Philip Levine Levine, Philip (Vol. 5)

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Levine, Philip (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 2,081 words.)