Interview With Philip Levine
Conducted by Grace Cavalieri
from Issue 42
Philip Levine was the 18th Poet Laureate of the United States. The following poems with commentary by Philip Levine are extracted from his conversation with Grace Cavalieri on public radio’s “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress,” on the day of his inauguration, October 17, 2011. He holds the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, National Book Award, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Levinson Prize, American Book Award, two Guggenheim’s, National Book Critic’s Circle Award, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Frank O’Hara Prize plus others. Philip Levine is the author of more than twenty collections of poetry.
All the way
on the road to Gary
he could see
where the sky shone
just out of reach
and smell the rich
smell of work
as strong as money,
but when he got there
the night was over.
People were going
to work and back,
the sidewalks were lakes
no one walked on,
the diners were saying
time to eat
so he stopped
and talked to a woman
who'd been up late
There are white hands
the color of steel,
they have put their lives
and if hands could lay down
their lives these hands
would be helmets.
He and the woman
did not lie down
she would praise
the steel helmet
boarding a train
for no war,
he would find
the unjewelled crown
in a surplus store
where hands were sold,
They did not lie down
face to face
because of the waste
of being so close
and they were too tired
of being each other
to try to be lovers
and because they had
to sit up straight
so they could eat.
Philip Levine: I got a phone call, this was in August, maybe around August sixth-seventh, and I wasn’t home. So there was a message on my answering machine, and it instructed me to call Jim Billington – it was his voice – telling me, “I would appreciate a call from you,” and he gave me his number. And then, I thought, I’ll bet he wants my advice on who should be the next Poet Laureate. And I’m running through my head, hmm, who would it be? How about Galway Kinnell; Gerald Stern; Adrienne Rich; I’m thinking of these names of worthy poets. I call him up, and he told me who he was, that he was the librarian of the Library of Congress, and he invited me. “I would like you,” he said, “to be the next Poet Laureate. Would you do that? Would you serve?” And I probably waited all of eleven seconds, thinking why not? My wife was doing something or other, and when I hung up – and I’d been on the phone fifteen minutes, and it was early in the day, because I’m in California so there’s a three hour time difference, and usually nobody calls me as early as say nine o’clock, or eight – my wife said to me, “who was that?” and I said, “It was a Mr. James Billington, he’s the Librarian of Congress.” “Why did he call you?” And I walked over to her, hugged her, and I said, “You are being hugged by the next Poet Laureate of the United States of America.” And she jumped for joy. So the repayment was there. No matter what else happens this year with the Laureateship; that moment of her pleasure in my selection was payment enough.
Let me read a poem that has to do with my hitchhiking life. I once hitchhiked from Detroit to Birmingham, Alabama, and they let me out at a highway stop. The trip kept going. I finally, although I didn’t hitchhike there, wound up in Cuba. This is before Castro. And then spent a while there, and finally moseyed my way back to Detroit in time to finish my final year at Wayne University, now called Wayne State.
19 years old and going nowhere,
I got a ride to Bessemer and walked
the night road toward Birmingham
passing dark groups of men cursing
the end of a week like every week.
Out of town I found a small grove
of trees, high narrow pines, and I
sat back against the trunk of one
as the first rains began slowly.
South, the lights of Bessemer glowed
as though a new sun rose there,
but it was midnight and another shift
tooled the rolling mills. I must
have slept awhile, for someone
else was there beside me. I could
see a cigarette's soft light,
and once a hand grazed mine, man
or woman's I never knew. Slowly
I could feel the darkness fill
my eyes and the dream that came was
of a bright world where sunlight
fell on the long even rows of houses
and I looked down from great height
at a burned world I believed
I never had to enter. When
the true sun rose I was stiff
and wet, and there beside me was
the small white proof that someone
rolled and smoked and left me there
unharmed, truly untouched.
A hundred yards off I could hear
cars on the highway. A life
was calling to be lived, but how
and why I had still to learn.
