems entitled BLUE.          

I had long been a collector of Levine’s books. One day in 1995 or so it occurred to me that many of his poems and books were now out of print and that even the New Selected Poems left out many fine poems. I suggested to Phil that we publish a collection of those poems and worked with my long time friend and fellow poet, Gary Young, and along with the help of Jon Veinberg, we brought out an edition of these poems. Phil titled the book Unselected Poems. Phil and I exchanged many letters re the actual content of this book — I always wanting more, thinking of rescuing as much as possible, thinking historically, Phil trying to take poems out, keep it down to the best of what was available. In 1997 we printed a paper back edition of 2,000 with 35 special copies in boards. They sold out and Gary Young’s Greenhouse Review Press printed a second edition.

In addition to seeing Phil in Fresno informally and at readings, I would try to touch base whenever we (by this time I was married to my wife, Nadya) drove up to New York City. He taught at NYU almost every Fall, and when Nadya and I would go up to visit galleries and her artist friends from her New York years, we would get together with Phil and Franny for dinner, or at a book party, or reading. The last time we all spent an evening in NYC was l997 in April and we were having dinner with Bill Matthews and his new love, Celia. Bill had just received the Ruth Lilly Award and Phil had been one of the judges. That was the last time I saw Bill. I of course spent some time with Phil in Nov. of l996 in Richmond, VA for the memorial service for Larry Levis — Phil’s best student, his great friend and helper and critic.

Before I escaped Pennsylvania, I set up one of my former poetry students, who had also become a fine letter press printer, with a chapbook ms. from Phil of new poems. Tim Geiger, had just taken a position at The University of Toledo and was trying to get a book arts program going. He printed a handful of new poems in the chapbook but lead off with an early poem from Not This Pig, “Coming Homeward from Toledo.” SMOKE was printed in a handsome wrapper edition with 25 copies in boards just in time for Phil’ s 70th birthday in January 1998.

Since returning to California and working at UC Riverside, I’ve had Phil to campus twice as the featured writer at our annual Writers Week. In 2001 I chaired the AWP convention in Palm Springs and Phil was our Keynote speaker. I know of no one more generous with himself and his time than Phil. As a teacher he is unsurpassed and there must be at least 100 poets with careers and books and a life in poetry out there that owe much of it to Phil, as three anthologies of Fresno Poets attest to.

And then there was the Guggenheim. Those who are connected, celebrated early on, who have achieved some “moment” and notice, escape the ignominy of bothering the senior and accomplished for recommendation letters year after year after year. An applicant must have four letters written to support an application. Over thirty some years, I have seen many poets receive the fellowship when they have only one or two books published though part of the criteria is your track record of publishing and contributing over the years. I put in my first application, I think, in 1981 and I applied regularly each year. Then I received word that you should only apply in years when you had a new book out, so my applications were less frequent, though consistent as I continued to publish books. The word also was that one needed four recommenders who would, if they were writing in support of more than one applicant, rank you first on their list. So asking for a letter became doubly onerous; you had to ask again and again, and, in order not to waste your time and the time of a recommender, ask if there was a chance you would be first on their list.

The year my sixteenth book of poetry was published I put in another application; that book contained a poem titled, “My 25th Guggenheim Application,” and while math was never a strength, that number was close if not accurate. How ironic it would be, I thought, if I were awarded a fellowship that year, after all these years, after writing that poem. It worked like a reverse jinx and I did, saints be praised; I receive a letter from Ed Hirsch informing me of my fellowship in early March. Coming in with the mail that day, I had no idea or expectation and said to Nadya, “Well, they are sending out the rejections a month early this year.” Sweet Jesus, was that surprise welcome when I read the letter and Ed’s hand-written note of congratulations. The point of all this? Phil wrote for me every year, never said No. How I hated to dun him for a letter each year, what a humiliating weight on the heart and the spirit to ask and ask and ask. Even if someone believes in your work, after so many years of rejection you have to believe his faith would wane. Wouldn’t I, if I were in his position, much rather point to those who were ultimately successful, who were acknowledged and given fellowships? Wouldn’t I, after a time, be reticent to write another letter, or at least lose enthusiasm for the continual task? It only seemed logical. Nonetheless, Phil was generous and loyal and supportive all those years. As soon as I read the letter awarding me the fellowship, I called Phil, and when he picked up I said, “I have some good news for both of us.” Meaning of course he would no longer have to write the yearly letter.

I have written the critical/biographical essays on Phil for Scribner’s American Writers and for Oxford University Press’s Encyclopedia of American Literature in addition to several reviews, interviews and other essays. Each time I introduce Phil at a reading I am hard pressed to improve upon the superlatives I want to attribute to his recent work as well as his career, but I try and each time he congratulates me for “that very accurate introduction.” Phil has one of the best senses of humor of anyone I know, and that is a fabulous complement to his poems, which are some of the grittiest and most profound we have in the last fifty years, poems which consistently rescue our dignity and humanity, and sustain hope in some moral sense of the world. His poems rescue the lives of the workers who built this country, the lives of the historically dispossessed, the lives of those who in the Spanish Civil War fought for the right to live freely, who shook their bloody fists in the face of fascism. The cliché is “he gives a voice to the voiceless” — a phrase entirely accurate for much of Levine’s work.

Phil is a great letter writer and over the years, I have heard from him about every month; sometimes he phones. One of my most prized letters from him is the one he sent me from Vanderbilt — where he was visiting for a semester — the day after he received the Pulitzer Prize. It was honest, and showed a humility and modesty that were at once true and hard to believe for a poet who is arguably the best poet living in America.

Whatever I have learned about writing poetry, a good deal of it is the result of reading Phil’s work. As a young writer, I never studied with him. It took two of my two and a half years at San Diego State to quit trying to steal his lines, I was so much in awe of his poems as a young man. Now, somehow, I am in my sixties, and I discover that much of what it takes to be a reasonable and democratic human being, an individual who values character and our common dignity — whatever small parts of that I have managed — I learned not only from his poetry, but from the gift of just knowing the man, the brilliant soul, Philip Levine.

¤

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