Philip Levine Essay - Levine, Philip (Vol. 5)

Levine, Philip (Vol. 5)

Levine, Philip 1928–

Levine, an American poet, writes tough but compassionate poems about "pigs, thistles, thorny people who refuse to die." He studied under John Berryman and admires Ginsberg, Snyder, Kinnell, and Ted Hughes, but claims that no other writer has particularly influenced his work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Philip Levine's sixth book, 1933, is filled with persons and images from his past: his grandparents, parents, uncles; black Packards, knickers, Roosevelt, World War II, his childhood, first loves. Because he looks "in the corners of things" his poems are grounded simply on simple observations that somehow expand into tantalizing ambiguities…. Levine is not a flashy poet … and these poems are even "quieter" than those in They Feed They Lion, his previous book (1972). But his dark vision, which picks out mostly unpretty, visceral images, has remained constant: "the scattered intestines of purses," "great tubs of fat," "thumb prints/on an oily knife," "the cold meats of the deep," "the rich harvest/of the alleys," "the rats/frozen under the conveyors," etc.

One new element is a certain nostalgia, natural in poems looking backward. (p. 24)

Although Levine tends to look on nature as an antagonist, and his memories tend to be memories of loss, and the "air crackles" with the anger of the dead, these poems have a stoical strength based on the existence of love. His short two- and three-beat lines heavy with nouns and verbs support a nonsentimental view of life that gives value to the smallest, least elegant, action…. (pp. 24-5)

Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 7, 1974.

The landscapes of Philip Levine's latest book, 1933, resemble those of his earlier poetry; the poet experiencing them is not so familiar a figure. Levine once identified as major obsessions: "Detroit. The dying of America. Search for communion. Admiration for cactus, pigs, thistles, thorny people who refuse to die." In the harsh light of the Depression and midwestern waste, these scenes and people are revisited. But Levine imagines them this time without the flashes of anger which in the past have made his poetry vivid as a scar. 1933 may well be Levine's Life Studies—like Robert Lowell's book, a ghostly reunion of family and friends, an autobiography, a tribute, an exorcism. (p. 41)

On the Edge was an astonishing debut. Where most first books pay poetic debts and shed other poets' skins, On the Edge was a clear announcement by a prickly poetic personality. As prologue, it prepares us for the more anecdotal and narrative character of his next few books. (p. 43)

[The] felt hostility between poet and reader, [the] disregard for the reader's comfort, is the strength of some of the best poems in On the Edge. Among these, "Gangrene" is a real shocker…. "Gangrene" works by making a reader anxious as to just how close to life, to truth, the poem may take him. (pp. 44-5)

They Feed They Lion … is to my mind Levine's finest book precisely because it forces us to enter … virtually indescribable states of mind and to recognize them as our own. Levine not only takes on, once more, his resistant roles, but also strains at grammar and snytax to draw us into unfamiliar worlds. The title poem is an apocalyptic chant where revulsion is gathered into awe, where appetite becomes a lion rather than a universal wolf, and where man preying upon man is not only part of the order of things but also something for fearful celebration…. The fierce conjunctions … and the jammed grammar of this poem forestall all discrimination, all efforts to tell detritis from nourishing earth. (p. 47)

[1933] is a book of beautiful passages, but not of whole poems. There are moving moments…. But read through, one poem after another, there is too much incantation. That Levine gets a great deal of this ritualizing effect from the Spanish poetry which stimulates many poets these days is neither here nor there. The mode doesn't accommodate the anger and hostility which, in earlier books, were clearly part of his impetus for writing.

It is not that contradictions, the twinning of violence and beauty have disappeared from his work. What's gone is the tension, the way he stretched the language and forced us to acknowledge contradictions…. [Contraries] are swallowed by litany, each line given coordinate value and somehow lulling us with the way of the world. (p. 49)

David Kalstone, "The Entranced Procession of the Dead," in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974, pp. 41-50.

[Compared] with They Feed They Lion, Levine's new book [1933] is less splendid, though quite as sordid. What was wonderful about that last book—and what is missing, or missed, in this latest one—is just the conviction of splendor, the just conviction which balances and ransoms the conviction of sordor, the unjust conviction. Poets often suffer from, even exult over, the trough-of-the-wave syndrome in those organized articulations of their oeuvre they call their books, their volumes; the crest for Levine was certainly a poem like Breath, which ended They Feed They Lion with these axiological pulsations:

                                      I give
               the world my worn-out breath
               on an old tune, I give
               it all I have
               and take it back again.

