Philip Levine Levine, Philip (Vol. 4) - Essay

Levine, Philip (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Levine, Philip 1928–

Levine is an important American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[In Not This Pig] I found nothing to excite me and a good bit to make me gloomy. I think both the themes and the devices are pretty dull stuff. The business of sharing the deprivations of one's fellow man, and then discovering in a poem that one has thereby become the fellow man's brother—this seems to me such a commonplace … that it can only be successfully reiterated in some kind of prosodic tour de force. The necessity of exploring the Jewish heritage and laying it both against one's life as a person and a father, and against one's exposure to the country that built the death camps, I can certainly understand; yet it leaves me sympathetic but cool. The indefatigable concern for the squalor and pitiableness of the human condition—with a mild sermon on the need for dignity despite all—seems to me here to serve no other function than to display the poet's good eye.

And Levine does have a good eye; I don't mean to suggest this is a bad book of poems. It is simply too flat to be long remembered. Ten minutes after the event is described, the event has vanished from the reader's mind; no image, no picture, no cadence, no fancy survives. Most of the poems come visually alive in the reading, then black out when the page is turned—partly, I suppose, because of the relentless syllabics-in-sevens, partly because of the consciously negative quality of the poems' statements, a sort of no-bird-sang effect done over and over in what is apparently intended to be a dramatic effect but fails, for me, to connect with the thrust of the poetry. And I respond in the same stolid way to the frequent occasions when the poem suddenly reaches outside itself to a vignette of Nature; I take it Levine wants to use the Natural as a correlative, but I have the strong feeling Nature could as often as not be excised without damaging the poems.

Robley Wilson, Jr., "Five Poets at Hand," in The Carleton Miscellany, Fall, 1968, pp. 117-20.

Philip Levine quietly has become one of the most interesting poets writing today in America. I say quietly, because Levine's poems do not contain many fashionable gestures. He never picked sides in the round robin of public quarrels which enlivened the poetry scene during the 1960s (New York Poets versus Black Mountain Poets, Deep Imagists versus Academic Poets, etc.) Instead, in his earlier books, Not This Pig, Red Dust and Pili's Wall he worked to develop a strong, precise language, expressing moments of illumination and compassion, expressing too the bass-tones of suffering and vulnerability which the emotionally open life must experience. In common with the best insight of many contemporary poets, Levine has learned to focus intensely on the "correspondences" which bind together different orders of experience. Stones and forests, the conflagrations of poverty, the Spanish landscape, the inhumanity of urban America, are yoked together into a structure of revelation which becomes the real subject matter of Levine's poetry. Not urban poverty alone, and not the mysteries of pastoral quietness, but the groundswell of understanding, the sharp, often dark energy which they share. The title poem of his most recent book, They Feed They Lion, is an example of the power which sweeps through the best of these poems….

An energy of despair rises in the poem, ominous yet expansive; deadly, yet almost joyful. The voice of the black poor chants a language of apocalypse. "The Lion" feeds on suffering, and grows; not only human suffering, but the suffering of grass and stumps and gutted cars. The effect of Whitmanesque accumulation building from image to image creates a fraternity of darkness; the animate and inanimate worlds speak together in a single chant. "They Lion," etched more deeply by Levine's dialectal spelling, is a brother of Yeats's "rough beast" slouching toward Bethlehem; it is a mockery of St. Mark's biblical lion. When it comes, man and the earth will be devoured by one hunger.

They Feed They Lion sustains throughout a mood of mature, tough vision, in which the suffering of the earth, the suffering of man, the anxiety of inward failure, mingle to create a strangely literal Apocalypse, without chest-beating or the glamour of surreal imagery. Levine's phantasmagoria is real….

Where They Feed They Lion fails, it is because Levine has a tendency to outrun his own vision. When he cranks up the intensity of his language, the sense of mystery becomes strained, and one feels a sort of exoticism in the imagery. A number of poems are simply too long, going through the motions of language when their actual strength has dwindled ("The Cutting Edge," "Saturday Sweeping," "Salami," etc.). But these are small blemishes. There remains so much good poetry in They Feed They Lion that it is without a doubt Philip Levine's best book, and one of the finest I have recently read.

Paul Zweig, in Parnassus, Fall/Winter, 1972, pp. 171-74.

