This week, as Philip Levine was named the 18th U.S. Poet Laureate, I went back through my stack of Wild Duck Reviews (most of which exist in hard copy, not digital). I was looking for Issue #2, published late 1994, to see how our interview had stood the test of time. And, to revive the memory I had of him as one of the finest human beings, and poets, I’d worked with over the past seventeen years. Pleased, I quickly decided to re-type it for these archives.
By way of brief context: The publication of this interview, and distribution of WDR throughout Northern California, intentionally coincided with a reading Philip Levine gave in our small town of Nevada City, CA. On that December night, in the town’s 19th c. theater, poet Gary Snyder gave an eloquent introduction, reiterating and expounding upon a quote he’d given to WDR: “Philip Levine gives us a poetry of just plain real life with the irony, compassion, and humanity it deserves—in an elegance and mastery all his own.”
The full text of the original interview (below) is followed by two poems reprinted in WDR from The Simple Truth: “The Simple Truth” and “My Father With Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart.”
INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP LEVINE
Casey Walker: To begin, will you describe your new book, The Simple Truth, and the writing of it?
Philip Levine: Well, The Simple Truth was a very difficult book for me to write. I’m not exactly sure why. My previous book, What Work Is, had so much unity to it. It was all clustered around the central image of work, and I didn’t want to do that again. These new poems had a certain wackiness to them and an unusual degree of inventiveness.
Also, I like books with variety. My first book lacked variety. It had one funny poem in it. My second book didn’t have any funny poems. I began finding myself bored by books I had liked when I was younger, bored because each had a single nerve tone. It was like hitting one tone and keeping it up for seventy pages. I wanted more variety. In this book, for example, there are lots of family poems—and it’s the first book I’ve published with family poems since 1933, which was made almost entirely family poems.
‘Family’ such as you described in The Bread of Time, Toward an Autobiography, and as in your imagined, peasant mother in “I Was Born in Lucerne”?
Yes, exactly. Not only my family, but also the relatives I didn’t have that I should have had. I know that sounds nuts. But, I’m not a confessional poet. And I’m very uneasy with the idea of exposing my family too openly. Especially when they don’t look good or when I have very private knowledge which was given to me in trust. I’ll want to get it into a poem but I don’t want to reveal it. So, there is a lot of invention. For example, this book has two poems written to sisters. I read one I’d just written, “Listen Carefully, “ at the University of Minnesota. The speaker in the poem and his sister sleep in the same bed although they are not lovers. But, you don’t know that exactly. Even when the poem is done, you’re still not sure. A woman in the audience of about 100 creative writing students, asked, “Would you publish that poem?” I said, “Sure, why?” She said, “What if your sister picks it up and reads it?” I said, “That can’t happen.” She asked, “Why not?” I said, “I don’t have a sister.” And she said, “You don’t have a sister? You just wrote a poem about your sister.” I said, “No, I didn’t. I wrote a poem about a man and his sister.”
The truth of the matter is that “Listen Carefully” is really about my relationship with a particular person, which is very much like a brother and sister relationship, except the woman was not my sister. She was older than I was, and we lived together for a while, but it was very much a brother and sister relationship. One of the ways of intensifying that truth is to make her into a sister and one of the ways of disguising her is to make her into a sister. So that’s what I’m doing a lot of the time. My poetry is not confessional and I get a little uneasy, a little tired, frankly, with confessional poetry.
There is no defense against a literal reader.
No. That’s right. But, poetry is not like medicine. I mean, I know a doctor has to defend himself against his patients. Otherwise, they’ll sue him from here to kingdom come. But being misread, being misunderstood is no big deal. I mean, you’re misread or misunderstood all the time. You get goddamned used to it—I mean, you get used to it when you’re at the supermarket, you get used to it talking to your children, or your parents or your wife or your husband or your girlfriend or your boyfriend. You’re always misunderstood.
The great charm is to be understood. And, I suppose, if you’re understood by a third of the people who read you, it’s kind of terrific. And, people have understood me. There was a poem that I was very uncertain about putting it into my second book because it was so private. A year after it came out, a long article appeared by a critic from Chicago who had analyzed the poem. He understood it perfectly. There were all these references that I thought were too obscure, but he figured them all out. He’s a person who’d never met me and knew nothing about me personally, but he knew everything about me from my poetry.
