Philip Levine Levine, Philip (Vol. 9) - Essay

Levine, Philip (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Philip Levine's] immensely moving The Names of the Lost … is essentially a book of belated elegies for the Spanish anarchists, but Levine has the control of pathos necessary to prevent any mere study of the nostalgias. For the Fallen, an elegy for the Durruti brothers, may be the finest of these poems, but every page of the book is marked by a severe and appropriate eloquence. (p. 23)

Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 20, 1976.

Deeply emotional, [Philip Levine's verse in The Names of the Lost] avoids sentimentality through its simplicity. Modern writers, the best of them included, tend to indulge themselves in fancy rhetoric about the dark night of the suburban soul, or new losses of innocence in the face of this wicked world. Levine's plain style is like a drink of cold water after a diet of soft drinks. His liturgical cadences never pontificate….

From the detritus of past and present suffering, Levine can continue to scent a God who is "the odor of light/out of darkness, substance out of air/of blood before it reddens and runs." This uncompromising vision is more Biblical in spirit than all the optimistic freedom and space of Rosenberg's interpretations. The Names of the Lost sings with the Psalmist that even in seeking answers, we can accept the ways of a God beyond our understanding. (p. 17)

Phoebe Pettingell, in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 17, 1977.

[The] power to look around and see and the strength of a living syntax have distinguished Philip Levine's poetry at its best. In "Not This Pig" (1968) and "They Fed They Lion" (1972), he awakened and moved readers with poems meant to be read. That is high praise when so much recent poetry seems sealed off from what people see or how people might speak when moved—sealed off either by coy mannerism or by the standard poetic diction of a chic reticence….

Into that antiseptic, surrealist kitchen came Levine's recognizable pig…. [The pig] does not explain God's ways to man, but it is human, and a real animal, part of an American terrain that Levine has seen with unglazed eyes. The material itself invites literary cliché: the lower-middle-class Detroit of Levine's childhood; the slaughterhouses, greaseshops and smeared rivers that are part of the country; the sweet, uneasy California suburb that is another part. The list itself is a cliché, but Levine can overcome that because like the pig these things are not seen as "material," but as life; the poet's prejudices are political and moral, not literary.

That said, it must be admitted that Levine's work is uneven and that its failing is the maudlin. I understand the maudlin to be not a degree of feeling, or even a kind of feeling, but the locking of tone into a flaw or groove, running there without the capacity for modulation of emotion: a single, sustained whine, piercing but not penetrating. In other words, if Swinburne used the same adjectives for a sunset and a woman, Levine sometimes uses the same ones for a dead fish and a lost war. (The poems not directly of America often draw on Levine's experience of Spain, particularly Barcelona and its enduring aftermark of the Civil War.) As with women and sunsets, there may be good reasons for using the same terms, but the reasons must be thought out and felt through, somehow.

What staves off the maudlin in any art is continuity of thought, a sustained choice to speak with all of one's mind. The best poems by Levine meet that intellectual risk, or make peace with it, as in (for example) "Silent in America," "Animals Are Passing From Our Lives," "Baby Villon," "Salami," "They Feed They Lion," all from the two volumes I have named.

The new poems of "The Names of the Lost" renew and heighten the accomplishments and conflicts that I have tried to outline here. The mood is (as the title implies) more obsessively elegiac than ever….

"1933" disappointed me, seemed duller because the poems had become more impressionistic and orphic, less rather than more willing to make the mind known.

To be more specific: I cannot say, amid the technologies of death, deliberate and inadvertent, that America, Barcelona, the world are any less horrible or less fit objects for elegy than Levine says. But often his horrors feel too much the same; to grow old, to drink bad water, to bomb Dresden, to eat sick animals, to be shot by Fascists, if they are understood too similarly have been understood too simply.

[In "The Names of the Lost"], as in "1933," the tendency to hold a poem together from its beginning to end only by a thin, vibrating wire of emotion seems extended. Is it odd or inappropriate to find poems deficient in thought? The monotony of feeling and repetitiousness of method produce a dark, sleepy air not so different, after all, from the Stone-Breath-Light-Snow surrealism. With the exceptions of "New Season" and "Another Life," the poems of "The Names of the Lost" are both more vatic and looser than earlier work; if not quite trivializing the mood of "They Feed They Lion," then making it more formulaic. (pp. 6, 14)

Robert Pinsky, "The Names of the Lost," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 20, 1977, pp. 6, 14.

[In The Names of the Lost] Levine is concerned with historical events—the wars of this century, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War—but only as they impinge on his growing up in Detroit, on the lives of his relatives and friends. This is personal poetry given wider reflection, history brought into the autobiographical mode, and sometimes usurping it. A poem like "On the Murder of Lieutenant José Del Castillo by the Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936" is followed by a piercing lament, "For the Fallen." "Belle Isle, 1949," a re-creation of an experience (swimming) from Levine's own boyhood, is set amid poems speaking of the wider human contact. The most impressive quality about Levine's poems in this collection is his use of language…. "The flowers drying in the garden are the body. My wife raises the fallen arm and binds the forehead. She goes on her knees before a rose blackened at the center, she rests in the shadow of sunflower. At 8:30 there is a carnival of blue morning glories; the mockingbird squawks their sudden thought, the hummingbird steals their intuitions. If I love the body that is yours for a time, wild phlox, marigold, weed, if I love the cactus that holds on and the thistle burning alone, if we are our bodies, naked…." Reprinted without line divisions to give the full effect of the speaking voice that Levine creates, this passage is just one of many in which the poet manages to bring divergent images into a single focus almost before the reader notices, because the movement through the words has been so effortless, so effective. We enjoy reading these words because they are chosen with grace, with art.

And finally, perhaps, that is the insistence of the contemporary poet—that readers remember that the heart of any poem is its language. (p. 94)

Linda W. Wagner, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1975 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1977–78.