It took awhile to trust myself, to write poetry, but I don’t see how it could come anywhere else but yourself. I started composing what I hoped were poems when I was about fourteen. And it became something I did, something that defined my days, and something that made the days significant, if in fact I did write something I liked. Of course most days I don’t. I mean, I write a lot, and a lot winds up in the in the wastebasket. But the idea of permission from other people – if you need permission, you’re kind of in trouble.
Writing poetry required daily decisions. This is what I’m going to do; and again, and again, and again, and again; decisions. No. No I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to do that job because it takes too much out of me. For example, when I was young I got a job in advertising, and I lasted less than a week. Because I realized what I was being asked to do was to lie. And, I thought, if I betray language, language will betray me. And I quit, and I got a job in Wyandot, Michigan working at a chemical plant, at great height. And I didn’t keep that one too long because I realized I wasn’t good at great height. I needed solid
People talk about all these awards I got. They come with money, and I say to myself how come I don’t have much money? What did I spend it on? And of course I know what I spent it on. I spent it on not working, buying time. This is a poem that tries to be both lovely and menacing.
Detroit Grease Shop Poem
Four bright steel crosses,
universal joints, plucked
out of the burlap sack --
"the heart of the drive train,"
the book says. Stars
on Lemon's wooden palm,
stars that must be capped,
rolled, and anointed,
that have their orders
and their commands as he
Under the blue
hesitant light another day
in the city of dreams.
We're all here to count
and be counted, Lemon,
Rosie, Eugene, Luis,
and me, too young to know
this is for keeps, pinning
on my apron, rolling up
The roof leaks
from yesterday's rain,
the waters gather above us
waiting for one mistake.
When a drop falls on Lemon's
corded arm, he looks at it
as though it were something
rare or mysterious
like a drop of water or
a single lucid meteor
fallen slowly from
nowhere and burning on
his skin like a tear.
You know, reading this just now, I realized that something got into this poem that I might not have intended, but really does speak for my attitudes, that he looks at it as though it were something rare or mysterious – a drop of water. And in truth that’s what I feel it is; that there is the mystery in our lives that is constantly. If we are truly awake, we will discover it’s there. But how often are we truly awake?
My mom loved literature. I mean, I was very fortunate in having her as my mother for a number of reasons. One, there were books in the house. My father died when I was very young. He was an avid reader. My mother never finished high school. She came to the United States from Russia when she was about eight. She spoke English perfectly. She went to American schools. She never finished high school, and I discovered this rather late in her life. I don’t even remember how I discovered it; that she had left school to marry my father. And I mentioned it to her, and she was quite offended; as though I had judged her. But you know, it’s like when people who don’t go to college think that something miraculous will happen in college and improve your character, and your luck, and what have you. But anybody who goes to college knows its four years of learning and fooling around. You go there partly to have a hell of a good time, and if you’re really serious, to learn. But people who are autodidacts often know much more than the people who went to college or high school. My mother knew a lot of literature. This is true. And she – you know when I taught, I discovered that some of my students, who were very gifted, were getting a hard time from their parents. They wanted to be poets. And we have an expression in Yiddish, “Darf men gain en kollej?” “For this you went to college? So you could starve?” My grandfather said that to me. But my mom thought, that is a hell of a valuable enterprise.
Robert Service she loved. "The Hound of Heaven," and stuff like that, by Francis Thompson. She thought it was the greatest thing ever written. And she would read these things to me and my twin brother. It didn’t do any harm, sure, but when I started writing, I began to introduce her to the poetry that excited me. Poets like T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, um, oh many many; Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams. And once she discovered real poetry, because she was smart and she had a soul, she realized that I was on to something, and her taste gradually shifted.
The first time that my use of language was encouraged was by my older brother. And I must have been, perhaps four years old, five. I was very young. And he asked me why I was walking around with this stick I had in my hand. And, I said, “Oh, it’s a lovely stick. Look how beautiful the wood is. And also, it’s so flexible. I like things that are flexible.” And my brother said, “Where’d you learn that word?” And I said, “Oh, I don’t know.” But he said, “Hmm, you’re good with language for a five year old.”
Well, I’m waiting to write about that. I’m waiting until I can recollect it in tranquility, as Wordsworth said. And it’s still too emotionally charged for me.
This next poem, “A Theory of Prosody” grew out of a request to write something on prosody for an anthology; the mechanics, you might say, of poetry. Someone was putting this together. And if you look up prosody in the dictionary, it’ll say something like “the science of the movement of poetry.” Well, there’s nothing scientific at all about it. And this is an explanation; you might say, of why I wrote so many poems in a narrow, basically trimeter line – three beat line. A line I found used with magnificence by two poets that I love; William Butler Yeats, the Irishman, and William Carlos Williams, the American – the consummate American Poet.
A Theory of Prosody
When Nellie, my old pussy
cat, was still in her prime,
she would sit behind me
as I wrote, and when the line
got too long she’d reach
one sudden black foreleg down
and paw at the moving hand,
the offensive one. The first
time she drew blood I learned
it was poetic to end
a line anywhere to keep her
quiet. After all, many morn-
ings she’d gotten to the chair
long before I was even up.
Those nights I couldn’t sleep
she’d come and sit in my lap
to calm me. So I figured
I owed her the short cat line.
She’s dead now almost nine years,
and before that there was one
during which she faked attention
and I faked obedience.
Isn’t that what it’s about-
pretending there’s an alert cat
who leaves nothing to chance.
It’s kind of a farewell to Nellie. A cat I loved. It was my wife’s cat, but in fact, in many ways I was closer to Nellie than my wife, because Nellie insisted on getting fed in the small hours of the night. And my wife is very hard of hearing, and she’d take her hearing aids out, and she wouldn’t hear the cat. And my sons who were at that time all still at home, they just wouldn’t be roused. And pretty soon everybody learned that the person who’s going to get up and feed Nellie is Phil. And so it grew out of the friendship that we had, the cat and I, in the small hours of the night.
Many of my poems were the same length for a long time. For a long time it was a seven syllable line. And I needed some kind of form to write when I was young, because my life was chaotic. And so to give it order and form, I wrote formal poems. Once I got married, and had children, and got a steady job, my life got more orderly and more…what...less chancy, let’s say. And then, I wasn’t thinking about this at the time of course, but when I go back and I see what happened, I began to write in a more open form, and not use rhyme all the time, although there’s very quiet rhyme in this poem.
Writing has to look effortless. Yeah, I mean if you go to see, say a dance company, and at one point the male star has to lift the female star, the ingénue, overhead, and if you’re aware how hard that is for him, the occasion is ruined. I mean, he has to be able to make it look effortless. And the same is true with poetry. The best poems don’t seem difficult to write. They seem almost easy to write. They come into themselves as naturally, as Keats says, as naturally as leaves to a tree.
I usually have a sense of what the line is before I start. In fact, a lot of times the poems come before I know what they’re about. They come to the language that I’m using. I sit down, and I muse. And in the last fifteen, twenty years, I often sit down and read the work of other poets. But rarely American or British poets; usually foreign poets; translated work. And I’m not looking for a song. I’m looking for imagery. And I might take one little image. And I remember I wrote a poem with a seagull in it. And a seagull in the Central Valley is a very rare beast, because that poor seagull is a long ways from home. And I came across in an Italian poet, Cesare Pavese, who’s been a great favorite of mine for thirty years, I came across this image of this seagull in his poem, and I said, I remember a seagull here in the Central Valley, and bingo! I was off and writing this poem. But oftentimes, it comes – I’m putting words down, hoping something will happen. I try very hard not to imitate myself. That’s the temptation. Because I can write a Phil Levine poem in fifteen minutes, but it’ll be a pastiche; it’ll be made up of hunks of things I’ve already written, and it’ll be a mild disaster, and I’ll throw it away.
This is called “Coming Close” and it’s about a woman.
Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase,
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, she would turn
to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn't dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.
You know the irony of this poem – I sold this poem to the New Yorker, and I was so pleased it was going to appear there. And I got this image of commuters on the train out to the suburbs of New York, opening the magazine and discovering this, which really doesn’t belong in the New Yorker; because, it’s not about the lives of the people who by and large read the New Yorker. It’s about the lives of people they’ve forgotten have lives.
