Remembering Philip Levine, Among Other Losses

There has been far too much death lately.

David Carr, the beloved New York Times media columnist, died a week ago. Yesterday morning, the science writer and researcher Oliver Sacks published an article that announced, and characteristically reflected on, his terminal cancer diagnosis. Comedian and writer Harris Wittels, who I've heard for years on Comedy Bang Bang and whose writing on Parks & Rec I loved, passed away yesterday. The night before last, I learned the parent of a friend passed away this past weekend. And, a few days ago, Philip Levine died.

Levine's passing was perhaps the least 'untimely' of those mentioned -- his was not a life cut short at thirty by an overdose or even at fifty-eight by an unseen lung cancer. He died at home in Fresno at the age of 87. Despite the particular grace of passing at his age, I've found myself profoundly affected by his death. For those unfamiliar with him, Levine was one of our greatest living poets: one of the most deeply American and one of those whose writing I admired fiercely. He held every award, office, and byline an American poet could want in a lifetime and lived with a ferocity that shone through his work.

I heard a recording of him reading his famous poem "What Work Is" when I was in college. I wish I could find it now. His voice is gravel and he walks through the poem with a control and strength that's a pleasure to listen to. The recording's real gem comes at the end though, when the interviewer asks him if he'd like to do another take (it was the first pass on the reading) and the near-octogenarian responds "Fuck no." He got the take and he knew it.

As many obituaries have noted, Levine was a child of Detroit. Headlines said he "found poetry on Detroit's assembly lines" or "found poetry in blue-collar life," calling him "the 'Walt Whitman' of industrial Detroit," a "champion of the working class," and a "poet of grit, sweat and labor." His early years around the foundries and work lines of Detroit indeed embedded deeply in his work. His free verse was profoundly autobiographical and spoke with the sharp authority of experience. But it didn't speak down to you. It felt like a world-worn elder telling you how life really worked -- not like a grandfather with a repeated anecdote or an uncle with one too many drinks, but like an old veteran who decided you were worth a damn and deserved to be put in your place for your own good.

While some of his best known poems -- "What Work Is," "They Feed They Lion," and others -- focused on Detroit, he left relatively early in life, moving steadily west to Stanford and his eventual home in Fresno. Fairly or not, I identify with that trajectory. I was born in rust belt Pittsburgh, moved to Stanford, and my dad's lived in Fresno the last ten years. Levine's "Our Valley" puts me in central California as well as any Steinbeck novel ever can and his direct prose poetry of Detroit reminds me of the skeleton of industrial Pittsburgh that I grew up in. 

Purely out of Ohio River bias, I tend to think of James Wright's clipped, emotionally electric poetry before Levine's when considering 'rust belt' poets. But with every reading, the steadfast directness of Levine's writing has a weight that reaches out and grabs me as much as any written word. In a review, Thomas Hackett wrote that Levine’s “strength is the declarative, practically journalistic sentence. He is most visual and precise when he roots his voice in hard, earthy nouns.” Levine's journalistic poetry is as responsible as the poetic journalism of Hendrik Hertzberg for my current career path -- my choice to become a journalist after studying poetry.

In a week heavy with obituaries, I found myself continually re-reading Levine's. While other losses were like lightning strikes, igniting the forest at random, this one came like the felling of an immense redwood -- like something whose very age and stature seemed to defy the mortality they carried with them. I think perhaps I also felt something was lost with him, as one would with the cutting of an old-growth forest.

With modern poetry so academic it can feel irrelevant or distant, his poetry came from a hardscrabble reality. He was rejected from Iowa and went anyway. He wrote with a weight of experience. His arc reminded me of Jack Kerouac or Frank O'Hara, writers who felt alive in the world, writers whose living seemed to actually matter to their writing, whose pages were as speckled with wine and blood as they were with ink. Rightly or not, I felt like that kind of writing was lost to time and the academic professionalization of poetry. But Levine was an old-growth redwood. He was still around and he was a writer who had lived. Reading a poem of his I had posted on the wall of my lonely San Francisco apartment in 2009, it felt like scripture from a living prophet.

I've had the chance to meet many of my poetry idols: Louise Glücke, Mark Doty... I even took a seminar with Kay Ryan while she was Poet Laureate. But I know that never seeking out Levine while visiting my dad in Fresno will be a regret of mine.

I don't mean to compare the tragedy of his death to that of others, certainly not to claim his as any more tragic. I only write this because, amidst the catharsis and reflection on the losses of David Carr and Harris Wittels, and the impending loss of Oliver Sacks, I found myself reading only dutiful obituaries of an aged poet that listed his titles and awards. I wanted a space for emotion.

There are worthwhile reads remembering Levine, of course. I recommend the Poetry Foundation's in-depth bio and their remembrance collection of his work. The best obituary I read may also be the shortest. David Post wrote a one paragraph blog in the Washington Post and added a poem at the bottom that he called "a wonderful place to start" for Levine newcomers.

At the risk of sounding like a copycat and a newcomer myself, that poem is also the one I intended to close this post with as well. It's the title poem of his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1995 collection The Simple Truth. It was also the one I hung on my wall years ago. It's writing that felt tactile and personal, but also ethereal and all-meaning at the same time. The closing lines still put a shudder through me, and I hope they always will.


The Simple Truth

by Philip Levine

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 I overheard 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.”

Some things 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 there 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.