Levine, Philip (Vol. 14)
Levine, Philip 1928–
Levine is an American poet, critic, and editor. His poetry is peopled with unhappy, unlucky characters depicted at the dramatic moment of personal defeat. He is the recipient of the 1980 National Book Critics Circle award in poetry for Seven Years from Somewhere and Ashes: Poems New and Old. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
At a time when much American poetry has become self-conscious, exploring the psyche almost to the point of narcissism, Philip Levine, one of our finest poets, continues to write poetry that explores the relation between self and other, between the personal and social worlds. His poetic ancestors are the most vulnerable and feeling Spanish surrealists, Vallejo and Hernandez, and he uses many of their poetic devices in his work: the catalogue, repetition, and the interrogative. Levine is also a born story-teller, and he uses his narrative gifts in his latest book, The Names of the Lost, to name, to call back, the metaphoric and literal dead, to tell their stories, stories which they could not tell themselves. (p. 241)
A number of poems serve as dedications to political revolutionaries, those who have lost their lives in causes not yet won; Levine cries out for explanations, a sense of moral justice, really, to compensate for their tragedies. These poems are often melancholy, powerful, though occasionally a little sentimental. But it is the memory of the poet's own Detroit childhood, where political realities take on a haunting particularity, that calls forth his greatest powers, his descriptions of the nobility and harsh realities of urban life…. (pp. 241-42)
Memory, then, becomes an important center for the book. To remember, to recall, is to honor the "lost," the dead, to learn from, if not recover,...
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Auden once observed that every poem testifies to a rivalry between Ariel and Prospero. Ariel urges the poet to make "a verbal paradise, a timeless world of pure play" that affords some relief from the historical world with all its dilemmas and suffering. Prospero, concerned more with truth than with beauty, exhorts him to reveal life as it really is, to bring us face to face with "the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly" and thus to "free us from self-enchantment and deception." While any poem will owe something to each of these advocates, it is usually possible to decide whether a poem and occasionally whether a poet is "Ariel-dominated" or "Prospero-dominated." Few have listened as attentively to Prospero as Philip Levine. Ariel sometimes draws him aside, but Levine is too much a product of the fallen world to be comfortable for long in the realm of "pure play." (p. 101)
[The world of Levine's poems] is all bleared and smeared with toil and pain. Selections from Doré's Inferno illustrations might have accompanied the poems in Levine's most recent and grimly impressive volume [The Names of the Lost]…. For Levine, the plight of the man in "Waiting," convicted on the testimony of a lying witness and sweating out the ninth year of his sentence, merely exaggerates an all too common condition.
Since that condition is political, so is much of Levine's poetry, as he had to insist in a recent...
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Philip Levine's characters are specifically not the masters of their need. The opening passage of The Names of the Lost signals that it too will be filled with wakenings, but not into home:
When the streetcar stalled on Joy Road,
the conductor finished his coffee, puffed
into his overcoat, and went to phone in.
The Hungarian punch-press operator wakened
alone, 7000 miles from home, pulled down
his orange cap and set out. If he saw
the winter birds scuffling in the cinders,
if he felt it was the dawn of a new day,
he didn't let on …
("On the Birth of Good and Evil During the Long Winter of '28")
The punch-press operator is literally—as so many of Levine's lost are metaphorically—a Displaced Person, his life and mind mysterious. Does he expect or even want the revelation, the dawn of a new day, the revolution which Pack has dismissed? We don't know; hence the poet's own frustration, for he at least yearns to transform this gritty tableau….
But Levine moots his general desire to make large changes, to forge grand significances, by honestly presenting all that stands in the way. Neither breast-beater nor self-styled vatic, he reveals the perilous...
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The title of Philip Levine's new collection, 7 Years from Somewhere,… refers to an encounter with Berber herdsmen in North Africa, where the disoriented poet was seeking directions. Though they shared no common language, a fleeting communion was achieved that seems, in retrospect, highly significant to the writer. "I have been lost since," he mourns, "and I could sleep a moment and waken/in the world we made/and will never call ours."…
Although Levine has a better idea of where he's going than most of his contemporaries, a sense of displacement in his work sounds a continual threnody for the disunity of mankind. He is particularly concerned with the class struggle and the resistance to injustice. "A lot of the rage one encounters in contemporary poetry has to do with the political facts of our lives," he has said. But cynics who associate "political poetry" with strident declamation or simpleminded dogmatism will have to revise their thinking in the face of his humanism. "When I say I'm a romantic poet," he insists, "it seems to me that I feel the human is boundless." This conviction that each man is everyman, and worth more than any impersonal system or cause, underlies both the rage and the tenderness evident in his work.
Over the years, Levine's style has become increasingly straightforward, spare, unadorned. His poems are charged with emotion, yet are never sentimental: He does not substitute literary...
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[From] the beginning of his poetic career, Philip Levine has focused on two themes with ritual consistency: the tribulations of the powerless and the Spanish Civil War. A child of the working class who grew up in Detroit during the Depression, Mr. Levine has returned again and again in his poems to the lives of factory workers trapped by poverty and the drudgery of the assembly line, which breaks the body and scars the spirit. The lurid fires of the foundries serve as a backdrop to the prevailing greyness. In the best poems of his three major volumes—"They Feed They Lion" (1972), "1933" (1974) and "The Names of the Lost" (1976)—Mr. Levine became the elegist of lost souls beaten down by forces they could not understand or control. By providing brief verse chronicles of their struggles to survive … and by conferring names on their anonymous selves, Mr. Levine could partially reinstate these victims in our consciousness, even if he could not rescue them from the malevolence of history…. The empathy of these poems made them seem like urgent political acts.
Mr. Levine's other obsession has been that "kingdom of agony," the Spanish Civil War. Though he was too young to fight in that war, it embodies for him the historical exemplum: a people's uprising that succeeded, quixotically, for a few rare days in hinting at what a genuine egalitarian society might be, only to be crushed by Franco's brute force. Like Orwell in "Homage to...
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W. S. Di PIERO
The simultaneous publication of [Ashes and 7 Years From Somewhere] … persuades us again that if poetry comes as naturally as leaves to a tree—as Keats said it must—it will be singular and exciting and new, however wintry its theme. Levine's high theme is the tragic detachment of self from the world, sometimes an embittered withdrawal, sometimes a brutal cutting off by outside forces, a course redeemed in rare moments by desperate joinings and communings. His subject, as in all his books since They Feed They Lion in 1972, is his own history … as it overlays and collides with modern Spanish history. From these materials he has drawn an occasionally stern and moving elegiac poetry.
Levine's best poems are those in which he finely calibrates the brooding presence of past configurations—friends and family, places, historical events—as they compel his imagination here and now. History is no plodding continuity of events but an instantaneous presence, and Levine's language seeks to accomodate this intense pressure. He has always been a poet of rage, but now, in his middle age, much of it is directed toward the weariness of words, "as though the earth/were tired of our talk/and wanted peace, an end/to promises, perhaps/an end to us." He still points his anger at anything that mocks or diminishes life, as in the cruel poetry of the factory in "The Life Ahead." His anger feeds on yearning, his wish to discover...
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