(HOST) It isn’t every day that a poet makes the headlines, but
commentator Jay Parini says that was the case recently – and not just
once, but twice.
(PARINI) I recently attended a reading by Philip Levine at the Bread Loaf
Writers’ Conference in Ripton. It was a standing-room-only event, what
in the Sixties they would call "a happening" – Loudspeakers had to be set up
outside on the lawn to accommodate the spillover crowd. Levine, who
was only this summer named the new Poet Laureate of the United States,
found himself the recipient of a long standing ovation before he uttered
a single word.
He said at the outset: "This is going to be a
terrible reading. You see, I bite my tongue when I lie, and I’ve been
lying to interviewers all week."
He is 83 years old – a skinny,
working class man from Detroit who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He
looks and sounds like anybody’s wry but tender Jewish grandfather,
cracking jokes at every turn, full of stories, his eyes glinting with
mischief. His poetry – over twenty volumes to date — is centered in
Detroit, although he has also written a fair number of poems set in
Californian or Spain (where his lifelong interest in the Spanish Civil
War has informed a number of memorable poems). Much of his life,
however, has been spent in California, where he taught for decades at
the gritty, unfashionable state university at Fresno.
I’d heard him read before, I was once again amazed by energy and
generosity, by the fierce localness of his poems. As Robert Frost
himself once said, "Locality gives art." In Levine’s case, it certainly
does. He can write about working in an automotive plant, swimming in a
polluted river, or the weariness of factory labor.
His poems are
often, not always, long and skinny, with a deceptively casual flow, more
like prose at times than poetry, although he rarely fails to tighten
the line to a tautness that is deeply lyrical. The voice of Levine is
distinct: if you’ve read him closely, you could pick out a poem of his
in a moment from countless imitators. He is also a writer in the
tradition of Whitman: a kind of modern-day Transcendentalist, who
somehow finds the spirit everywhere.
In his poem titled "Belief," for instance, he writes:
No one believes
That the lost breath of a man
Who died in 1821 is my breath
And that I will live until
I no longer want to, and then
I will write my name
In water, as he did.
believes this. He believes in everything. His poetry takes in the
world, breathes and savors it, then exhales the same difficult,
beautiful, hard, delightful world – transmogrified by his language and
Levine is one of our best poets, and that he has at last been elevated to Poet Laureate makes me happy.
cause for celebration is the appointment of Sydney Lea as Vermont Poet
Laureate. Syd is a wonderful poet, passionately in touch
with the nature and people of Vermont.