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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. He is the recipient of the 1980 National Book Critics Circle award in poetry for Seven Years from Somewhere and Ashes: Poems New and Old. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516
At a time when much American poetry has become self-conscious, exploring the psyche almost to the point of narcissism, Philip Levine, one of our finest poets, continues to write poetry that explores the relation between self and other, between the personal and social worlds. His poetic ancestors are the most vulnerable and feeling Spanish surrealists, Vallejo and Hernandez, and he uses many of their poetic devices in his work: the catalogue, repetition, and the interrogative. Levine is also a born story-teller, and he uses his narrative gifts in his latest book, The Names of the Lost, to name, to call back, the metaphoric and literal dead, to tell their stories, stories which they could not tell themselves. (p. 241)
A number of poems serve as dedications to political revolutionaries, those who have lost their lives in causes not yet won; Levine cries out for explanations, a sense of moral justice, really, to compensate for their tragedies. These poems are often melancholy, powerful, though occasionally a little sentimental. But it is the memory of the poet's own Detroit childhood, where political realities take on a haunting particularity, that calls forth his greatest powers, his descriptions of the nobility and harsh realities of urban life…. (pp. 241-42)
Memory, then, becomes an important center for the book. To remember, to recall, is to honor the "lost," the dead, to learn from, if not recover, the past. As he says in "To the Poets of Chile": "Someone/must remember it over/and over, must bring/it home…." Memory is also central because the book begins, in a Job-like fashion, to question the irrevocable process of time, the process which leads us only to death. The personal obsession of the book (and of Levine's previous and brilliant book, titled 1933) becomes the justification of loss: the loss of those we love and those who touch our lives, and our own inevitable death. (p. 242)
The Names of the Lost creates a process of discovery, beginning by questioning the inevitability of loss: "Shall I ask/how many men, dying, passed me/the blood of their voices, the spittle/oiling their groins?" And is it possible that the poet himself, with strong memories of his youth and a history with the woman he loves, "will come at last/to dirt and stone and love them?" Gradually the book attempts to move toward acceptance…. Still, there is a dialectic between community and decay, imagistically between blossoming and burning, a link between him and the past, personally and politically. As for the future, "which grows like a scar," Levine fears these connections will be lost; this fear is usually confronted when dealing with his own son, to whom he carries, via the fables of story-telling, the lessons of the past….
Finally, by the end of the book, in "And the Trains Go On," he returns to the necessity and limitations of his need to bring the past forward…. (p. 243)
Ira Sadoff, "A Chronicle of Recent Poetry," in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1977 by the Antioch Review Inc., reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. 35, Nos. 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 237, 241-44.∗
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Auden once observed that every poem testifies to a rivalry between Ariel and Prospero. Ariel urges the poet to make "a verbal paradise, a timeless world of pure play" that affords some relief from the historical world with all its dilemmas and suffering. Prospero, concerned more with truth than with beauty, exhorts him to reveal life as it really is, to bring us face to face with "the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly" and thus to "free us from self-enchantment and deception." While any poem will owe something to each of these advocates, it is usually possible to decide whether a poem and occasionally whether a poet is "Ariel-dominated" or "Prospero-dominated." Few have listened as attentively to Prospero as Philip Levine. Ariel sometimes draws him aside, but Levine is too much a product of the fallen world to be comfortable for long in the realm of "pure play." (p. 101)
[The world of Levine's poems] is all bleared and smeared with toil and pain. Selections from Doré's Inferno illustrations might have accompanied the poems in Levine's most recent and grimly impressive volume [The Names of the Lost]…. For Levine, the plight of the man in "Waiting," convicted on the testimony of a lying witness and sweating out the ninth year of his sentence, merely exaggerates an all too common condition.
Since that condition is political, so is much of Levine's poetry, as he had to insist in a recent Partisan Review [interview]…. When [Levine] speaks of "the agony of living" he is thinking chiefly of the life of the working class in a system in which "the people in power have no compassion." While his own compassionate skepticism saves him from being narrowly partisan, Levine is our notable heir to the radicalism of the 1930s, a descendant of Henry Roth who has read Neruda and Vallejo closely. (pp. 101-02)
Buenaventura Durruti, the leader of the left wing of the anarchist movement during the Spanish Civil War, to whom Levine dedicates The Names of the Lost, stands at the center of this volume…. Levine follows his dedication … with an epigraph—"and the world he said is growing here in my heart this moment"—that echoes Durruti's comments in an interview…. (p. 102)
Prospero counsels realism; Levine's epigraph is no declaration of faith. Seen in the light of many of these poems, it might even be read as a bitterly mocking epitaph, not only for Durruti and the anarquistas but also for the vision behind the movement. Levine recalls Durruti's vow in a derisive passage in "Gift for a Believer." In a friend's vision Durruti whispered that he would never forget his comrades "who died believing they carried/a new world there in their hearts"—but when Durruti died, "he forgot." Levine knows how lesser exigencies paralyze conviction: later in this poem he tells how he once swore never to forget an early, radicalizing experience at the Chevy plant, and yet eventually "the memory slept, and I bowed/my head so that I might live." If Durruti's faith survives today, he implies, it survives as tenuously as the wretched garden at the end of "Autumn Again," where "Down the oiled path of cans/and inner tubes in the field/by the river" a young mechanic struggles to keep his beans and herbs alive.
The garden recurs so often in The Names of the Lost that it becomes a unifying element closely related to the "world growing here in my heart this moment." The poet's wife almost always appears tending her plants ("New Season," "Autumn Again," "The Falling Sky," "Another Life," "My Son and I"), as though she embodied Durruti's spirit, or as though the growth he envisioned depended upon such steady, intense devotion. Levine's own detachment from the family garden reminds us that he has little faith in a new world, and the advent of the "New Season" seems to bear him out. While "the future grows/like a scar," the garden, so painstakingly cultivated each day, suffers at night the slow fury of the snails: "the rhododendrons shrivel/like paper under water, all/the small secret mouths are feeding/on the green heart of the plum." Surely Levine is playing those lines against the memory, continually imperiled, of Durruti's words. But of course—and from this qualification spring both the tension and the occasional self-righteousness in this book—Levine does finally remember. Nullifidian though he might be, he has his own plot, as the poems prove. His grafting of irony on to idealism is an attempt to develop a sustaining belief. (pp. 103-04)
The need to bring it all home, in both senses, shapes a number of these poems, including "For the Fallen," a moving elegy for Durruti….
The comrades must have known
it was over, and Joaquín
Ascaso, staring at the earth
that had opened so quickly
for his brothers must
have whispered soon.
Soon the boy rose
from his desk and went
into the darkness
congealing in cold parlous
or in the weariness
of old pistons, in the gasps
of men and women asleep
and dreaming as the bus
stalls and starts on the way
home from work.
Technicatly austere, as befits both the scene and Prospero's temperament, this passage is nonetheless subtly put together. The images in its narrow gauge lines flow as smoothly as in a film. Like much of his work, it calls up Eisenstein, some grainy black and white silent picture (for Levine's work is unusually chiaroscurist, his people rarely speak), the point of its montage unmistakably political. The covert analogy between the uneasy sleepers and the poorly running engine implies and implicates a society in which people with dreams but no power become worn parts in the machinery. As the boy rises from the desk, years pass; and with the unobtrusive shift in tense the past dissolves into the present, elegy into indictment. Levine sometimes considers Durruti's acts alms for oblivion, but he cannot forget their pertinence.
This volume's title, just near enough paradox to snag the attention, joins these barely reconcilable feelings. It derives from "And the Trains Go On," a highly concentrated meditative lyric which grows from memories of riding the rails with an unidentified companion some twenty-five years ago. Levine starts in the past tense, then shifts to present and future tenses in combination with images drawn from the Korean War to conjure the future, and finally modulates into a present tense that recovers the past…. [The] poem's real achievement is its conclusion, where Levine and his friend come "back the long/tangled road that leads us home":
Through Flat Rock going east
picking up speed, the damp fields
asleep in moonlight. You stand
beside me, breathing the cold
in silence. When you grip
my arm hard and lean way out
and shout out the holy names
of the lost neither of us is scared
and our tears mean nothing.
These lines bring the past incident rushing into the present, thus accomplishing in small one of the book's aims, and they image the movement into the future. (pp. 104-06)
The lost began to haunt Levine in On the Edge (1963), although he did not yet know they were to be his abiding subject…. [The] first volume's more interesting poems, not all political, try to shock us into [a sort of awareness]. "Gangrene" does so as literally as possible. Beginning with a description of electrical and other tortures of political prisoners, packaged in fussy syllabic stanzas, it then rounds on the reader, ipso facto "secretly thrilled by/the circus of excrement."… For the American who might really believe himself innocent, Levine juxtaposes "Gangrene" with a searingly objective poem about a horse flayed alive by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In various ways, "L'Homme et la Bête," "Small Game," and "The Turning" serve the same end: Levine means to strip the reader of his own integument of moral pretension.
"Political facts" motivated many of the poems in Not This Pig (1968), but frequently Levine's animus took the form of satire on bourgeois conformity, viewed once more as the spiritually bankrupting price of admission to the system. (pp. 106-07)
"Heaven" is an eerie, softly-hued poem, but these others, although smooth enough—no, partly because so smooth seem thin and dated as old coins. The poem with the wonderfully skewed title, "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives," will always seem newly minted. A parable of the blinkered "progress" of the consumer society, it fascinates both because of its framing concept (how many poets would dream of adopting the point of view of the first little pig in the children's game?) and its execution of detail. (p. 107)
But such a poem is a tiny territory discovered and fully exploited at once, just as "Heaven" is an enchanting island to which one does not return. "The Midget" might stand for Levine's entrance into a country large and potentially productive as the Spain in which it is set. The poet is accosted, in a workers' bar in Barcelona once frequented by Durruti, by a midget who will not be bought off or discouraged by pleas to be left alone…. Few poems deal as ruthlessly with our attempts to dissociate ourselves from the world's grief or dramatize as convincingly our utter moral defenselessness in the face of the claims of the poor and powerless….
Levine has never shaken that obstinate midget. His paradoxical image of potency was prophetic: from such narrow circumstances, whether in Spain or the United States, most of his finest poems have come. (p. 108)
Levine's home turf is the urban setting, so it makes whimsical sense for Not This Pig to be dedicated in part to "the cities that are here, Detroit, Fresno, Barcelona." But often in Red Dust and throughout Pili's Wall, both published by small presses in 1971, Levine explored the rural areas of the country of the spirit that he had settled in…. None of Pili's Wall, a sequence of ten lyrics, has ever been reprinted, perhaps because the accompanying photos would pose a problem in a larger edition. Its limited printing is a pity, but one has to approve the decision not to publish the poems alone; for although they never refer to the wall's graffiti, reproduced in the photos, the two media come to seem inseparable. Levine never quite says so, but it seems that Pili, a "Spanish girlchild," chipped these figures into the wall. They are her poem at the same time that they inspire Levine's, which is also primitive, elliptical, out of perspective—and written in a tight free verse rather than the syllabics that predominate in the earlier volumes.
Through most of the sequence Levine assumes Pili's point of view, while she in turn merges with the elements of her small but inexhaustible world: a lost and frightened dog, a weary shepherd, even the wall itself, as in section VII, the germ of "They Feed They Lion":
Out of saying No
No to the barn swallow, No
to the hurled stone
No to the air
out of you can't
to the crying grain, you won't
to the lost river
of blackening ivy
out of blind
out of deaf, closed, still
I stand and stand and stand into
While the syntax of this section owes an obvious debt to Whitman, the definition of self in terms of gritty negation is pure Levine. Again, the identifications at the heart of the sequence recall "There Was a Child Went Forth," but only Levine could so vitalize a wall that it could give a detailed, inventive account of its birth…. The concluding negative, Levine's cachet, is more positive and specific than that in "Not This Pig." In this context of "The low houses of the poor" and a hardscrabble life the wall embodies the refusal of those who built it not to exist.
The force that drives the wall up also powers the rough beast in the ferocious, exhilarating title poem in They Feed They Lion (1972), but here the focus is once more on the city:
Out of burlap bags, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.
The tremendous compression corresponds to the constraint of the energy Levine at once eulogizes and stands in awe of, like Michaelangelo's slaves, their bodies straining to free themselves from the marble. And like the sculptures, the poem catches moments at which raw material converts itself into raw power, and it too elicits a kinaesthetic response…. Or perhaps we should take our cue from the black dialect it draws much of its strength from and think of it as a sort of apocalyptic jazz. In any case, Levine's Lion is plainly a later, fiercer version of his wall and an earlier, more joyful version of the world growing in the workers' hearts.
Someone is always asking whether the good political poem is possible in the United States today. An affirmative answer can only be concrete, and to confront the question with "They Feed They Lion."… "They Feed They Lion" celebrates latent power at least as much as it condemns oppression, and its union of labor and nature (as in "caves," "reeds," and "grained") augurs something closer to the proverbial inheritance than to revolution, but it is not the less political on those accounts—though it might be the more visionary. (pp. 108-11)
In spite of the harshness of the lives depicted, [many of the poems in They Feed They Lion are] laced with a certain delicacy, which in strange combination with repugnant subjects generates some of Levine's most original work. At one end of the spectrum is "¡Hola Miguelin!", a lovely lyric about a young Spanish neighbor just risen from love-making, which is all delicacy except for its last line's hint of a frisson. At the other end is "The Children's Crusade," an inscrutable tale in which a little girl who is an accomplice in the gruesome murder of her father wears, very precisely, "silver ignition keys hooked in her/pierced ears."… [If] "They Feed They Lion" is Levine's "Second Coming," "Angel Butcher" is his "Dialogue of Self and Soul," its "dark valley" being analogous to Yeats's ditch and its burning cities Levine's special object of love and hate.
But Yeats's Self praises life as he has known it, and to the extent that Levine does likewise his anger at its political facts must be affected. His discontent can afford only so much nostalgia. In 1933 (1974) Levine's emphasis shifted. As he said in the interview, this volume is "less aggressive" than its predecessor. It includes a number of his best realistic vignettes, but as its title hints, its wistfulness at least balances its rancor. (pp. 111-12)
Yet Levine's nostalgia encourages the soft and the sentimental. Sometimes one cannot believe—or does not know how to believe—his claims, as when he says in "1933" (the year of his father's death) that "Once in childhood the stars held still all night/the moon swelled like a plum but white and silken." The standing still of the stars is patently symbolic and the image of the moon hardly calculated to substantiate the "Once." In "Once in May" he recalls that he stood "all afternoon under heaven/with water in my pockets,/salt in my socks, naming/the grains of the sea." But it is no more clear what that too familiar "naming" might really mean than it is where else he might have stood on the beach. At such moments Prospero yields the floor to Ariel, but Ariel, flustered and out of practice, blurts out the first thing that comes into his head.
Nostalgia perhaps breeds another kind of self-indulgence in "Letters for the Dead," an ambitious elegiac poem 350 lines long which is crisply written, particular at every step, yet confusing as a whole. The problem is simply that it needs the fleshing out one often gets at readings. The relationships among its people remain stubbornly obscure, and the reader is so bedeviled by ambiguous second person pronouns that he can hardly tell how many people are involved. What is the purpose? I am not certain, but the vivid obscurity gives one an especially strong sense of being privy to an intensely personal transaction. For some readers the poem will prove the exceeding tolerance of Mill's definition of successful poetry as "feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude." Yet one values just this quality of seeming "overheard" in Levine's recent political poems. They spurn what Mill called "eloquence"—"feeling pouring itself forth to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavoring to influence their belief, or move them to passion or to action." "And the Trains Go On" and "For the Fallen," far from having designs on us, allow us to eavesdrop on meditations. If occasional obscurity were the expense of the mode, it would be worth the price.
The Names of the Lost often reworks the political themes of They Feed They Lion in the elegiac manner of 1933…. [A lost black] man rambles on about his prison terms and other things [in "Another Life"]:
about the poem he can write will follow
me all the way home, try my chair,
eat from my plate, take my voice
until I'm the one walks all night
in the rain, gets stopped by the cops
at dawn, and with the sky reddening
spread my arms and legs against the car
and feel the gloved hand
slide over my balls and pause
and go on, leaving nothing.
The transition is flawless. If it is impossible to say whether the frisking is Levine's experience too or just the convict's, that seems to be the point.
At exactly this point one has to voice a reservation. The question—which threatens to raise itself even in the case of "I was the man, I suffered, I was there"—is whether the identification does not trivialize the experience it means to bring home, whether the technique has not subverted the subject. The final image means something for the convict that it cannot mean for Levine. He confronts the difficulty in "For the Fallen": "Look at your hands. They/are not scarred by/the cigarettes of the police." But then "For the Poets of Chile" opens with these lines:
Today I called for you
my death, like a cup
of creamy milk I
could drink in the cold dawn,
I called you to come
Could any poem accommodate this passage? It might illustrate one problem with Mill's concept of poetry, which does not allow for the awareness of audience that can cut the grease of mawkishness that often films over conversations with the self. When Levine concludes with an image of the daughter of a slain political prisoner setting the breakfast table with "the tall glasses/for the milk" that she and her mother must drink each morning, the easy symmetry and the presumptuous equation betray whatever emotion has survived the opening lines.
Levine's rhetorical questions can also lead him to the brink of the bathetic…. [Take] the passage in "Ask the Roses" where Levine demands: "Has anyone told the sea it must count/its tears and explain each one/has anyone told the blood/how long it must crust the sheets." Isn't this really a way of making witty images, a means of setting in motion a machine that can process, in the name of suffering, any material that comes to hand?
Still, such moments are rare in this volume. Besides "And the Trains Go On," "For the Fallen," and "Gift for a Believer," The Names of the Lost contains several other poems nearly as compelling, including "New Season," "My Son and I," "On the Murder of Lieutenant José Castillo by the Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936," and "No One Remembers." A few others, such as "A Late Answer" and "Wednesday," are admirably done though more modest attempts. (pp. 113-15)
References to rising and falling run throughout this volume ("You," "Let It Begin," "Another Life," "Gift for a Believer," and "For the Fallen," for example), and the tension between the impulses they embody—parallel to that between remembering and forgetting—is at its very heart. A section of "For the Fallen," where Levine transports us to the cemetery in which Durruti is buried, will serve as synecdoche:
can go down on your knees
and pray that the spirit
of men and women come back
and inhabit this failing flesh
but if you listen well
your heart will ask
you to stand, under
the fading sun or
the rising moon, it
doesn't matter, either
alone or breathing as you
do now the words
of the fallen and the slow
clouds of diesel exhaust.
Within the intricate local counterpointing, we might take as summarizing lines the two on "the fading sun" and "the rising moon," where the attribution of "rising" to the weaker "moon" nearly redresses the slight imbalance caused by the stronger position of that second adjective. In the sentence as a whole, the foreknowledge of the futility of rising up nearly frustrates the urge to do so. The standing must be accomplished, after all, within sight of "the fallen." And the "heart" (again one remembers Durruti's words) is saddled with the "failing flesh."
Not that bowing down is to be despised. On the contrary, the endurance it represents has often approximated heroism in Levine's work…. Lacking the dynamism of "They Feed They Lion," "For the Fallen" might not be as immediately appealing, but it just might be more accurate, a poem Prospero could approve more quickly—as well as a harder one to write, or at least to be felt through, to have brought home.
If few others in this volume can stand with the prodigious poems in They Feed They Lion, we must remember that we do not have the right to expect such poems and can only be grateful when they appear. Perhaps not even Levine has the right to expect them. Randall Jarrell told us that a good poet is "someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times." Levine has already been struck at least that many times, and Lord knows no one is more likely to continue standing out in thunderstorms. (pp. 116-17)
Stephen Yenser, "Bringing It Home," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1977, pp. 101-17.
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Philip Levine's characters are specifically not the masters of their need. The opening passage of The Names of the Lost signals that it too will be filled with wakenings, but not into home:
When the streetcar stalled on Joy Road,
the conductor finished his coffee, puffed
into his overcoat, and went to phone in.
The Hungarian punch-press operator wakened
alone, 7000 miles from home, pulled down
his orange cap and set out. If he saw
the winter birds scuffling in the cinders,
if he felt it was the dawn of a new day,
he didn't let on …
("On the Birth of Good and Evil During the Long Winter of '28")
The punch-press operator is literally—as so many of Levine's lost are metaphorically—a Displaced Person, his life and mind mysterious. Does he expect or even want the revelation, the dawn of a new day, the revolution which Pack has dismissed? We don't know; hence the poet's own frustration, for he at least yearns to transform this gritty tableau….
But Levine moots his general desire to make large changes, to forge grand significances, by honestly presenting all that stands in the way. Neither breast-beater nor self-styled vatic, he reveals the perilous longings of the Inquiring Spirit, Coleridge's Mariner, say, or Milton's Satan, and he confronts the full implications of the latter's famous contention that "the mind is its own place." It is as if some god had indeed fated the heirs of such subjectivism always to lack a home. (p. 118)
[A] poet's titles are telling, and Levine includes "No One Remembers," "For the Fallen," "For the Poets of Chile," "And the Trains Go On." He is a master of the tragedy of transience and alienation, of the wide meeting of souls. For him, even the family … is unfamiliar: he frequently tells us that his children "have grown away."… The very closest associate is almost uncanny, so that all fellows are strangers, all moments of tenderness exquisitely tenuous…. (pp. 118-19)
For Levine's lost, the mind is its own place, a fact which persistently vetoes the poet's wish for a revealed wholeness and community….
Belief in and doubt of a possible sharing; satisfaction and dissatisfaction with surfaces: simple differences in temperament affect all detail, including the way in which [Levine] stands in the natural world. (p. 119)
[In "New Season"] Levine summons recurrent loss and strife, not peaceable continuity, from his reading of the landscape: he runs together his senile mother, the Detroit riots of '43, the feebleness of his aged cat, and ends by undercutting [durability and gentle gradualism.]… [The burning willow in the poem] subtly reminds us of Levine's urge for revelation—his search for some means to integrate and ennoble this frankly sordid and fragmented instant—but the poem acknowledges its unattainability. The search for a cohering Truth is vitiated by things-as-they-are: the foliage shrivels like paper under water, and we cannot miss the bitter implications for Levine's own writings. It is the bitterness that closes his volume in "To My God in His Sickness," for this sickness is that He does not exist, that there is no transcending Principle to gather up and redeem the names (or the poems) of the lost. Levine anticipates a great blank page. (p. 120)
Sydney Lea, "Wakings in Limbo," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1978 by Chicago Review), Vol. 30, No. 1, Summer, 1978, pp. 116-24.∗
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The title of Philip Levine's new collection, 7 Years from Somewhere,… refers to an encounter with Berber herdsmen in North Africa, where the disoriented poet was seeking directions. Though they shared no common language, a fleeting communion was achieved that seems, in retrospect, highly significant to the writer. "I have been lost since," he mourns, "and I could sleep a moment and waken/in the world we made/and will never call ours."…
Although Levine has a better idea of where he's going than most of his contemporaries, a sense of displacement in his work sounds a continual threnody for the disunity of mankind. He is particularly concerned with the class struggle and the resistance to injustice. "A lot of the rage one encounters in contemporary poetry has to do with the political facts of our lives," he has said. But cynics who associate "political poetry" with strident declamation or simpleminded dogmatism will have to revise their thinking in the face of his humanism. "When I say I'm a romantic poet," he insists, "it seems to me that I feel the human is boundless." This conviction that each man is everyman, and worth more than any impersonal system or cause, underlies both the rage and the tenderness evident in his work.
Over the years, Levine's style has become increasingly straightforward, spare, unadorned. His poems are charged with emotion, yet are never sentimental: He does not substitute literary reactions for actual feelings. Material is often drawn from his own epiphanies and revelations….
The heroism of defiance is often expressed in Levine's poetry through his obsession with the anarchist martyrs of the Spanish Civil War…. (p. 16)
In 7 Years, "Francisco, I'll Bring You Red Carnations" makes the witness of the anarchist Ascaso a brilliant symbol for man's unquenchable spirit. Evoking the dream of freedom "that goes on in spite of slums,/in spite of death clouds," the poet promises Ascaso, "when we give it up with our last/breaths someone will gasp/it home to their lives." The red carnations of the title remind us that the flower's name derives from the same root as "carnal," and will "celebrate the unbroken promise" of lives that once were "frail and flesh," but have become symbols of hope. "The hammered little blade" of Francisco Ascaso's spirit proves to be a more obdurate object than all the "industrial filth and/the burning mists of gasoline" that defile modern Barcelona, or than the pollution of Franco's police state. None of the many bouquets Levine has offered his spiritual comrades is more beautiful than this one.
In another sense, however, the martyrs are merely aspects of Levine's death-haunted imagination. A character speaks for the poet when he complains during World War II that "except for the dying/this would be heaven and I,/37 years old would be a man I could talk to." Paradoxically, this refusal to dissociate oneself from the suffering of others is an affirmation of as much wholeness as we can hope to achieve…. [The] movement of 7 Years from Somewhere is toward reconciliations, and the belief that one must "love his life because it is like no other."…
Believing that poetry is a "public good," he makes his the antithesis of art for art's sake (even if, characteristically, he appreciates different styles in others). And the high seriousness of his verse shows up the frivolity of expression, the insipidness of imagination of many contemporary poets. Philip Levine's integrity is salt to our jaded palates. (p. 17)
Phoebe Pettingell, "The Politics of Philip Levine," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 16, August 13, 1979, pp. 16-17.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
[From] the beginning of his poetic career, Philip Levine has focused on two themes with ritual consistency: the tribulations of the powerless and the Spanish Civil War. A child of the working class who grew up in Detroit during the Depression, Mr. Levine has returned again and again in his poems to the lives of factory workers trapped by poverty and the drudgery of the assembly line, which breaks the body and scars the spirit. The lurid fires of the foundries serve as a backdrop to the prevailing greyness. In the best poems of his three major volumes—"They Feed They Lion" (1972), "1933" (1974) and "The Names of the Lost" (1976)—Mr. Levine became the elegist of lost souls beaten down by forces they could not understand or control. By providing brief verse chronicles of their struggles to survive … and by conferring names on their anonymous selves, Mr. Levine could partially reinstate these victims in our consciousness, even if he could not rescue them from the malevolence of history…. The empathy of these poems made them seem like urgent political acts.
Mr. Levine's other obsession has been that "kingdom of agony," the Spanish Civil War. Though he was too young to fight in that war, it embodies for him the historical exemplum: a people's uprising that succeeded, quixotically, for a few rare days in hinting at what a genuine egalitarian society might be, only to be crushed by Franco's brute force. Like Orwell in "Homage to Catalonia," though far more sentimentally, Mr. Levine is driven to celebrate the common people ground down by exploitation and pain. The poet's "Spanish self," as he calls it, is kin to his Detroit self. Both bear witness to a visionary ideal destroyed.
These themes and emotions continue in Philip Levine's two new books ["Ashes" and "7 Years from Somewhere"]…. An uneven collection of lyrics, "Ashes" is quietly introspective, thoughtful, impersonal. The style of "In the New Sun" and "The End of Your Life," for example, achieves a heightened simplicity. Objects take on a luminous presence and delicate tints so that we see them freshly….
Despite occasional lapses into frayed surrealism and mechanical "On the Road" poems, "Ashes" seems balanced and modest, a relief from Mr. Levine's preoccupation with exorcising his demons.
"7 Years From Somewhere," by contrast, is a real disappointment. Reading these poems is like watching a veteran prospector digging for gold in a nearly exhausted vein. There are a surprisingly large number of poetic reveries about childhood and adolescence, embarrassing for the reader to eavesdrop on….
Slack language and imagery also mar Mr. Levine's Spanish Civil War poem, "Francisco, I'll Bring You Red Carnations." (p. 15)
"7 Years From Somewhere" is filled with … threadbare language. Mr. Levine once remarked in an interview that he was not interested in language itself; he wished his words to be so transparent that the reader could see through them. But when language calls attention to itself by its lackluster appearance on the page, as in most of the poems in "7 Years From Somewhere," all the reader sees through is the poet….
Mr. Levine has always shunned rhetoric as if it were the gilded speech of reactionary politics, somehow synonymous with beautiful, sordid lies…. There are perilous limits to a plain style when it is used carelessly under the pressures of strong feeling: bathos and flatness, the absence of texture. Mr. Levine's inner critic needs more leeway to demand rigor and invention. (p. 31)
Herbert Leibowitz, "Lost Souls, Lost Cause," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 7, 1979, pp. 15, 30-1.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605
The simultaneous publication of [Ashes and 7 Years From Somewhere] … persuades us again that if poetry comes as naturally as leaves to a tree—as Keats said it must—it will be singular and exciting and new, however wintry its theme. Levine's high theme is the tragic detachment of self from the world, sometimes an embittered withdrawal, sometimes a brutal cutting off by outside forces, a course redeemed in rare moments by desperate joinings and communings. His subject, as in all his books since They Feed They Lion in 1972, is his own history … as it overlays and collides with modern Spanish history. From these materials he has drawn an occasionally stern and moving elegiac poetry.
Levine's best poems are those in which he finely calibrates the brooding presence of past configurations—friends and family, places, historical events—as they compel his imagination here and now. History is no plodding continuity of events but an instantaneous presence, and Levine's language seeks to accomodate this intense pressure. He has always been a poet of rage, but now, in his middle age, much of it is directed toward the weariness of words, "as though the earth/were tired of our talk/and wanted peace, an end/to promises, perhaps/an end to us." He still points his anger at anything that mocks or diminishes life, as in the cruel poetry of the factory in "The Life Ahead." His anger feeds on yearning, his wish to discover and speak from "the place within me/where I am every/man and woman, the trees/floating in the cold haze/of January." This kind of wish may strike some readers as overextended, gross, Romantic, but I think its intensity is redeemed by the purity of its origins in the felt life, in situation, character and event.
But Levine is not always as demanding of himself as he ought to be. There are poems in both books ("Here and Now" and "Milkweed" in 7 Years, for example, and "Everything" and "Montjuich" in Ashes) which lack the clear intellectual focus of his better poems; when his rigor of feeling weakens, the poems sink into an almost pietistic complacency. And when his passion goes undisciplined, the poems' sentiments seem little more than an obligation to contemporary conventions or to his own sense of charming endings…. Because his poetry is for the most part placed in dramatic situations, and because these dramatize the decisions of selfhood (how, for example, we must learn to live with what suffices, and how this may be an unexpected richness), Levine risks a kind of melodrama which has the absolute look of sincerity I mentioned earlier. It must be said, however, that in Levine's case this is a flaw of a high order, commensurate with his high ambition.
There is a sentimentality peculiar to American poets entering mid-life, and it touches Levine as it does Hugo, Stern, Ignatow and others. They tend to exaggerate the drama of endurance and to make cult of experience, of their griefs and hardships, though their tone is generally stoical and composed. The result is a facsimile of self-knowledge, soft answers instead of stern Yeatsian truths. (This may have something to do with the long time these poets had to wait before their voices were widely heard.) Levine is strongest when he disciplines himself away from this temptation. When his poems display little or no sense of self-importance, they become the most important poems of all…. (pp. 567-68)
W. S. Di Piero, "A Poet of Rage," in Commonweal (copyright © 1979 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVI, No. 18, October 12, 1979, pp. 567-68.
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