"The American experience," the poet Philip Levine writes in The Bread of Time (1994), "is to return and discover one cannot even find the way, for the streets abruptly end, replaced by freeways, the houses have been removed for urban renewal that never takes place, and nothing remains." What has remained for Levine—born in Detroit, in 1928, to parents who were Russian-Jewish immigrants—is memory. Few writers have made one time and place as singularly their own as has Levine in his elegies for the working-class life of the city he knew as a child and young man. Yet when Levine visited Detroit in the aftermath of the devastating 1967 riots—an event that spurred him on to write one of his best-known and most indelible poems, "They Feed They Lion"—it was a city that he no longer recognized.
The New World (November 1997)
He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do (January 1999)
The Return (September 1998)
Magpietry (November 1994)
Ode for Mrs. William Settle (October 1993)
Holy Day (January 1973)
Levine left Detroit in his twenties—first to attend the Writing Workshop at the University of Iowa (where he was taught by Robert Lowell and John Berryman) and then Stanford University (where he was a Stegner Fellow under Yvor Winters)—and his poetry has ranged far beyond the setting of his childhood, from California to New York to Spain. Running through it all is a strong narrative current. "Everyone has a story," he writes in a recent poem, and in his poetry history and autobiography flow together in a confluence that unites the past, present, and future. It is a narrative-lyric mode as uniquely his own as the stories he tells.
In his new collection of poems, The Mercy (reviewed this month in The Atlantic), Levine returns to his perennial subjects—obsessions, he might say. In the title poem he evokes his mother's journey to Ellis Island as a child; in "The New World" he re-imagines the urban-immigrant landscape of his grandparents' Detroit; in "The Return" he delves into the mystery of his father's life (which ended when Levine was five years old); and in "Salt and Oil" he captures the timeless, suspended layering of memory in one of his most affecting working-class poems since those published in the National Book Award-winning volume What Work Is (1991). Yet there is another strain in this collection. In poems like "Joe Gould's Pen" and "'He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do,'" Levine expresses doubts about the permanence and efficacy of words. As he does so, however—in language of the utmost simplicity and clarity—these poems often take on an incantatory, almost prayerlike, intensity. It is as though the effort is to overcome the inadequacies of language through its sheer rhythmic and musical power—a kind of primal power to enthrall, to entrance, and, as he says in the poem "These Words," to comfort.
Levine lives in Fresno, California, and taught for many years at the California State University there. The Mercy is his eighteenth collection of poems. In 1995, his collection The Simple Truth won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
You're almost exactly the same age as the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Have you ever felt part of a generation?
Yes, I have. There was a period in my life, during the Vietnam War, when I felt very proud to be in the generation I'm in. We put away our petty divisions and labels and became co-workers, you might say, in the struggle against the war. I was reading with Ginsberg and Snyder—and with Robert Bly and Galway Kinnell and W. S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich—at various events. The first public readings I ever gave were in San Francisco with Gary Snyder in 1958.
What do you think of generations, schools, and movements?
I have mixed feelings. When I was at Stanford in the late fifties I got to know the British poet Thom Gunn, who was associated with "The Movement"—which included other British poets like Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. But they had nothing in common other than a reaction against the mysticism and the high seriousness that you got in Dylan Thomas and George Barker during and just before World War Two. I asked Gunn, "How do you feel about being labeled as a Movement poet?," and he said, "Well, it got me in the anthology."
I see that labeling schools and movements is a convenience for critics and readers, but when I look at, say, Ginsberg and Snyder—two poets I really love—I don't see that they have a hell of a lot in common.
Maybe a certain spirituality ...
Yeah, you're right—the influence of Eastern religion.
But that doesn't have much to do with style.
No, they're very different. Allen comes so directly out of Whitman, and Gary comes so directly out of Asian poetry and Kenneth Rexroth. There's such an attention to natural detail and quiet movement in Snyder's work, and there's such marvelous rhetoric and bombast in Ginsberg's best work—and also an enormous play of wit that you don't find in Snyder. I think they're both marvelous poets.
There's been such an emphasis recently on reading poetry aloud. Listening to some of the old recordings of modernist poets—I guess some of the earliest recordings we have of poets reading—they sound so markedly different from how people read today. Was there a moment when people started reading differently? Was it the Beats in the fifties?
No. Here in America it was one poet—one poet changed everything. And curiously enough it was an English poet: Dylan Thomas. He came to the States and read with a fluency and ease and drama and power that nobody on the American scene commanded. I mean, William Carlos Williams was a terrible reader, for example. Wallace Stevens was pretty good, but he kind of droned on. e. e. cummings was a good reader. Edna St. Vincent Millay sounded hysterical—as though her foot were in the oven and she were calling for the fire department. Mostly the readings were overly dramatic or hyperbolic—or else they were just boring. When I heard W. H. Auden I hardly knew what he was saying. He was such a terrible reader—and he was drunk....
Did you ever hear Pound read?
Only on records. Oh, very dramatic, with that screwball accent he had.
Do you think there's a relationship between the way poets were reading and the way they wrote? Did Dylan Thomas actually influence people that way?
Thomas had an incredible impact on American poetry. If you were to go back and look at Poetry magazine in the fifties—when he was here in the States every season making money by giving readings—you would discover that suddenly urban poets who had been writing about things like anti-Semitism and smog and overcrowding, and writing socialist poems, were suddenly out watching owls. Off in the distance are hay rakes, and farmers are burning the trash from last year, and planting season is coming—I mean, these poems are coming right out of Manhattan! They invented a whole landscape—and then they stopped. Thomas died, and everybody went back to what they were doing before.