An Interview With Philip Levine

“I just wanted to tell the stories of people whom I found extraordinary and dear. I saw them pass from the world, and nobody said a goddamn word about them, so I said, ‘Well, this is a subject matter that is mine and mine alone.’”

Gary Kazanjian / AP

"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.

Poems by Philip Levine:

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.

I heard Thomas read several times and was hypnotized by him. But I was very young at the time, and I realized that in order to write like that there was a lot I was going to have to learn to be able to control the line so beautifully and to get that resonance that he had in his writing. And, of course, a lot of his poems are terrible. He could read the phonebook and make it sound terrific. At the end of his career he was largely just imitating himself, which was sad to see.

You touch on a good point: the difference between performance and actually writing poetry.

I don't think that performance has helped American poetry. I really don't. I think a number of American poets have almost ruined their careers by going out and getting that kind of attention—going from campus to campus and being sort of awe-inspiring for an hour and a half, and feeding on the adulation. The process of writing poetry depends on being alone in a room, and being comfortable being alone for long periods of time—almost reveling in solitude and slow time. I've had friends tell me, younger poets, that when they came back from their early reading tours they'd get very depressed. I guess they were waiting for applause as they picked up pen and pencil. But there is no applause.

Your new collection, The Mercy, is dedicated to the memory of your mother, who just died this past year at age ninety-four. Your parents and their experience loom large in your poetry—as do your grandparents, your extended family. In the collection's opening poem, "Smoke," you speak of "the mythology of a family." What do you think about the idea that your work is a kind of "mythology" of an American family's experience?

When I speak of "the mythology" in that poem, I really mean a way of losing someone. It's something I've observed even with my own children—they mythologize me, and in a sense they get it all wrong. I'm sure this is what I've done with my whole family: I've seized on certain things and raised them to the level of truth, whether they're true or not, and in focusing on these things I have, in a way, lost a good deal of the complexity of the living person.

You mention my "extended family." A lot of those people in my poems never existed. For example, sisters walk in and out of my poems, but I don't have any sisters. I used to say to my students, "Why be yourself if you can be somebody interesting? Imagine a life. Imagine yourself being something other than what you are."

In much of your work there's a recurring specificity of time (days, months, years) and of place—"this was Michigan in 1928," to use one example. And yet many of your poems seem to inhabit the past, present, and future all at once. Can you comment on this?

It's something that I started to do in my late forties and early fifties, and I think the reason was that I came to an awareness that in my most inspired moments I was actually living in all three times. That is, I was obviously in the present, but there was a way in which I brought with me the reality of the past, and was in some ways trying to project it into the future, almost give it breath so that it went into the future. There were times when I really felt as though I were living in all three time "zones." I wanted to capture that quality—a personal sense of being that I've found enormously thrilling.

The first time I captured it in a poem I can remember thinking, Well, that's what I wanted to capture. "New Season," it's called, in The Names of the Lost. It's a poem about the future and my son, and the past and my mother, and the present and myself. It's something I've tried to do since—but not overdo. I think the poem "Salt and Oil," in The Mercy, is a poem like this. I think it's my favorite in that book.

What does your way of bringing narrative and lyric poetry together say about the relationship between history and autobiography?

I've always had a sense that history was far too selective, that a great many people—which would include just about everybody I know—have been deemed unsuitable subjects for history. I began as a fiction writer, and I had a real impulse toward narrative, toward storytelling. Then I saw in Yeats a capacity to merge extraordinary music, as in "Easter 1916," with the telling of a story. And I saw it in Hardy's poems, too. Beautiful. Hardy's such a storyteller. Yeats and Hardy are two very early influences on me—really powerful influences. So, I thought, what if I use the vocabulary (and to some degree the movement) of William Carlos Williams but also swipe from Hardy and Yeats, and from Dylan Thomas, who was another great influence, and make a somewhat more-sonorous poem? To unite those elements, and then tell these stories that others weren't telling—I guess that was my strongest impulse. I just wanted to tell the stories of people whom I found extraordinary and dear. I saw them pass from the world, and nobody said a goddamn word about them, so I said, "Well, this is a subject matter that is mine and mine alone."

You have a tendency in many of your poems to pause and inject a statement addressed directly to the reader, as though you're stepping out from behind the curtain. It's almost as though you're saying, "Look, I'm not going to bullshit you"—or, "maybe I've been bullshitting you up to now, but ..." What's going on at these moments?

