Philip Levine, The Art of Poetry No. 39
I was first introduced to Philip Levine through the mail in the summer of 1976. I was studying literature at Berkeley, and my friends and I, all college freshmen and sophomores, were ardent readers of Levine, W. S. Merwin, Donald Justice, Gary Snyder, and Hart Crane. A friend from the college literary magazine, The Berkeley Poetry Review, introduced me to Ernest Benck, a California poet, who kindly sent some of both of our poems to Levine.
Levine wrote back to us, marking our poems assiduously. Since then I have received many letters from him, always on yellow legal paper with comments like, “I’m not sure my remarks, which are fairly nasty at times, really indicate . . .” His comments, though never nasty, were always serious, as if he took the business of correspondence to be part of the education of a poet. I had the feeling he wrote many such letters to young poets around the country: poets driving trucks, picking oranges, poets who were waiters and acupuncturists’ assistants and college students. Levine takes his role as mentor with the responsibility of a sacred vocation. He has sometimes had trouble from the administrations of high-tuitioned writing programs for allowing auditors—poets who were a little older, talented and too broke to pay—into his classes.
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928, and left that city, as he puts it, after a succession of stupid jobs. He is the author of numerous books of poetry, including 7 Years from Somewhere (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award), Ashes (the NBCC and National Book Awards), They Feed They Lion (inevitably mistitled in reference books), and, most recently, A Walk with Tom Jefferson.
The interview took place in my Upper West Side apartment. Levine arrived looking very much the same as he had when I met him ten years earlier in Berkeley: wiry, agile, with a mobile face, curly hair, a boyish habit of movement. He wore enormous running shoes, which seemed to emphasize his small frame, and he walked with a slight bounce, which made him seem an inch or two taller.
I told him that Paris Review interviews usually take place in the writer’s home and so I asked him to describe the place he lives and writes. He told me that in Fresno he lives in a small farmhouse in a district called The Fig Garden. Built in 1919, the house (“the oldest around here”) stands on an acre of land, fronted by a huge eucalyptus tree, fruit trees and cedars. In the backyard, amidst twenty orange trees, alders, Modesto ash, and more eucalyptus, his wife Franny plants a legendary garden of vegetables, fruits, and flowers.
“Our payments are 165 bucks,” he said. “We bought it fifteen years ago when anybody could buy a house. And people ask me why I live in Fresno!”
Levine works in a small study overlooking the back garden. The room is filled with bookshelves (“of course it’s cluttered because I’m something of a slob”) and a number of keepsakes, among them a black-and-white photograph of a drawing by the Italian anarchist painter Flavio Costantini, which in a smaller form is the cover of Levine’s volume Ashes; a Robert Capa photograph of Spanish Republican soldiers at a campfire cooking soup; a picture of Lemon Still Jr., a fellow grease shop worker and the subject of a poem in They Feed They Lion; and a poster of airplane drawings by Arshile Gorky.
“And there hangs from the ceiling a kind of mobile a friend gave me years and years ago. It’s made of thistles, thorns, dry weeds. I don’t know why it’s lasted but it just hangs there and turns around in the wind, hitting me in the eye . . .”
In Twentieth Century Pleasures, Robert Hass says that rhythm in poetry provides revolutionary ground through its direct access to the unconscious . . .
We all agree with that. Rhythm is deep and it touches us in ways that we don’t understand. We know that language used rhythmically has some kind of power to delight, to upset, to exalt, and it was that kind of rhythmic language that first excited me. But I didn’t encounter it first in poetry . . . perhaps simply in speech, in prayer, preaching. That made me want to create it. My earliest poems were a way of talking to somebody. I suppose to myself. I spoke them and I memorized them. I constantly changed them. I would go out and work on my rain poem and improve it.
Read more of this very substantial interview.......