When you write so frequently of a waking dreaming, of shifts in lighting, about rain, do you think it forces the reader to play along with you against a literal and fixed world?
I’m not sure why rain is such a feature in my poetry, and in my dreaming, in my living, and in my prose, but rain certainly is. I don’t get it. I was on a panel once with Robert Duncan and someone asked us, “What were your first poems about?” Robert went on for about ten minutes—he’s such a wonderful talker—about philosophy. Then, he turned to me and asked, “What were your first poems about?” I said, “Rain.” He howled with laughter, and said, “I think you had a better subject than I did.” The person who was asking the question thought I was kidding, or that I wasn’t answering seriously. Robert got somewhat angry. He said, “No. No. He is absolutely right. That’s such an essential part of our life.” And, he asked, “How old were your when your wrote these poems?” I said, “In my teens. Fourteen.” He said, “Rain was a mystery to you, right?” I said, “Absolutely.”
Rain was both a blessing and a curse. I mean, I’d walk to school and I’d get soaked—I lived a mile and a half from school. All day long, I’d sit in class in wet wool, smelling like a dog, hating myself, and thinking everybody else hated me. But, I also gardened and when the rain came, things happened in the yard. You had to pray for it. In Michigan, in the hot summers when it would rain, we’d put on bathing suits and go out, walk in the streets. It was terrific.
In The Bread of Time, in reference to anarchy, you wrote of prizing spontaneity over authority and prizing real people in real lives over abstract ideas. What does this mean to you, for your poetry?
You know, the poetry I read in school meant nothing to me. I was in junior high and we read such rubbish. We didn’t understand it. But, when I was about eighteen, when I fell in love with poetry, one of the things I began to notice was that nobody like anyone I knew could be located in a poem. Occasionally, there would be a glimpse of somebody hanging out of a window, as in “Prufrock.” But, Yeats….He raised people up to mythic figures. He didn’t let them just be. I was thinking, what about the jerks that I know? Jerks, like me, who take the bus? Well, then, I thought, of course: If you’re going to put ladies and gentlemen on horseback, you’re not going to have jerks like me.
So, rather than regret the fact that the people that I knew were not in poetry, I thought there had to be a better answer, which was sort of a blessing. It gave me a whole arena in which to work. I mean, there was an unwritten poetry here. I was in my mid-twenties when I realized, “Wow, what an enormous gift I have. I have a whole world of experience that I know—and now I am 26, 27—and I have known it for quite awhile. Nobody has written about it. It just wasn’t there. It wasn’t even in much of our fiction.
You returned to the blue-collar workers of Detroit, the people you’d grown away from, the people you now saw, as you wrote in The Bread of Time, as “…men and women of enormous sensitivity, delicacy and consideration. We spoke to each other from the deepest centers of our need and we listened.” Will you speak to the return you were making?
Up until my thirties, I thought that I was paying an enormous penalty for being a lower middle-class guy who went to a second-rate university, who did factory work, who couldn’t get published, who didn’t have any connections, who had to wait forever to find out that the hell he wanted to do, and then to do it right. It was like I’d been saying to myself, “Oh, nuts. I am up to bat and I have two strikes on me.” But, then, I began to see it all very differently. As if I was up to bat and had already hit a double: I already had all these gifts from people in my past. Instead of regret, I suddenly began to rejoice. Absolutely rejoice—even when the poems are dark.
In a way, I began realizing how much gift giving I had received. I don’t know that others don’t receive it. I mean, I don’t know what other people experience, if they get what I got—that much generosity, that much hope, that much vision, that much inspiration. Maybe they do and they don’t know how to write about it. But, I suddenly began to see that I was one lucky guy.
How did this realization happen?
There is an essay in The Bread of Time where I describe a dream that awakened me to the fact I hadn’t been writing about Detroit. Once I came to the realization that a portion of me was talking to another portion of me, saying, “Hey, Phil, you’ve got to do this,” I said to myself, “I’m in touch with myself too. I’m not alienated from myself. There is a part of me that is speaking to me even if it is speaking to me in dreams, and I’m listening. So, this is the course I have to take.”