It's a technique, or a device, that I've found only partly fulfilled in W. H. Auden's early poems. He was a great love of mine when I was in my twenties and early thirties. I still love those poems. There's a way in which they're strategic poems. They seem to understand that if you're going to say something difficult or hard about the nature of our experience, the reader will resist, and so you have to involve the reader shrewdly.

It's my sense that the reader is so often a suburban person. I published a lot of my poems in The New Yorker for many years, and I got the idea that my readers were really suburbanites who maybe on the train pick up the magazine, thinking, I wonder what I'm going to get for dinner tonight—and then they see this poem. I recognize that these are the hardest people to get to—they're deeply protected, they've survived in the zoo of New York, and they're not going to let a goddamn poem upset their equanimity. What I saw in Auden was a shrewd way of getting to you, surprising you, getting you off balance. You're right about the fact that I like to construct what I hope are beautiful fabrics and then suddenly enter in and say, "Wait a minute"—catch readers off balance, entangle them. I really think that's what Auden was doing: entangling us in the cloth of his poem, sort of confusing us, and then trying as best he could to make us spin out of it in some way and see the truth—or what he thought was the truth.

I think the first time I used this well enough to entangle readers was in What Work Is, in a poem called "Coming Close." So I said, "Shit, I'll try that again." And I have, and you've noticed it. I guess I'm getting to the point where I'd better stop. Because if I start doing it too much it'll become a tick.

Fair enough. But the way you've used it so far, I think, is extremely effective. It seems to reveal something about your personality. It's likeable.

Well, thank you. I enjoy using it. There's another aspect, too. As you age you begin to build up levels of nonsense between you and the past. You used the term "mythologize" before—to me, mythologizing is really a subtle way of saying you're lying. But you're only being dishonest to yourself. You construct a kind of history, a fabric, that in a way protects you from the past and its harsher, more difficult moments. A lot of this technique has to do with constructing one truth and then wiping it away with a second one. It's the process of writing: you start with a truth, and you break through to a deeper one.

There are a number of poems in the new collection in which you lament the failure of words to capture experience and do justice to memory. Have your feelings about the efficacy of language, and by extension poetry, changed over time?

Oh, they've changed enormously. Originally, my vision was for The Mercy to be a book about language. That wasn't going to be the open theme of it, but it was going to be the true subtext—the failure of language, or the various successes and failures of language. And, in fact, I had picked out a title poem that is no longer in the book—a poem called "On the Language of Dust," which I published years and years ago. As it turns out, the book now has more to do with journeys—from innocence to experience, and youth to age, and clarity to confusion and back again, and life to death, et cetera—and "The Mercy" is the central poem. A lot of poems that are obsessed with language didn't make it into the book. They'll go in another book, or they'll just swim out into the sea ...

To be truthful, when I began writing poetry I thought language could do anything. And I thought I could do anything with language. I'm talking about a guy who's sixteen or seventeen years old, saying, "I'll master this crap, and I'll do anything that's necessary." But as I got older, I began to realize, both in daily living and in what I read and what I wrote, that I was often coming up against the limits of my ability to use language, or my ability to comprehend language.

I also became more and more aware of how much idle chatter went on in the world. It seemed to me there was so much prattling, and that the world was full of meaningless words. In my second book, there's a poem called "Silent in America" (written around 1966) that was built around the fact that I was mugged once, and I got a broken jaw, and I couldn't talk because my jaw was wired together. I spent two months listening. I just listened to everybody: my children, my friends, my wife, my brother. They were boring the hell out of me! I became aware of how language was being used—usually not to communicate but to disguise, to obfuscate. It was only two months of my life, but it was a powerful experience.

There's a poem in the new book—"'He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do'"—that gets its title from a quotation from the wife of a famous jazz saxophonist named Frankie Trumbauer, who played with Bix Beiderbecke. After he died his wife was interviewed about her life with Frankie, and that's what she said—it was very nice living with him, but he almost never said anything. And I was just so thunderstruck by it. I read it at exactly the time that my wife was very sick, in the hospital in New York, and a friend of mine, knowing I needed some kind of comfort, spent a lot of time with me. He's a very laconic kind of guy, and he hardly ever said anything. (He's the guy in the poem.) But he was an enormous comfort, without saying anything. I could just feel his presence so powerfully, and his hopes for her recovery and my better spirits. It was so touching, and I thought, There are some things that don't require language and in fact can almost be ruined by language.