Levine is an unsettling poet. I never open his books without a feeling of apprehension—expectation, yes, but also that strange marginal maidenly reserve that wants not to be startled. But Levine is startling because, for one thing, you never know from which direction he will attack…. Writing of Detroit's downriver suburbs, writing of the Spanish countryside, Levine evokes a personality that is ghostly, stunned, perplexed, trying to know itself but realizing that he, himself, is somehow being created, like a poem…. Yet what is curious about him is the sense one gets that he is in control of his poetry only at the point at which it becomes verbal, and perhaps even visual; the energy of the poetry itself comes from some impersonal, chaotic, probably very frightening dimension Levine cannot control but must not resist….

Levine's unclassifiable poetry weaves violent and not-to-be-softened images in and out of a single sensibility's monologue of awe. The poems move back and forth from a mystical affirmation of the earth to a fragmented, carelessly questioning consciousness that excites us, sometimes against our will, with the prospect of a good fight. My first impulse is to say He should write novels!—but my more reasoned instinct is He has no need to write novels….

In one of her essays Flannery O'Connor, shortly before her death, made the enigmatic statement that for many of "us," the future would lead away from the novel and into poetry. Surely Levine's poetry is the sort of thing she had in mind: brooding, musing, angry, alarming.

Joyce Carol Oates, in American Poetry Review, May/June, 1973, p. 55.

Philip Levine's new poems in They Feed They Lion depict a hard world—hard in the sense of being both unyielding and difficult. It is a world filled with stones, and stones recur as images in poem after poem. Indeed, the book's first line is "River of green stone," and two pages later is a poem about a "green rock." It is as though Levine, by comparing rivers to stone and giving stone the color of grass, were insisting that little on this earth is soft and comforting….

But, unlike many sophisticates who in recent years have embraced a rural life, Levine does not find much solate in nature….

Most of the poems are written in short, unadorned lines. They are compact, and at their weakest tight-lipped: some of the narrative incidents in such pieces as "The Angels of Detroit," "Thistles," and "Dark Rings" are so compressed that they lack emotional resonance. Yet the absence of rant helps make the best of them powerful, particularly the startling poems in which Levine, going beyond saying that the world is a tough place to live in, points out that it can be positively brutal….

By mingling blossoms with an awareness of inevitable aging and by seeing life and breath as a perpetual giving and taking, Levine achieves a calm resolution, yet one devoid of easy sentimentality and consonant with his flinty perceptions throughout the book: nothing, he keeps saying, is ever easy.

Jack Anderson, "Flinty Perceptions," in Prairie Schooner (© 1973 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1973, pp. 181-83.

Philip Levine has … an utter scrupulousness of observation. His poems are personal, love poems, poems of horror, poems about the experiencing of America, which instead of simply representing the objects and the "scene" concentrate on the physical body experiencing these things….

Awareness of the outside world as a threat to the individual perceiving it is the subject of many of his poems….

The object seen, in order to be seen, is dependent on the body that perceives it. Since, without that witness, there will neither be seer or thing seen, then the act of seeing is a reminder of death, a threat of murder almost. In some of [the] poems [in They Feed They Lion] Philip Levine seems to see life and death interlocked—in fact more than that, as a perpetual collision of the killed with the killer. Some of his poems are about accidents, and they give a sense of this coitus of life with death as though the accident were a metaphor for living. Reading these poems one feels in the presence of a strange, alarming, and irrefutable way of seeing things. At the same time they contain observations which are pleasurable very much in the manner of James Schuyler's poetry.

Stephen Spender, "Can Poetry Be Reviewed?," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), September 20, 1973, pp. 8-14.

Philip Levine's first book of poems (On The Edge, 1963) was remarkably good. It demonstrated an already accomplished poet whose strong voice moved through the mostly traditional verse with intelligence, confidence, and an uncanny power to unsettle. Its theme was "the loss of human power" and "the gradual decay of dignity"; its mood was one of almost unremitting pessimism…. Since that first book Levine's pursuit of his central theme has worked a big transformation in his style….

Levine risks a lot with his new poetry; and when his vision is wholly private, then lines, images, sometimes entire poems fail to communicate; sometimes a flat and predictable language seeks automatic response. But when he focuses on the private pains and social ills of others, his best poems oblige us to cry with him. They Feed They Lion is not a comforting experience. More important, in its compassion, its skill, and its rare power to disturb our dulled attentions, it is a necessary and a valuable one.

Alan Helms, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), pp. 151-53.

