Animals Are Passing from Our Lives

by Philip Levine
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

Levine published “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives” in his first collection of poetry in 1968, choosing the last words of the poem as the book’s title. In that year, the United States was in the midst of the Vietnam War, four students were killed in a political demonstration at Kent State University, activists Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated, and throughout Europe revolutionary activities rocked an established social order. By this time, Levine was teaching in California, but he had worked at what he called “a succession of stupid jobs” while he was in high school and Wayne State University and had a deep feeling for blue-collar workers who were not highly valued or acknowledged by a corporate state.

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In addition, as the child of recent immigrants from Europe, Levine grew up in a neighborhood with a strong international flavor, and he recalled that “a great many young men from my neighborhood went” as volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. The anarchists who fought for a democratic state impressed him as idealists willing “to take everything the world could dish out and still keep coming back.” This is the spirit he celebrates in “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” a poem that accepts the reality of sacrifice and failure in a struggle, but which honors the strength and courage of those who did not let a hopeless position diminish their will to continue. The events of the late 1960’s were discouraging for many Americans, and Levine felt that the persistence of individuals of conscience and character could eventually lead toward a more humane condition of government.

One of the poets he admires is Antonio Machado, who had the ability “to take what we’ve marginalized and pull it into the center.” As a crucial poetic precept, Levine has focused on the imagination as a means to see beyond the self. “Imagine yourself being something other than what you are,” he has counseled. For centuries, swine have symbolized a variety of disreputable traits in Western society, and through an act of imaginative empathy, Levine has forcefully challenged a generally accepted version of being. In this way, he has tried to jolt the reader out of a lazy habit of receiving an official presentation of reality and placed a marginalized creature at a center of social consciousness. By implication, if this most denigrated animal is capable of such a noble and admirable act of resistance to conscienceless power, than how can the human animal resign itself to anything less?

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