There's a great irony in all of this, of course ...

That's what I live by.

In your essay "The Poet in New York in Detroit," in The Bread of Time, you write about the influence of Keats and of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. You give Lorca credit for enabling you to write a poem like "They Feed They Lion," a response to the Detroit riots of 1967. How has politics informed your poetry over the years? Have you ever found it difficult to reconcile poetic beauty and ugly political truth?

No. Let's put it this way: I think that in twentieth-century poetry the beauty is found in the fullness of the expression, and the degree to which the poet is able to capture, through detail and rhythm, a particular scene—for example, in a poem like Robert Lowell's "The Mouth of the Hudson," a beautiful little poem about a hideous landscape. Or, say, in Hart Crane's "Repose of Rivers"—he also has a river, the Mississippi, running into the sea in this gorgeous ecstatic moment when the river loses its identity by becoming one with the gulf. They're marvelous scenes, but what makes them marvelous is the degree to which they're captured, and not what the actual condition of the world was that inspired that poem.

As for Keats, I think he inherited an aesthetic that only allowed him to write about lovely things. Whereas Lorca inherited an aesthetic that allowed him to write about anything—even what he didn't understand. And that was one of the wonderful things that I got from him, and later got from Pablo Neruda—the idea that you could go after these very powerful centers of feeling in you, even if you couldn't parse them.

And these powerful feelings might be political feelings?

Yeah. They might be rage. Lorca's Poet in New York is really at its best a book of rage—of confusion. He doesn't understand what the hell New York is, he hates the sense of its commercial enslavement. He's a rural guy faced with the most industrialized and mechanized island in the world, and he's confused and enraged and, of course, bitterly lonely and isolated. And he writes a great book—the best book of poems ever written about New York City. There's one particular poem, the one that I quote in that essay, called "New York: Office and Denunciation," in which you just hear that surging anger. It was a poem I read when I was very young and it just stayed with me, and I kept saying, "This is the avenue, this is the avenue. I've got to stop trying to be so rational about what I can't be rational about."

For me, the politics never come in very directly. They usually enter in through the characters and the story. I would never sacrifice the character—the person who I felt something for—for the politics. If this beautiful guy happens to own Sears, so be it. I'm not going to make him a farm worker just to make a point.

When you speak of rage, and of realizing you can't be rational, it sounds like the poem "They Feed They Lion." In terms of form and voice, that poem seems unique in your whole body of work. Is that fair to say?

Yes, it is. I really don't know how it came into being. But I do remember that I had the idea for it and waited several days before I wrote it. I kept saying to myself, "I'm not ready to write this. I want to wait, and just let it germinate."

What was that initial idea? Can you put it in a nutshell?

The first thing that came into my mind? I had the title, which derived entirely from a statement that was made to me. I was working alongside a guy in Detroit—a black guy named Eugene—when I was probably about twenty-four. He was a somewhat older guy, and we were sorting universal joints, which are part of the drive-shaft of a car. The guy who owned the place had bought used ones, and we were supposed to sort the ones that could be rebuilt and made into usable replacement parts from the ones that were too badly damaged. So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who'd then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in—burlap sacks—and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words "Detroit Municipal Zoo." And he laughed, and said, "They feed they lion they meal in they sacks." That's exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy's a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn't speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit—I'd gone back to the city to see what had happened—somehow I thought of that line. "There's a poem there," I said. "But I don't know what it is. And I'm just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates."

I waited two days, got a good night's sleep, and got up in the morning and wrote the damn thing. It struck me that it was a long line, and that it would be out of the poet Christopher Smart. Do you know his work? He's an eighteenth-century mystical poet, a great poet, and his greatest poem was written in a madhouse. We only have a fragment of it. It's a sort of call-and-response poem—very incantatory. I said, "That's the rhythm I'm going to try and use." It's the only time I've ever tried to utilize that rhythm.

There is a kind of incantatory mode in a lot of your other poems—a repetition of verb phrases, for example—that is very effective.

Yes—as long as I don't get too carried away!

You've written a lot about Spain and your attraction to modern Spanish poets such as Antonio Machado and García Lorca. You've also been drawn to non-literary figures of the Spanish Civil War, such as the anarchist leaders Buenaventura Durruti and Francisco Ascaso. Why the strong identification with Spain? What drew you to anarchism?

