“We burn this city every day”: Philip Levine (1928-2015)

I started reading contemporary poetry fairly late in my life. At the age of 20, I found myself enrolled in a poetry class with a young poet named Glover Davis at San Diego State College. After a couple years in the military service, Davis had gone to Fresno State as an undergraduate and then attended the University of Iowa’s poetry program. As a protege of Philip Levine, Davis wasted no time assigning “Not This Pig” to his students and bringing Levine down from Fresno to give a reading. (He also set up a reading for Allen Ginsberg and Robert Mezey that year.) As a novice poet, I quickly grew fond of Levine’s ability to write both formally and in free verse. In particular, I admired his syllabic poems. I have no doubt that Levine eventually regarded “Not This Pig” as a collection that was the preface to his mature work, yet I would urge readers not to neglect it. Poems such as “To a Child Trapped in a Barber Shop” still seem as poignantly cynical as anything that can be written about the travesty of life’s contingent happenstance. It was the first book of poetry I ever read that addressed the working-class environment I grew up in, and I continue to cherish the revelation that my social situation could become the subject of a poem. (My understanding is that the original title of the collection was “Commanding Elephants,” a poem about a worker disabled on the job.) My favorite poem in that book is “Baby Villon,” although “The Cartridges” is also a secret favorite.

My personal memory of Levine centers around a trip I made in the Fall of 1971 to visit two of my theater friends from U.C.L.A., one of whom lived in San Francisco and another in Fresno. I spent the evening before my 24th birthday with Tony in San Francisco and then caught a bus to Fresno, where Kathy graciously put me up in her parents’ house. Kathy was studying theater at Fresno State and I went to the campus one day with her in hopes of talking with Phil Levine. A couple of months earlier I had written him of my plans to visit a friend in Fresno and had sent him a sheaf of poems in hopes of getting some feedback. He wrote back tersely, “Outside of a facility with language, these poems aren’t very interesting. I don’t see where we would have much to talk about.” I didn’t take the hint. I sent him another set of poems and this time he let me know about his office hours. When I showed up, he seemed a bit surprised. No one else was waiting to see him, though, so I sat down and he proceeded to rip apart my poems one by one. After a half-hour of learning how inept my imagery was, he asked if I knew the poetry of Rafael Alberti. “Yes,” I said, refusing to admit my limited knowledge of poetry. “He’s an Italian poet.” Levine looked at me for a few seconds, as if he were deciding whether or not it was worth the effort to berate my pretentiousness. With the slightest bemused smile possible, he let my ignorance stand. When I got home and went to a library, I found out the truth quickly enough. (Years later, when I attended Sherley Ann Williams’s memorial service in San Diego, I learned how kind Levine had been to me compared to other students. One person who spoke about Sherley’s time at Fresno State said that she had stood up in one of Levine’s classes after listening to an especially caustic commentary on her writing and said, “Fuck you, Levine,” and walked out.)

“I’m editing a new magazine,” I told him. “It’s called ‘Bachy,’ and the first issue’s coming out next summer. Do you have any students who might be willing to send me poems?” “I’ll let them know,” he replied. And he did. The first issue of “Bachy” magazine contained poems by David St. John and Roberta Spear, who both went on to publish very distinguished work. It seemed crucial to me at the time that I include poets in “Bachy” outside of those working in Los Angeles, and I will always remain grateful to Phil Levine for his generosity in talking about my poems and in affirming my very first editorial project. I learned later that he hated getting manuscripts of poems from young poets wanting feedback. In retrospect, the fact that he was willing to talk with me at all remains a piquant surprise. After my half-hour was up, I went outside and began reading “Waiting at the Station,” a new anthology of Fresno poets that had just been published. Very few anthologies of “unknown” poets end up having some many individuals who in fact mature into significant poets. One of the best of the unknowns in “Waiting at the Station” is Luis Omar Salinas, whose collected poems have just been published. The next day I was at Fresno bus station, heading back to my job as a blueprint machine operator. My week of vacation was over.

Levine did not encourage me to move to Fresno and study with him, nor to go to any other MA or MFA program. I think he sensed in me someone who was going to do it “the hard way.” And indeed I did. I have in my old age ended up living in Long Beach, a city befouled with industrial pollution. Not much has changed in Long Beach since I first quoted Levine’s line, “We burn this city every day” to Kimmer Enedy, a friend who was living in Long Beach at the time. The poem that line is in is about Detroit, I told her, but she immediately absorbed the kinship of its critique with Long Beach.

Phil Levine’s death leaves several poets in Los Angeles with a profound wish that he could have been granted another two or three years of good health. There was no doubt that he was fading. A letter I received from him several years ago featured the kind of shaky handwriting that one associates with an aging person. But it was still legible. Recently, according to another friend, his ability to control his handwriting became even more problematic. The poems in print, however, kept their clarity.

I do wish that I would have been able to send him a copy of my book that is being printed in Mexico right now. On the title page of “Pruebas Ocultas” I would have written “To Phil Levine, who taught me how to teach.” His life enriched us all. I join with David St. John and Suzanne Lummis in sending my profound condolences to his widow.

Post-script:
For those who might enjoy seeing an example of the success of one of his students, I would suggest reading my post on Suzanne Lummis’s poem in the “New Yorker” magazine (November 9, 2014).

I remember Levine saying at his reading at San Diego State in 1968 that he had gotten the title for the poem in which the phrase “not this pig” appears from a Swedish radio announcer. “The animals are passing from our lives.” That radio announcer was certainly ahead of most other people in ecological awareness.

For those interested in variants of Levine’s poetry, you might dig up the original version of “The Cemetery at Academy, California.” The version that appeared in the “New Yorker” did not have the first stanza of the version published in “Not This Pig.” Levine said the editor gave him a choice of either publishing the shorter version or not publishing it at all. Needing the money, he said, Levine consented to the truncated version.