When I was a kid, I’d go into a factory job with a friend, or sometimes my brother, and I would joke. I would have this little spiel: “Little did he know, that slender, Jewish boy from the Westside of Detroit, that someday all of this vastness would be his.” I would start up this Horatio Alger persona. All these guys would say, “Oh, shut up. Stuff it, Levine.” In a way, I didn’t transform that work into money or that kind of success, but I did transform it into a different kind of work and, I think, meaningful work. There I was, working for others, and I was being exploited.
Someone asked me the other day, “Do you still regard yourself as a proletarian?” I answered, “I guess not. I own the tools of production. I guess that makes me a capitalist.” I mean, I own my brain, my hands, and my pen and my paper. So, in a curious way, I own the tools of production, but don’t really care about selling the product. I’d just as soon give poetry away. Poets don’t make their living from poetry, they make it other ways. I’ve gotten used to the idea that, to a degree, you give it away. I’m always fighting with my editor who wants to charge enormous amounts of money for my poems for an anthology. There I am, saying, “Oh hell, give it to them for ten bucks. Give it to them for nothing.” He is saying, “No, Phil. Someone has to pay for all this poetry.”
In your essay on studying with poet John Berryman, you describe the day he held up the New York Times during the McCarthy era and called politicians, ‘”Fools who will rule for a while then be replaced by other fools.” Next, he held up Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” and declared, “It will be with us for as along as language endures.” When is political poetry not foolish?
I think that for some people it is a tool. I think there are people who approach poetry with—and I have no problem with this—very precise agendas of what they want to do and the ways they want to affect other people. To some degree, they have to fool themselves into thinking that by the time they come into all their gifts they will have audiences of millions.
I read the other day, for example, that Adrienne Rich has sold a million copies of various books. In the last twenty-some years, Adrienne has had an agenda, or several. She’s not kidding herself that she is read worldwide and that she has changed the lives of maybe a million people. I know poets and critics who scorn her attitude, but I don’t scorn her at all. First, I think she’s managed to be a terribly good poet at the same time that she has an agenda, politically. I have no problem with this at all.
There are others, say a poet like Richard Wilbur, who doesn’t seem to have the slightest political agenda. I don’t mind that. His stuff’s gorgeous. One of the things I like is the immense variety of poetry in America today.
Isn’t it amazing?
I think it’s just fabulous. I like it. When I grew into poetry, it was the 1950s, before the Beats emerged. Official poetry was way too narrow. There was a kind of ‘Eastern Establishment’ that approved poetry, and the great poet was T.S. Eliot. Even Stevens hadn’t quite made his mark yet, and Williams was still thought of as a crank. Crane wasn’t being read as much as he should have been. Ginsburg and Snyder hadn’t emerged yet. And, Robinson Jeffers was not in the mainstream. He was almost lost already. I remember trying to talk about Jeffers in college classes and being scoffed at. Poetry was way too narrow.
Now, poetry is going off in every direction. We still have neo-formalists, who write formal poetry rather badly compared to the old formalists, like Hecht and Wilbur, who wrote it brilliantly. But, we still have people who cannot go to breakfast without rhyme. The whole tradition of Williams and Olsen and Pound, of experimental poetry and free verse, is very much alive. Some of our best poets are born out of it, like Denise Levertov. And, it deeply influenced others, like Thom Gunn. Then, there are poets like Ashbery, who are extraordinarily polished, brilliant, difficult, and obscure. He clowns around. He’s an immensely gifted poet. There was nothing like that on the scene then. The whole New York School, which emerged with Kenneth Koch and O’Hara and Ashbery, could not have been predicted by the poetry I grew up with. The Beats are still with us, too. They’ve aged, but they’ve written some marvelous stuff.
Which poets do you read now and admire?
Of my generation, if I were just talking about today, I would have to say that the poets I admire most are Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin. Both have managed to write so well for so damn long. Merwin’s last book, Travels, I thought was maybe his best book. And, he was 65-66 years old when this book was published. I just think that is amazing. It is a fabulous book. Adrienne’s last book, An Atlas of a Difficult World, I also felt was her best book. She published it when she was 63. She has gone through so many different styles, so many different manners. And, she’s been brave enough to master a voice and master a style and then, when she is done or tired of it, to throw it away and search for something else. Merwin has done much the same.
