Philip Levine Levine, Philip (Vol. 2) - Essay

Levine, Philip (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Levine, Philip 1928–

American poet, author of On the Edge and Not This Pig. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

To distinguish exactly the quality of Philip Levine's poems is not easy. He falls outside our categories. In some respects his horror poems, reciting the barbarities of our time, seem old-fashioned, reverberations from the days of early Jarrell and Shapiro, twenty-five years ago when we were all so intent upon, for example, the painting of Hieronymus Bosch. Levine gives us that inspired loathing, that humane coldbloodedness. But his contempt is even fiercer than his forebears', I should say, and he writes without their neo-metaphysical orna-mentation. Face to face with the bomb, what is the use of wit? Levine's first book … was remarkable for its individuality, its poems in a classical acerbic voice…. Now in his new book, Not This Pig, Levine writes with an easier, freer, more fluent and versatile command.

Hayden Carruth, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1968, pp. 406-08.

[Philip Levine's] Not This Pig showed a poet learning how "in time one comes/to be a stranger to nothing." In the poems of that book, Levine turned away from neither himself nor the world. The poems wore the look of density and multiplicity, and the poet came off as a proud, careless man who cared.

They Feed They Lion contains poems that are more complexly ordered than anything in Not This Pig but that continue a direction that is visionary and liturgical. They Feed They Lion extends Levine's interest in what is pre-literary, in breaking down distinctions the world usually insists on. At base, They Feed They Lion is a book of religious joy. In it, the poet finds an individual American voice in part by listening to Mediterranean silence and to the blues of the Black, American experience. I can think of few white, contemporary poets who have managed such a feat, and with Levine's grace….

When Levine is most magnificent, he reaches for and establishes a language that brings together the actual and the volitional. With homage to poems of William Carlos Williams like "The Cod Head," Levine offers up something like a primitive sense of being, and as a communion ritual in language that reminds me of what poetry again can be…. In this poem and in most of the other poems in They Feed They Lion, Levine is able to admit the demanding claims of the contemporary Muse without giving in to the dislocation of false or easy wit, or, on the other hand, without becoming shrill or self-murderous or going mad.

Arthur Oberg, in Shenandoah, Summer, 1972, pp. 101-03.

The object of the poem [Pili's Wall, a book-length poem] seems to have been to create a sense of oneness of all experience, leading to the wonder when one realizes how all can also be seen as distinct, without losing the mystical flood of the numinous. Or I may have completely misinterpreted it. In sum, this is a nice little chapbook of particular interest and perhaps meaning to the poet's friends. It seems too purposely vague, and personal, to be much more. I think Philip Levine is often a brilliant poet, but this work, at least outside a collection, strikes me as nothing really special from him.

Dick Allen, "Shifts," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), July, 1972, pp. 235-45.

Levine's best poems are ambiguous, their ambiguity issuing not from cleverly exploited poetic devices, but as a consequence of taking inclusive, Whitman-like attitudes toward the raw materials of life. At times, as in the volume's title poem ["They Feed They Lion"], the poet's voice is incantatory, concerned with rhetorically exploiting a reader by sweeping him irresistibly along….

William H. Pritchard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 16, 1972, pp. 4, 12.

Many contemporary poets serve two masters, the imagination and American Cool, by writing low-key surrealism. Philip Levine alone makes it seem wholly justified and necessary, a part of the lingo he grew up with, a cool silver, pop-art shimmer over his poems. He is our best, because our least sentimental, literary poet writing on proletarian themes. This book [They Feed They Lion], his fifth, may be his best yet; nature and travel have made him more aware of his senses, and he achieves an unprecedented visual and dramatic concentration in his urban poems, notably "The Angels of Detroit."

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Autumn, 1972), p. cxxiv.

Along with W. S. Merwin and Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine is creating a poetry that is nearly relentless in excellence, that is grounded in a density of experience here and abroad which separates it explosively from the anaemia of self-ness prevalent elsewhere, and that ranges from the crystaline evocativeness of Merwin at his most lucent to the blooded nightmares of Kinnell.

Open any Levine volume and the first thing you encounter is a concentrated, vibrant realness caught through a matrix of detail and precisely placed acts which open immediately on the event itself….

"They Feed They Lion" has to be one of the most remarkable poems of recent times, a tour de force of paralleled rhetoric, Whitmanesque cataloging, and a repeatedly insistent ambiguity of syntax. On the page it is baffling and intriguing. When Levine reads it aloud it somehow breaks open miraculously, and the very things that made it seem murky and at loose ends with itself become justified, full, and resonant.

Richard Schramm, in Western Humanities Review, Autumn, 1972, pp. 389-90.