In the poem, she places the five tapering fingers of her filthy hand on the arm of your white shirt. And in a way she’s, yes, she’s saying “Here. This is who you are now. You’re here with us. Maybe you came in your three-piece suit, and you hung portions of it in that locker over there. But now, you’re one of us.” It’s a kind of love poem.
When I was living the life that these poems came from, I thought that kind of life would prevent me from becoming the best poet I could become. And the irony is that I really got capable, I turned back to that world, and used that material. I began to see my own experience in such a different way. I was so lucky to have spent all those years with these people, who were, in many ways, braver – braver and nobler, than my other colleagues in my university years.
I’ve changed over the years! I’ve changed – I remember, oh god, I can’t remember how long ago it was. It was in the sixties. I was teaching and reading in Squaw Valley, California in the summer. And Galway Kennell was teaching there. In fact, we team-taught; we taught together, the two of us. We united our classes and taught together. And, at one moment sitting in the class, Galway was talking, and he used a phrase that seemed not applicable to my work. He said, “I prize this poem,” and I forget what the poem was, “because of its profound tenderness.” And I said to myself, tenderness. Why the hell isn’t there more tenderness in my poetry? And once I realized that I needed more of that, for one thing my anger, which featured in my first couple of books, was diminishing; diminishing. I remember publishing in Harper’s Magazine, a poem called “The Losers,” and in a sense it was about me and my buddies. And I went to a school somewhere to give a reading, and we then talked with the students. And the professor had passed out copies of my poems, and this was one of the poems. And a woman in the class said to me, “Why do you consider yourself a loser?”
And I said, “I don’t.” And she said, “Well, what about this poem?” “Oh,” I said, “when I wrote that, I did.”
But I had the realization, and it came later, that I was living the life I had chosen, and I chose it for profound reasons. And now I had three kids growing, healthy; I had a fabulous wife; I rented a house; and I said, Phil, you’re not a loser. You’re doing this impossibly crazy thing, writing poetry, and you’re making a living doing it. True, the teaching and giving the readings, those were the things that made that life possible, economically, financially, and I said, you’re not a loser anymore Phil. Get off that. And so that isn’t my vision anymore. I realized it was wrong.
Let me read a poem that had nothing to do with work. It’s called “The Return: Orihuela 1965, for Miguel Hernandez.” Miguel Hernandez was a brilliantly gifted poet, Spanish poet, who fought with the republic against the Fascists, and when in 1939 the republic surrendered, he tried to get into Portugal, because he was well known as a leftist, and he lacked the documentation to get him into Portugal. He didn’t have a passport. He was in his twenties at that time. He was arrested. He was placed in prison, in terrible conditions, and within a few years he died of tuberculosis. And I remembered I was living in Spain in 1965 and 1966, and there was going to be a celebration of Miguel Hernandez. But Franco’s Guardia Civil stopped people from coming to this place, Orihuela, down near Alicante. They stopped them. They said, “You can’t go.” They blocked the roads. So it never took place. Oh, it probably did after Franco died, and Spain became a republic again. I loved his poetry. I loved it. There was - talk about tenderness? Incredible! His poem “Lullaby of the Onion” I think is one of the great poems of the twentieth century. And one day I was imagining, what would life be like now, for Miguel Hernandez, if he were still alive? And so I wrote this poem, “The Return,” which imagines him returning to his village, where he educated himself to write poetry.
The Return: Orihuela 1965, for Miguel Hernandez
You come over a slight rise
in the narrow, winding road
and the white village broods
in the valley below. A breeze
silvers the cold leaves
of the olives, just as you knew
it would or as you saw
it in dreams. How many days
have you waited for this day?
Soon you must face a son grown
to manhood, a wife to old age,
the tiny sealed house of memory.
A lone crow drops into the sun,
the fields whisper their courage.