As a young boy I was told that my ancestry was Spanish. Why my parents, both born in a little shtetl in western Russia, would tell me this, I have no idea. But it may have had something to do with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I did notice when I lived in Barcelona that people would just walk up to me and start speaking Catalan, because I looked just like them. And then the Spanish Civil War was the war of my growing up, and a great many young men from my neighborhood went to it. About half of them came home. So this was my war, in a sense. I was growing up with the mythology of it.

As I got older I began reading the histories of the Spanish Civil War. In the Hugh Thomas history, which is sort of the official biography of the war, I came across the anarchists. They were the ones that impressed me the most, because they were by far the most idealistic, and they had, I thought, the most interesting vision of the future by far. You could also call them terrorists, or whatever you want to call them, but their willingness to sacrifice in an endless battle for human justice and decency—their willingness to take everything the world could dish out and still keep coming back—seemed boundless. I was just so filled with awe for them.

For a couple years, maybe four or five, I really thought of myself as an anarchist. And then I stopped. For one thing, I bought a house. I could no longer say, "Property is theft." I realized I wasn't up to that ideal—no doubt because I didn't have the history of grief that they had. Life was becoming relatively easy for me, so I gave up my claim to anarchism. But these guys still remain my heroes, because of the intensity of their gift to humanity and their vision, which was large: we are the stewards of the earth, we don't own anything, and our function is to make it as good as possible and to pass it on to those who are to come. I thought that was a very beautiful vision.

And you saw it as something distinct from the socialism that you undoubtedly were aware of and were exposed to?

Oh, yeah—I saw it as truly revolutionary. Socialism I saw as a kind of peel-and-patch process: peel off some of the uglier aspects and we'll patch it up a little. But anarchism was a radical change: we'll go right to the denominator and destroy it; we'll start all over. We'll abolish the notion of private property, we'll abolish money. Then we'll abolish, of course, all those relationships that are built out of money: marriage, serfdom, racism, colonialism, consumerism, the ills of America.

Did you really think this was something that might happen?

No—I wasn't crazy! I thought it was something I could incorporate in the way I lived—and incorporate in my poetry. But after four or five years I felt that if even I couldn't incorporate it in myself—and I was given to a kind of awe toward it—how the hell was it going to grab onto the American earth?

It's like asking somebody who's a practicing Christian whether they can really live by the Sermon on the Mount.

That's exactly right. What was I going to do, take these suburban Republicans and turn them into that little flock around Jesus Christ?

In The Bread of Time, you say that Antonio Machado's poetry is written "with such simplicity and clarity we come to believe him absolutely, and in doing so we come to understand our own deepest experiences and to believe entirely in their authenticity." And then you say, "It is hard to imagine a more useful poetry." What do you mean by a "useful" poetry? Useful in what way?

"Useful" in its largest sense—that is to say, validating one's own experience, validating one's own sense of self. Experience is universal—our experiences are what we share with others. That was something I found in Machado. The simple clarification of mood, of one's response to basic and simple things—loneliness, the rhythm of walking out in the road, nightfall, dawn, the beauty of plants, the sound of water running downhill. He's able to transform all these essentially simple things into a kind of wholeness and holiness. And it seemed to me that Machado was able to validate these very basic experiences that we all share—and that we begin to think of, in our busy lives, as marginal. But Machado brings them into the center of his experience and his poetry. And I thought, Oh, what genius that was, to take what we've marginalized and pull it into the center and make it what sheds light on everything else.

In that way it was a very useful poetry. It gave me a vision of the significance of what was around me, and of my own significance—not because I was special, but because I was not special, or at least no more special than anybody else. There was a kind of soothing, almost religious dimension to him, without his ever insisting on being in the least religious. And I thought, This is a poetry that raises my spirits, that energizes me, that gives me hope to go on, hope that I can be of value. He's a poet I go back to all the time.

Auden said, in his great elegy for Yeats, "Poetry makes nothing happen." Do you believe that? I think the rest of the poem goes on to refute it, but how do you respond to that line? Poetry obviously makes something happen, doesn't it?

Oh, I think Auden knew that. I think he meant that poetry isn't going to have an immediate political impact—you know, you won't make anarchists out of the Republican Ladies Club with poetry—and if you need that change, do something else. If you're a writer you'd better write propaganda, you'd better write for television—I don't know what you ought to write, but maybe words don't have that kind of impact. Maybe only power does.