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Honoring "A Poet of Memory": On the Death of Philip Levine

What Work Is.jpg

I keep writing about the ordinary because for me it's the home of the extraordinary, the only home – Philip Levine

I never cry when famous people die. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died so young and in a way far too close to people I have lost in my own life, I felt sad, but didn’t cry. When Robin Williams tragically took his life this past year, people on Facebook and in the news talked about crying at such a tragedy, how he had been part of their growing up, was in their favorite childhood movies, his death a premature end of an era. Every news outlet played clips of his acting in Patch Adams, in Aladdin. Again, his death was sad and far far too familiar to the ways that I have lost loved ones, but still I did not cry. Yes, it was sad. Very sad. It also sparked important public debates, but that for me that is partly what kept real emotion at bay. These were public feelings, feelings that came from the outside. The same goes even for writers whose work I have studied and admired, like Seamus Heaney and Nadine Gordimer. This morning though, when I logged into Facebook and read that Philip Levine died, I couldn’t stop crying.

This reaction could be because unlike these other celebrities, writer and otherwise, I met Levine and had sporadic encounters with him throughout the years I lived in Fresno and completed my BA at Fresno State, where he once taught. By the time I was working on my degree, he was in “retirement,” so not on the faculty payroll, but rather popping into poetry workshops occasionally, giving local readings. He was in poetry news and when not traveling the country sharing his vision for poetry’s potential to be a lovely reflection of working class communities, he was around Fresno.

One guest workshop visit in particular (my first experience with him, in fact) stands out in my mind. It was an evening MFA class with the wonderful poet Charles Hanzlicek. The students all knew ahead of time that Levine would be visiting and that he had read the batch of poems we were scheduled to discuss. I had heard stories about how mean he was – brilliant and amazing, but mean and cantankerous. Someone told me that he had once spit on a poem and stuck it to a wall and said, “that’s all that needs to be said about this poem.” Or something to that effect. This was fairly terrifying especially since I was an undergrad with special permission to take the graduate workshop. I already felt like an imposter, but now the poet who wrote one of my favorite poetry collections, What Work Is, would be there and my embarrassment could be multiplied. Basically, I was excited, but also very scared that my poem might get balled up and thrown in the trash. And on top of that, a student who I found frustrating because of their impressive pretention, was up first. Despite this person’s obnoxiousness, they were very adept at poetic craft and I dreaded having to hear once again (and from my new favorite writer) how great that person was, especially if my poem was going to be held in comparison.

Once the students were all settled in the customary circle of desks that can be found in most poetry classrooms, we got down to work. Levine picked up the first student’s poem and said, “This is a very sophisticated poem, written by a poet with nothing to say. It is all craft and no substance.” He then said something along the lines of suggesting the poet find something they cared about to use that technical skill on, then stuck the poem on the bottom of the pile. For Levine, there was nothing more to be said for such a poem. That day, and in various Q&As after readings I had attended, Levine talked about how much more he liked teaching and talking to poetry students at Fresno State over the students he’d worked with at more prestigious institutions (i.e. expensive, ivy league schools). He said we were interesting and complicated and those privileged students were “empty and soft.” All technique and no heart.

Having gone through high school only introduced to classic, canonical poetry, I never considered being a real poet. I wrote in my journal sure, but real poetry was about streams and fields and “loam” and species of birds and love that was beautiful and at arm’s length. That was not my life. My life was full of concrete and asphalt and riding the bus and being sexually harassed at work, and rarely saying no to the various chaos of “love” offered to me. Levine’s poetry stood, and still stands, as a testament to the validity of every day grit. It honored more than skill and education, more than the mind and heart, it honored the working body and celebrated the mind and heart that lived inside that reality.

After graduating, even after I left Fresno, I carried with me Levine’s poetry and his lessons on substance and treating poetry like you would treat any job. You have to work. You have to work hard. And like the manual labor and minimum wage jobs I had – that he had – you have to listen to your body, you have to listen to your community. Our survival and possibilities for thriving are inexplicably entangled in our relationships to the larger world. Living inside intellect, ignoring the ugly unsavory aspects of reality, ours and that of others, is not living.

I teach Levine’s poetry every chance I get. Two years ago, I taught What Work Is in the second section of a first year, freshman composition writing series. These are students without enough training to test out of basic writing. They often have little experience with literature (if any at all), let alone poetry. The day we read the title poem out loud in class before talking about it, as happens almost every time I read it, I had to fight back tears. It is one of few poems that even after twelve years of having read it over and over, it always locks my throat. We had a good conversation that day. For that particular project, I had assigned two books of poetry (both equally accessible), but over half the class chose to write about Levine’s poems. One young man wrote in his poetry response that he’d never really felt much while reading, but that since he noticed that I got choked up in class when reading the poem, he felt comfortable sharing that the title poem made him feel like crying too (of course he insisted that he didn’t *actually* cry though).

I think this morning I couldn’t stop crying (and I could easily burst into tears now) upon hearing of Levine’s death, because though he was famous (and not just poet famous!), the magic of his poetry is that it got inside. It invited readers – a large, nontraditional cross-section of readers – to feel like their lives were poetic, their struggles worthy of time and examination, because they lived those situations he spent his life writing about. Through his poetry and our few interactions, I felt not only like I knew him, but that he knew me, that he had looked into my scarred and cynical heart and said, you are poetry.

Though I mourn knowing there will be no new poems from this generous and amazing writer, I feel incredibly grateful for the work he has given to the world.

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