And the trough is here, when Levine apostrophizes "the world" with that same shuddering fall, that urgency of deprivation, that starved energy of shared lives brutalized by displacement, by promiscuous sociability rather than society, by labor rather than work, by agglomeration rather than cities. Addresses to flesh and bone, these poems work by breath, though they do not always "work", as I say—they break down, they break off, they break up…. And yet … It is so difficult a thing Levine has undertaken, this balancing act of his, where at a certain pitch of revering identification "one comes," as he said as long ago as in Not This Pig, "to be a stranger to nothing." And the more difficult because he does it by breathing, by that systole and diastole of air taken in and given out, the impulse caught up and released, which makes any equilibrium a danger, a suffocation even. He wants, preposterously, to bless; he would transform blasphemy into blessing by no more than making the poem, by no less than uttering it—in all Indo-European languages, to do is initially to revere…. He would have us know that if we are dismembered, we may—in a total apprehension of magnificence, of terrestrial power—be remembered. For if it is the conviction of splendor which fails in 1933, it is never the assumption. Levine has in fact enlarged his premises, or brooded upon them till they are the more unmistakably his, and therefore ours, in these indeterminate litanies. He has breathed the world in and out, he has made the earth itself the contents of a single infinite and eternal human body, his own…. (pp. 354-55)

Levine names, and in his fragmentary devotions here he achieves a kind of splenetic salvation, he assumes the world, which is to say he takes it on as a filthy garment, and takes it on, too, as a challenger, "naming / the grains of the sea / and blessing …". (p. 356)

Richard Howard, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1975.

Over the last few years Philip Levine has become so striking a poet that I'm surprised he's not more highly valued than he is. Of course he always wrote forceful poems, but were they always so original? An early admired one, "That Distant Winter," seems now, in retrospect, not to be Levine at all, has varying echoes of Lowell, Jarrell, Trakl, and some of the dramatic properties of Lawrence's "The Prussian Officer," which probably inspired it. Another, equally admired, "On the Edge," sits with the ghost of Weldon Kees, who has haunted the poet elsewhere. But it's when we come to his latest collections, They Feed They Lion,… and the recent 1933, that the particular Levine style and strategy continue almost uninterruptedly from page to page. The fine savagery of the earlier volume is manlier, more immediate in its appeal; the later volume is smoother, craftier, a bit muted, but is an advance, I think, deeper, certainly, and more humane.

Levine's is a daunting, brooding art, often without solace. Scorn and sympathy seem to be there in equal measure, "so much sorrow in hatred," as he says. The bonds of family, work, class, Levine as householder in America, knock-about wanderer in Spain, the wars of man and nature, wilderness and town—these are the different features of a difficult face, "human and ripe with terror"—and with knowledge. Recognition through confrontation, behavior under pressure—obviously these do not come easily to him.

An antagonistic strain, what he calls the "sour after-thought," rubs off on practically everything he touches. Essentially he's a poet of solitude, presents not "the bliss of solitide," Whitman's theme, but solitude as recoil from attachment or obligation, solitude that has him as a poet in middle age ruminating on remnants of a boy's dream "of a single self / formed of all the warring selves split / off at my birth / and set spinning." And it is just these selves or their later incarnations—Levine as husband, father, friend—which he keeps discovering or despoiling again and again.

He manages, I suppose, two things probably better than any of his contemporaries, at least those born in the middle or late Twenties. The old mon semblable, mon frère business of Baudelaire is given renewed American vigor in a number of his poems—for instance, "The Midget," "Baby Villon," "Angel Butcher," parts of "Silent in America." More important, he can create the sense of a milieu, the sound, feel, geography of a place, a time, a people, the flavor of what's been happening among us and what continues to happen, which seem to me almost totally lacking in most other serious poetry today. His portraits, in particular—those in They Feed They Lion and 1933—are troubling, mysterious, delicate, wrathful, constitute a sort of litany of the industrial (Detroit) and immigrant (Jewish) backgrounds which formed him and follow him. They define the poet to himself and his world to us….

The tenor and power of the language are often colloquial, yet subtly, sparsely musical too. Musical, I suppose, in the traditional sense that the words on the page always await their proper pitch, can only be arranged in a certain way, deviate from the necessary sequence and the mood is not sustained, the melody lost. And that's important since Levine's metaphors are not always the strongest, his subject matter can seem repetitive or astringent. One really has to believe what he says, the way the breath shapes its particular truth. And I do (which doesn't always happen when I read poets)….

Levine, though, has one particular fault. Naturally he's a master of la belle indifference, but that sort of stoical orneriness can become, I think, a bit of a trick. A few of the poems, especially those in They Feed They Lion, affect an odd air of concealment and exposure, reminiscent of the American thriller, the taut abrupt tone of Bogart with his buried vein of idealism, the Bogart who says, "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be." It's that sort of cockiness, and the threatening calm behind it, that makes him laugh at, for instance, what he calls those "twitch-nosed academic pants-pisser poets" of the Fifties, or that has him count a bit monotonously the cost and grit of experience, insisting upon its value even while chafing against it, or has him write declamatory phrases that sound great but don't always make much sense: "I shit handfuls of earth." Still he's obviously a rugged burdened animal. The best of his obsessions seem to me always muscular, always authentic, his characteristic posture being, in fact, that of a horse in harness, moving restively backward or sidewise, who balks but endures. (p. 20)

Yet though his poems are not inclusive, though they are built on a continual narrowing down of sentiment or comment, the incompatibilities in them—the opposition between grievance and balm, fierceness and tenderness, between himself "made otherwise" by another's pain—do ultimately merge, as they do in Whitman, although not in joyous surrender, but simply of necessity. (p. 21)

Robert Mazzocco, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), April 3, 1975.