Coming Close: Forty Essays About Philip Levine Edited by Edited by Mari L’esperance & Tomas Q Morin

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There is not one essay in Coming Close: Forty Essays About Philip Levine as good as Philip Levine’s prose or that of Denise Levertov, Donald Hall, and other poets who have written about how creative writers should best work and live. Here there is always risk of encountering “licking my wounds,” (Tomas Q. Morin), “I would venture to say” (Mari L’esperance), or other unfortunate wording that feels sincere and sounds sloppy. But the book provides three interesting paradoxes.

The first is that it’s as necessary as Levertov’s classic The Poet in the World and Hall’s classic, The Weather For Poetry, because every page explores the demanding discipline and sometimes painfully passionate desire that go into learning the craft of poetry. A few pages could provide someone with the perfect credo, leading to appreciation of the finer work mentioned above. This is why creative writing teachers from middle school through MFA programs should encourage serious students to own and absorb what is found here.

I suggest another paradox in the first paragraph. Levine, a former United States Poet Laureate with a distinguished teaching career behind him, is justly famous for high standards rarely met in this volume. Using “workshop” as a verb is, depending on my mood, either a felony or a misdemeanor, committed by John Murillo and Ada Limon to describe what goes on when a poem is discussed in depth in a seminar. It is also a depressing example of how the “Po Biz” and bureaucratization of American creative writing harm our language.

This brings me to the third paradox, the fact that while Levine and his students have benefitted from the creative writing establishment (as have I), and Levine studied with Robert Lowell and John Berryman, two establishment pillars, he is of the generation that did not need to be constantly imbedded in that environment to succeed.

This helped enable him to develop a public persona that suited his skin and fed his poetry. So we have a working class man writing superb poems about his beginnings, falling publicly in love with the poetry of Keats, Lorca, Neruda and other greats of varied origins. Generous with that love and needing to make a living, Levine educated poets from the barrios of California’s Central Valley as well as aspiring writers from middle and upper classes, at Fresno State, New York University, and elsewhere. He has earned the right to say “bullshit” a lot, as so many admirers here mention with relish, and with numbing redundancy.

Xochiquetzal Candelaria has grasped the master’s lessons well. “If you’ve ever worked with Phil Levine,” she says, “you probably know what kind of poets gravitate toward him: writers concerned with the world around them, but equally concerned with the incantatory promise of the well-crafted line, the poem enacting and enabling our collective human spirit.” This serves as fine preparation for thoughts that come near the end of the piece :

He acknowledged that it’s okay to be obsessed with time and slippages, how one moment finds you years later and you don’t know why. He acknowledged that it makes sense to highlight how poetry unfolds, promises, refuses, delivers, and how without it you can feel completely lost.

philip-levineThis is the best kind of appreciation, ardent, thoughtful and sound. Others approach this level, and it’s a pleasure to note some who are less well known than Michael Collier and Kate Daniels (who abuse the privilege of name-dropping), Sharon Olds or David St. John. Robert Wrigley concisely captures Levine in noting:

It’s that voice, which is Phil Levine’s at his most intense and impassioned through all his books, that has taught me and that has made me a student of his poems for nearly four decades now. I can attribute some of my poems directly to my reading of, my disassembly of and examination of, Phil’s poems. They don’t sound like Phil’s poems; they couldn’t. I couldn’t make them that way. But the body of his work is my example, and by that example Philip Levine has been my mentor.

Kathy Fagan’s “Homage to Mr. Levine” has a forthright eloquence that is, like Levine’s, majestically democratic. Hers soars above many in these pages and I hope the words I have selected do her and Levine justice:

I’m not making too much of this when I claim that what Phil’s work in the classroom and on the page did was stir our spirits out from under the crush and devastation of the ordinary ugly and poor, and because of that, poetry became possible for us.

I come from a middle-class home in a gritty East Coast town, and had an English teacher whose father was a Pennsylvania coal miner. The teacher’s enthusiasm for words reinforced what I heard from educators in my family, but it also fed the souls and aspirations of the children of pipe-fitters at the local chemical plant. Levine, Kathy Fagan and all who have absorbed the spacious discipline called poetry, would have enjoyed a beer with that man.

Every person who has pure ambition to write poetry—a consuming hunger to make perfect poems, coupled with the not criminal need to receive recognition if the writing is worthy –should ingest messages in this book and make them her or his own. And when the prose gets sluggish, turn to the poetry, like this example from Levine, as quoted by Wrigley:

Beets the size of fists
by the thousands, cabbages
as big as brains
year after year, whole cribs
of peppers, great lakes
of sweet corn tumbling
by the trailer load.

From “A Walk With Tom Jefferson,” these lines make me more grateful than ever for the undeniable American-ness of a man whose forebears–some barely literate– toiled in Eastern Europe while Jefferson, with his energetic curiosity and aristo inconsistencies, helped compose our country’s beginnings and secure its future. Philip Levine has been exceptionally nourishing to present and future American letters, and to literature beyond our borders. My debt to him is shared by the writers in Coming Close, and should be shared by countless others.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →