Philip Levine turns essayist to reveal source of art, state of soul

March 27, 1994|By Anne Whitehouse

The enduring subject of Philip Levine's poetry, from "Not This Pig" (1968) to the National Book Award-winning "What Work Is" (1991) is the suppressed rage, despair and dignity of wage laborers.

He celebrates the obligation and inclination to work that define us as human while criticizing the dehumanizing aspects of many jobs. He writes of the necessity of earning a living, of the dreariness, exhaustion and danger of assembly-line jobs, and of the desperation of being without work. His poetry is stylistically and emotionally direct: "Even before he looks he knows/the faces on the bus, some/going to work and some coming back,/but each sealed in its hunger/for a different life, a lost life," he writes in "Every Blessed Day."

"The Bread of Time" is an absorbing and revelatory collection of autobiographical essays that might also be subtitled "The Education of the Poet." Here Mr. Levine examines and affirms the sources of his poetry. He was born in 1928 in Detroit, "a city choking on the ills of the Great Depression," the child of an immigrant Jewish family "growing up in a viciously anti-Semitic community."

"Although I was born into the middle class," he writes, "my father died before I was old enough to enjoy my station." As a youth he worked a variety of jobs: in a soap factory, at Chevy Gear and Axle, as a tutor and deliveryman. These experiences form the basis of many of his poems.

He vividly recalls how the desire to write first seized him as a wish to hear his voice speaking aloud in the solitary night. He conceives of poetic inspiration as the achievement of an inner state of self-abandonment and expectation where the words of the poem make their entry. He finds this state best described by the English Romantic poet John Keats, one of his favorites, as "Negative Capability": " 'when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.' "

Mr. Levine is essentially a romantic and a revolutionary. His 20th-century poetic heroes are the Spanish poets Federico Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado, and his political sympathies are with the anarchist movement. Mr. Levine's great lost cause is the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, in which the Republic was defeated by the Nationalist forces of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain until his death in 1975.

In one of his most fascinating essays, "The Holy Cities: Detroit, Barcelona, Byzantium," Mr. Levine takes a long, hard look at the radical politics he has espoused for most of his life. He realizes that his allegiance to anarchism was not founded on methodological conviction: "I was far more obsessed with the men and women who had lived and died for anarchism than the theories that motivated them. . . . I was in love with these people and therefore [politically] untrustworthy."

In the book's opening essay, "Mine Own John Berryman," Mr. Levine recalls the poet, who was his beloved mentor and teacher at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Mr. Levine relates how Berryman influenced him both as a poet and a teacher. "In spite of his extraordinary sense of humor, the key to Berryman's success as a teacher was his seriousness," Mr. Levine writes. "No doubt his amazing gift for ribaldry allowed him to devastate our poems without crushing our spirits."

Because I was one of Mr. Levine's students in a poetry-writing workshop at Columbia University in 1978, I recognized his own teaching style in his descriptions of Berryman. I cannot imagine, however, that Berryman's gift for ribaldry surpassed Mr. Levine's. I have never had a teacher with such an inventive, wicked and explosive sense of humor. For a semester, he kept the class laughing with witty and often unprintable jokes.

Only occasionally in his poetry and in this prose memoir are there glimpses of this humor, which is so compelling in his conversation. As with Berryman, this sense of humor coexists with an essential seriousness of purpose, a suspicion and dislike of pretentiousness, and a passionate commitment to poetry.

In the classroom, Mr. Levine, like Berryman, was a force to be reckoned with. He reserved his scathing criticism for poems where he judged the expressions and feelings were inauthentic, and we sat in trepidation of his disapproval. He was a memorable teacher, and many of his enthusiasms have remained with me.

In the essay "The Bread of Time Redeemed," Mr. Levine recalls his mystifying encounter with a girl named Dorothy Shaughnessy. She was 13 and astounded him with her natural literary gifts, which he felt far surpassed his. The title of the essay and of this book is from a poem she wrote.

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