Galway Kinnell’s earlier work, especially from his first book, What a Kingdom It Was, had great poetry. “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” was a great poem and there were many others in Body Rags, and in The Book of Nightmares.
Gary Snyder, one of the poets of my generation, is another poet I admire the most. I think he found—using a number of poets I love, such as Pound, Williams, Rexroth—a voice that was conversational, musical, and enormously elegant, without ever talking down to an audience. And, he did it very quickly. The first public reading I ever gave, I gave with Gary Snyder.
When and where was that?
In San Francisco, around 1956. He read very well. I had never read before and was scared out of my mind. I had never read him, and he had never read me. RipRap was published. I got a copy of it the next day. I was really knocked out by the book. I thought, this guy is doing something. I’ve got to find out how he’s doing it.
How does a poet sustain a voice throughout a lifetime, and not get stuck in his or her original, cultural milieu?
I think the hardest thing to do is to change a voice or to abandon a voice that held you in good stead. For example, Dylan Thomas. Perhaps that’s why he practically stopped writing—he had written everything out of that vision and that voice, and exhausted it. He imitated himself for a while, and then went on to drink himself to death. I could go on, naming poets of my generation who didn’t last, who weren’t willing to get middle-aged and then to get old, but I’m not going to name them.
But, if you read a poet like Wordsworth, for example, he’s so middle-aged by the age of 28 that he has nowhere to go. There’s sort of a middle-aged, wise man contemplating birth, and life, and death. He knows death is waiting for him and the sun is fading, and he gets worse and worse and worse and worse. I could almost say that he wrote all of his best poems before he was 35. I’ve been re-reading them and I’m startled by how mature he sounds in his twenties. At first, I was envying the hell out of him. I’m thinking, “Boy, I didn’t write like that. He’s a genius and I’m not.” I didn’t write like that, with that kind of mastery and adult voice when I was in my twenties. But, then I didn’t have to imitate myself when I was in my forties.
I enjoyed your observation of watching students and asking, “What did my college education not take away from me?” Would you say that we too often lose our playfulness, our childishness?
I would call it ‘childness’—keeping alive the child who is in you. Everything conspires to define what adulthood is. Adulthood is coming to terms with the commercial facts of your existence and bowing to them. And, to be serious, especially for a man. A man is supposed to be manly on certain occasions, to take command. He’s supposed to seem terribly adult. Maybe women feel the same thing, but I didn’t get their lessons. I got my lessons and I did not like them. I thought they were stupid. From a very early age, I loved playfulness. And, I began to see my grandfather, who, because my father died when I was so young, was one of the male figures in my life. He was a very—a terribly playful man. He loved gambling. He loved taking me out. We would go drink and fool around and have a good time and laugh our heads off. He was a man in his sixties and was smoking and drinking and living the life people lived back then. Of course, he had had a hard life. He was born in Russia and came over to the United States in his twenties to escape the draft. He was poor and worked his way to middle class. But, he never forgot the fact that he was damn lucky, that most of his relatives were probably dead. I just saw in him something quite wonderful in his ability to keep playing.
Keeping a certain levity to his life…
Yeah, a real levity—a continual acknowledgement of the blessing of his existence. I said to myself, “To let that go is a real mistake—especially for a kind of pose which looks so grown up, the way a man ought to be so grown-up, like Henry Kissinger, in your three-piece suit, and just, oh, so wise.” Berryman had a line, “I was so wise I had my mouth sewn shut.” I always think of that when I hear people pontificating.
For me, I didn’t take that course, even while my brothers went into the commercial world and defined themselves very quickly. I didn’t define myself so quickly. I didn’t know who I was. I thought, “Well, it’s not so terrible not to know quite what you want to do and who your are and how you are going to do. What’s so awful about this? I mean, you’re still young.”
And you’re all you have?
At that point I was. I was single and that’s all I had. Also, I was learning how to write poetry in the fifties and one of the things that the early fifties taught anyone coming from my social context was that this country was going nowhere, absolutely nowhere. Maybe backwards. In other words, all the idealism that had been publicized during WWII, particularly the ideal of making the world safe for X,Y,Z, for democracy, for this, for that—suddenly, we saw it was all horseshit. You know, it was all part of empire building. Then, there was the McCarthy reaction—the anti-communism—that was actually anti-whisper-of-independence-and-freedom. Many of us stepped outside of mainstream America and said, “Well, I’m not part of this and I don’t want to be part of this.”
