Philip Levine Levine, Philip (Vol. 14) - Essay


(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. 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.)

Ira Sadoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 516 words.)

Stephen Yenser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sydney Lea

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 …


(The entire section is 562 words.)

Phoebe Pettingell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Herbert Leibowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 594 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 605 words.)