Philip Levine Essay - Critical Essays


Philip Levine’s most important achievements in the early part of his career are the collections Not This Pig and They Feed They Lion. In the best poems of these two books, Levine reflects the influence of the Surrealist and political poets of Spain and South America and takes on the subject of the city with a remarkable vitality. Along with James Wright, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Robert Bly, Levine has managed to incorporate politics into his poetry, going far beyond the immediate protest reaction to the Vietnam War. He writes about the working poor without condescension and with an empathy that puts him clearly in the tradition of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams; these poems are often about survivors, people who have suffered in their lives but refuse to quit.

When Levine issued a new version of his first book On the Edge, he added to the title the words “and over,” declaring the direction of his dark and fierce poetry. His poems examine a world of evil, loneliness, and loss, where a poem titled “Hymn to God in My Sickness” can only be a cry of unbelief. Paradoxically, there is a strong faith in human nature running throughout Levine’s work. His is a poetry of community that at times holds out some distant but powerful dream of a better society. Often he dramatizes the lives of the anarchists of the Spanish Civil War and celebrates their nobility and courage. His work expresses admiration for those who suffer but who do not give in and for those who fight against prejudice and pain. Many of his poems employ a second-person voice; although these people often have specific addressees, Levine introduces them to the reader as a brother or sister in order to say “Your life is mine.”

Levine is one of the most overtly urban poets in the United States. His hometown of Detroit—its factories and foundries, its dead-end jobs, its dirt and smoke, its dying lives—plays a central part in his imagination. It is the city he escaped from—or tried to—to Fresno, California, a place often depicted by him as lonely and sad, a silent place where “each has his life/ private and sealed.” Then there is the third city, Barcelona, Spain, where Levine often seems most at home, where he feels a greater sense of community and history, even though he carries what he sees as the political burden of America with him.

On the Edge

The second poem in Levine’s first book, On the Edge, “Night Thoughts over a Sick Child,” sets off a central image and theme of his work, presenting the speaker helpless before the boy’s suffering, with no faith in the efficacy of prayer. He finds the situation intolerable and refuses to justify it in any way:

If it were mine by one wordI would not save any man,myself or the universeat such cost: reality.

There is nothing for him to do but to face “the frail dignity/ of surrender.” The mixture of suffering and helplessness, anger and sadness, points toward many of Levine’s later poems.

In this early volume, Levine is writing rather formal poetry, metrical or syllabic, withrhymes or off-rhymes. In poems about World War II and the Algerian War, he shows his concern for the public causes of suffering. In “Gangrene,” he draws an ugly picture of torture, “the circus of excrement,” and ends with a self-righteous address to the reader as being secretively thrilled by these descriptions of torture even though he fakes boredom. In later volumes, Levine achieves a more satisfactory tone of identification with suffering of this kind.

Probably the best poem in On the Edge is “For Fran,” a picture of the poet’s wife as gardener, an image that appears also in later poems. She is seen preparing the flower beds for winter, and she becomes—for the poet—the person who bears the promise of the future: “Out of whatever we have been/ We will make something for the dark.” These final lines can be taken as a kind of motto for Levine’s later poetry: his attempt to make something in the face of the dominant darkness.

Not This Pig

Levine’s second volume, Not This Pig, is the key work in his development as a poet. There are some poems that are like the tightly ordered style of On the Edge, but a number of them indicate a new direction—more open, riskier, and more original. The fact that he is moving away from syllabics and rhyme—as did most poets of his generation in the 1960’s—is not the main source of this originality; rather, a more daring language is in evidence, opening his work to a wider and deeper range.

“The Midget,” which draws on his experiences in Spain, is a fine example of this new range. In a café where the anarchists planned the burning of the bishop of Zaragoza, the speaker sits on a December day—off-season, no tourists—amid the factory workers and other laborers. A midget in the bar begins to sing of how he came from southern Spain “to this terrible/ Barcelona” and tells them all that he is “big in the heart, and big down/ here, big where it really counts.” The midget confronts the speaker with talk of his sexual prowess and insists that he “feel this and you’ll believe.” The speaker tries to turn away from him, buy him off with a drink, but the midget insists, tugging at him and grabbing his hand. The midget ends up sitting in his lap, singing of “Americas/ of those who never left.” The others in the bar turn away in disgust, and then the drunken speaker begins to sing to the midget. In the final section, the poem goes beyond anecdote, stepping off into an eerie, mysterious world where the midget and the speaker merge in their opposition. They are both singers, old world and new, both strangers and outcasts. They come together in the brotherhood of those who are different and find the pain of being human.

The title of this volume comes from a brilliant tour de force, “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” a poem told from the point of view of a pig. At first the pig seems complacent, going off to market “suffering children, suffering flies,/ suffering the consumers.” He has no intention, however, of giving in, playing the human fool as the boy who drives him along believes he will. He will not “turn like a beast/ cleverly to hook his teeth/ with my teeth. No. Not this pig.” This can be taken as a kind of slogan for the entire book, Levine’s “Don’t tread on me.” In a somewhat similar vein is the poem “Baby Villon,” about a 116-pound fighter who was robbed in Bangkok because he was white, in London because he was black; he does not give in—not this pig—he fights back. Different as they are, the poet and Villon become one: “My imaginary brother, my cousin,/ Myself made otherwise by all his pain.”

Levine identifies with these tough losers, even though he admits that their pains are greater than his and that their toughness surpasses his. His attitude toward suffering is evident in his often-anthologized poem “To a Child Trapped in a Barbershop.” In mock seriousness, he tells the six-year-old that his case is hopeless and advises the child not to drink the Lucky Tiger because “that makes it a crime/ against property and the state.” “We’ve all been here before,” he informs the boy; we have all suffered the fears of the barbershop and the sharp instruments, but “we stopped crying.” The boy should do the same and welcome the world of experience, its difficulties, fears, and pains.

They Feed They Lion

In his next full-length volume, They Feed They Lion, and in the chapbooks Red Dust and Pili’s Wall, Levine pushes further the discoveries that were made in poems such as “The Midget.” As he said in his statement in Contemporary Poets of the English Language, he was influenced by the Surrealistic Spanish and South American poets Miguel Hernández, Rafael Alberti, Pablo Neruda, and César Vallejo. These poets not only showed the way to a greater freedom of language but also were political poets affected deeply by the Spanish Civil War. Possibly, though, the greatest reason for the renewed vigor of Levine’s work is the discovery of his hometown of Detroit as a subject for his poetry. This city is at the heart of They Feed They Lion, and it provides the starting point for some of the finest of Levine’s poems.

In “Coming Home,” Levine returns to the city in 1968 and finds Detroit an affront to nature, a riot-torn city with “the eyes boarded up.” The auto factories’ dirt and smoke dominate the hellish landscape: “We burn this city every day.” In “The Angels of Detroit” sequence, however, the poet repeatedly expresses his sympathy for the workers, people such as Bernard:

His brothers are factories andbowling teams, his mother is thepower to blight, his fathermoves in all men like a threat,a closing of hands, an unkeptpromise to return.

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