My book translations are Tarumba, and Off the Map. Well, the first one was Off the Map. It’s the work of Gloria Fuertes, and Gloria Fuertes was one of the poets he asked me to deal with. And I could see why, because she was a working woman. And a working woman poet was almost unheard of in Spain at that time. She was still alive when I did the translations. And he assigned it to me, and I slaved over those. And he rejected one after another, but he gave me good criticism, and gradually I managed to get a voice that sounded like I imagined her voice would be. When that happened, and it took a couple months, then the translations improved enormously. I did other poets too, like Unamuno, and I mentioned Miguel Hernandez.. I took them from the Spanish to English.
In the 1950’s the poet that got under my skin was Dylan Thomas. I saw him in 1952 at the YMCA in New York. Well, he was drunk the night I saw him. And he looked awful. There was something about his poetry that was so… new. Or it seemed new to me. Because American poetry, at the time, was dominated by Lowell, Wilbur – formal poets – John Crowe Ransom. And then you had another school of American Poetry; Williams, and the poets Williams had influenced. You had Stevens, and formal poets with the exquisitely beautiful line. Thomas came over – and the poems were astoundingly lyrical – and many of them were very difficult, very obscure. But you know, I was a young guy, and I didn’t care about the obscurity. I didn’t. I just loved the imagery and I loved the music. And when he read, of course, the music was fantastic. I think in many ways he was a careless poet. Not that many of his poems will survive. But something like “Refusal to Mourn the Death of a Child by Fire in London” is a great poem. He wrote some great poems. Yeah, he was magnificent. And the way he presented his poems! I first heard him read on a record. An outfit called Caedmon did an anthology of poets from England and the U.S.
Time makes poets more than they are. Their characteristics are exaggerated. Well, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a way of dealing with life. I hear my sons for example, telling stories about me, and they’re not true. I hear my former students tell stories, or they’ll write me or something, and they’ll remember something, and they’ll misremember it. They’ll heighten the drama of the situation. But of course if we’re people who want to be poets, of course we heighten what we’re experiencing to get across the essential flavor of it. It’s in the human DNA.
You know, I have said nothing about Fresno where I’ve lived longer than any other place. I taught there twenty-two years. I took a lot of time off. When I was living in Spain, there was an American poet who came through; a fabulous poet who was practically unknown, Thomas McGrath. And he stayed at my house for a while. He was on an Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship. He stayed in my house, he and his wife. And when I got back – I only had one book at the time – he read it. And he said to me, “Phil, I’m going to give you some advice. You know how to write a poem. You are thirty….” …whatever I was; thirty seven. He said, “You have to take time off now, because the next fifteen to twenty years are going to be the most productive years of your life as a poet. You still have the energy. You have enormous energy; I’ve watched you. Your poems are energetic. And now is the time to do it.”
I don’t think he was right, but I took his advice anyway. I think it was true for him. It wasn’t true for me, because some of the best poems I ever wrote, I wrote in my seventies, and even in my eighties.
Okay, I want to now read something about dear Fresno. It’s called “Our Valley” from The book News of the World, my newest book. I live in the San Joaquin Valley, the great central valley of California. I live there half the year now, and half in Brooklyn. But I’ve lived in this place longer than any other place.
We don't see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.
You probably think I'm nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you're thrilled and terrified.
You have to remember this isn't your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.
I wrote a memoir, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography. Essays. And what it’s about, really, is the people who influenced my life. Not all of them of course. There are chapters that still have to be written.
Tenderness is something I learned to add to my poetry, humor too. There was a point after I think I published They Feed They Lion, which would be about 1972, I sent it to a friend who was a poet, and he admired it. He thought it was a good book. But he said, “You know, Phil, you’re actually a very funny guy. You have a great sense of humor. Why doesn’t it get in your poetry? And I said to myself, yeah, why the hell doesn’t it get in my poetry?
So, I opened the door and let it in.
To listen to this interview with Grace Cavalieri, go to http://www.loc.gov/poetry/poetpoem.html
Grateful acknowledgement to the Poet Laureate office and the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress, and to Philip Levine, Knopf and Random House for the poems found here.