That gave me all the time in the world. I didn’t have to hurry. If it took another 20 years to write a poem in my life what would be the difference? What would I do anyway? Be a schmuck like those jerks over there?
Would you say you are coming full circle now by returning to family when you think of the qualities that have sustained your life?
Yes. The family book that I wrote called 1933, which I published in 1974, was a very painful book to write. It was the first time I just sat down and looked at these people and saw who they were and tried to live with them again. I found it difficult. I found it difficult for a number of reasons I didn’t understand then and I don’t understand now. It included death. My father died when I was very young. My grandfather had died recently, and my grandmother. I was trying to get close to these people again.
There was a lot of grief?
Yeah, but those poems were written in 1970. Now, all these years later, I am their age. Now, I am the age my grandfather was.
There is a new kind of peer-ship?
Exactly. I am much older than my father was when he died. So, I can look back on it with a sense of, ‘it won’t be too long and I’ll be with you.’ I am no longer grieving for them. I am getting ready to join them. It doesn’t seem that bad to me. The deaths of other people horrify me and deprive me of things, but my own doesn’t seem that horrific. I’ll be joining my family again and the ones that were lost.
Also, the humor that I got from those people is now in these new poems. Some of these poems are outrageous. Some are quite somber, but some are quite outrageous. I will be reading some of these in The Simple Truth in Nevada City on December 8th.
THE SIMPLE TRUTH
I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat,” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays here for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.
MY FATHER WITH CIGARETTE TWELVE YEARS BEFORE THE NAZIS COULD BREAK HIS HEART
I remember the room in which he held
a kitchen match and with his thumbnail
commanded it to flame: a brown sofa,
two easy chairs, one covered with flowers,
a black piano no one ever played half
covered by a long-fringed ornamental scarf
Ray Estrada brought back from Mexico
in 1931. How new the world is, you say.
In that room someone is speaking about money,
asking why it matters, and my father exhales
the blue smoke, and says a million dollars
even in large bills would be impossible.
He’s telling me because, I see now, I’m
the one who asked, for I dream of money,
always coins and bills that run through my hands,
money I find in the corners of unknown rooms
or in metal boxes I dig up in the backyard
flower beds of houses I’ve never seen.
My father rises now and goes to the closet.
It’s as though someone were directing a play
and my father’s part called for him to stand
so that the audience, which must be you,
could see him in white shirt, dark trousers,
held up by suspenders, a sign of the times,
and conclude he is taller than his son
will ever be, and as he dips into his jacket,
you’ll know his role calls for him to exit
by the front door, leaving something
unfinished, the closet light still on,
the cigarette still burning dangerously,
a Yiddish paper folded to the right place
so that a photograph of Hindenburg
in full military regalia swims up
to you out of all the details we lived.
I remember the way the match flared
blue and yellow in the deepening light
of a cool afternoon in early September,
and the sound, part iron, part animal,
part music, as the air rushed toward it
out of my mouth, and his intake of breath
through the Lucky Strike, and the smoke
hanging on after the door closed and the play
ran out of acts and actors, and the audience—
which must be you—grew tired of these lives
that finally come to nothing or no more
than the furniture and the cotton drapes
left open so the darkening sky can seem
to have the last word, with half a moon
and a showering of fake stars to say what
the stars always say about the ordinary.
Oh, you’re still here, 60 years later,
you wonder what became of us, why
someone put it in a book, and left
the book open to a page no one reads.
Everything tells you he never came back,
though he did before he didn’t, everything
suggests it was the year Hitler came
to power, the year my grandmother learned
to read English novels and fell in love
with David Copperfield and Oliver Twist
which she read to me seated on a stool
beside my bed until I fell asleep.
Everything tells you this is a preface
to something important, the Second World War,
the news that leaked back from Poland
that the villages were gone. The truth is—
if there is a truth—I remember the room,
I remember the flame, the blue smoke,
how bright and slippery were the secret coins,
how David Copperfield doubted his own name,
how sweet the stars seemed, peeping and blinking,
how close the moon, how utterly silent the piano.