The poetry of Philip Levine, from On the Edge (1963) to his two latest collections, Red Dust (1971) and They Feed They Lion (1972), has always displayed technical skill, a dexterous handling of both formal and, more recently, informal modes, and a command of the resources of diction and rhythm. Yet these aspects of technique seem in a way secondary, absorbed as they are by a central, driving intensity peculiar to this poet's approach. Such intensity leads him to a relentless searching through the events of his life and the lives of others, through the particulars of nature as these signify something about the processes of living, the states of existence, in order to arrive not at Eliot's transcendence, Roethke's "condition of joy," or Whitman's ideal of progress and brotherhood (though the sharing of suffering and the common ties of humanity are basic to Levine's attitude) but to the sort of awareness suggested by Yeats' phrase, "the desolation of reality," an unflinching acquaintance with the harsh facts of most men's situation which still confirms rather than denies its validity….

Levine's early poetry is taut, sharp, formal but gradually alters to accommodate his desire for greater freedom in line length and overall construction. A prominent theme of his first book is the reversal or defeat of expectations. Put another way, it motivates a struggle on the poet's part to view life stripped of the vestiges of illusory hope or promise, a type of hard spiritual conditioning which helps to engender his fundamental responsiveness to the dilemmas of the poor, embittered, failed lives of the "submerged population" (the late Frank O'Connor's term) in modern society, a responsiveness that accounts for much of both the energy and the deep humaneness of all his work. A firm grip on existence itself takes priority for Levine from the start, though with it necessarily comes an acceptance of pain and the admission that failure, defeat, and imperfection—but not surrender!—are unavoidable in men's affairs….

Committed to a fallen, unredeemable world, finding no metaphysical consolations, Levine embraces it with an ardor, anguish, and fury that are themselves religious emotions….

Rich and complex though they usually are, the poems of Levine's first two collections are relatively direct, proceeding by certain logical, sequential, narrative, or other means, which provide the reader with support and guidance. Levine never altogether abandons poems of this sort, but even in Not This Pig he begins to widen his fields of exploration to include experiences which manifest themselves in irrational, dreamlike, fantastic, or visionary forms, and doing so variously in such poems as "The Rats," "The Business Man of Alicante," "The Cartridges," "The One-Eyed King," "Animals Are Passing From Our Lives," "Baby Villon," "Waking an Angel," "The Second Angel," and "The Lost Angel." These pieces prepare the way for the surrealist atmosphere of Red Dust, the elliptical, disjunctive composition evident there, and further visible in portions of They Feed They Lion. Levine has cited the Spanish and Latin American poets Hernandez, Alberti, Neruda, and Vallejo, in addition to post-war Polish poetry, as having presented new possibilities available to him. The freedom, vigorousness, metaphorical and imagistic daring of these poets plainly has had a tonic effect on Levine's more recent writing, releasing him to new boldness and strength.

So, by any but a narrow or restrictive view, Levine's latest books must be judged extraordinarily successful, exhibiting an access of inventiveness and vision….

Two … amazing and powerful pieces, "Angel Butcher" and "They Feed They Lion,"… [achieve] a climactic level of prophetic vision; the latter poem is dazzling in its syntactic, linguistic, and dramatic invention, its use of idiomatic effect. But both poems need to be read in their entirety and are too long for quotation here. It remains now simply to say for the purposes of this brief commentary that Levine's poetry, praiseworthy at the start, has developed by momentous strides in the past decade. His new poems make it impossible for him to be ignored or put aside. He stands out as one of the most solid and independent poets of his generation—one of the best poets, I think, anywhere at work in the language.

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., "'The True and Earthy Prayer': Philip Levine's Poetry," in American Poetry Review, March/April, 1974, pp. 44-7.

1933 is Levine's most beautiful accomplishment so far. He is one of those poets whose work is so emotionally intense, and yet so controlled, so concentrated, that the accumulative effect of reading a number of his related poems can be shattering. If only most non-creative critics knew how difficult it is to write like this!—and what a miracle it is, in fact, that private emotion should be communicated on so dramatically transpersonal a level. Levine's "Letters For the Dead" in this volume, as well as the title poem, are works that, though based on his own experience, speak to us all—painfully, beautifully; like much of Levine's work, they really cannot be quoted except in their entirety. (This will be a difficulty serious critics will have with Levine—his artistry is such that only a complete poem represents him, and his books are so intensely unified that only the complete book represents him … so the best thing to do is simply buy and read his books…. I really think he is extraordinary, a visionary of our dense, troubled, mysterious time. The grittiest and most brutal of his poems is, to me, an experience I would not hesitate to call ineffable.)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The American Poetry Review, May/June, 1974, p. 44.