August 26, 2011
by Aaron Belz
Having taught creative writing for decades, Philip Levine has racked up hundreds of former students. Those of us who know him were happy to hear the news that he’d been appointed our nation’s next Poet Laureate. He’s personable, funny, and gracious. When it comes to poetry he’s legendarily unsparing. In the early 1990s I brought a long, meandering poem to Levine’s workshop at NYU, read it aloud, and after a silence he said: “I like the last line.” And when I sent him my first book he wrote back, “I expected to find one [bad poem] after another. I was pleasantly surprised.”
It looks as though Levine will bring the same intolerance for unnecessary words—and foolishness in general—to his new appointment. He’s quoted in a recent Los Angeles Times article as saying, "I had thought that the worst collection of people was an English department having a meeting, but the U.S. Congress runs away with the award." He’s so cranky. God love him.
Yet in Levine I’ve always found a refreshing absence of politicking, disinterest in the ways of business (which he calls “bizniz”), and lack of anger. He is a poet at peace with his own contribution, despite a mixed critical reception during the past fifteen years. Several major papers, including the Los Angeles Times, Boston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle, never even bothered to review his most recent book, News of the World (Random House, 2009). Because he’s used to publishers either pandering to him or ignoring him, the silence didn’t really matter.
A month ago, Levine had no idea a U.S. Poet Laureate appointment was in the offing, but it wouldn’t have made a difference if he had. He will squint at this honor just as he has squinted at others. He’ll also carry it with grace.
It’s a shame the U.S. Poet Laureate’s duties are “largely ceremonial” (Los Angeles Times, August 12). It would be great to give Levine a chance at advising the President, or at least revising his speeches. Obama would learn to love seeing the poet’s ink in their margins. Like so many of Levine’s other students, Obama would become aware of his own frailty and of the need to be direct even when it doesn’t solve an immediate problem or serve an identified political end.
These are the qualities that suit Levine for the position of Poet Laureate—not so much his status as a “proletariat poet” fighting for working class values (Christian Science Monitor, August 11). It’s probably tempting for journalists who, prior to Levine’s nomination, knew little or nothing of him to scan his list of book titles and see What Work Is (1991) or to read a Wikipedia entry that says he once worked in a Detroit auto manufacturing plant (for a short time). But these contribute to a caricature of Levine that he himself would resist. A perusal of his actual oeuvre reveals that he’s written just as often about the beauty of America and Spain, family life, friends, and poetry itself.
Levine is essentially a post-Romantic, post-Whitmanic poet with a full sense of the world around him and the people who live in it. He’s a writer who’s meditated on the way we talk and develop relationships with one another in a difficult world—where beauty fades quickly and death comes soon. He’s also a master of his craft, finding the appropriate syntax and cadence for his subject no matter what the subject might be. He’s also, by the way, a master of finding the right subject. I once wrote to him saying that I needed to be inspired, and he replied, “Go to a bar. Write a story about the first conversation you hear.”
So he’s a great teacher and even a greater guy. Let’s see if he can make a difference for our troubled country.
—Aaron Belz lives in Efland, North Carolina. His most recent
collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).