Tag Archives: Philip Levine

On the Fiction and Poetry of Marge Piercy

Sunday, August 14, 2016

When the Insight of the Theme Is Less than the Sum of the Sentences: Marge Piercy and the Need to Write Less (and Better)

I first read Marge Piercy’s poems back in 1969, when I bought a copy of Breaking Camp at the UCLA Bookstore. Piercy was much younger than Philip Levine, whose Not This Pig had also been published by Wesleyan University Press the year before. I had purchased Levine’s book in large part because Glover Davis, his former student, had brought Levine to San Diego State to give a reading. It’s possible that Piercy’s book caught my attention because she, too, was born in Detroit and emphasized working-class themes of a struggle to keep one’s imagination intact in the face of numbing labor. In truth, though, despite the fact that I have been intermittently reading her poetry ever since, I have to confess that I would be hard pressed to name a specific poem of hers that I admire. I still buy her books, though, because there is something I admire about her gritty persistence. She is better known as a novelist than as a poet, though, so I will start with that portion of her body of writing.

I find myself writing about Piercy today because I have given myself a couple of hours of respite from the travail of assisting my 94 year old mother as she slips into dementia, and decided to work on my bookshelves, which are more chaotically organized than ever. One of the books I pulled off was Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York, which was published in the middle of the last decade. Perhaps the coinciding hand of historical events guided my hand to the shelf with that book, for one of its primary characters is Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Woodhull faced an overwhelming number of obstacles in converting her candidacy into an electoral victory, not the least of which was her inability to vote for herself, since suffrage for women was still decades in the offing.

I wish I could say that Sex Wars is worth reading, but as I browsed its paragraphs, I recollected that I had had a similar problem with other novels by Piercy that I have looked at in the past. Her sentences, as sentences, are just not very interesting. I suppose it is the case that many readers don’t care about the quality of a writer’s sentences, but I fear that remaining silent in the face of mediocrity carries more of a penalty than I want to be held accountable for. I have no doubt that her readership will call me a male chauvinist snob and an academic elitist, but before any of the readers of this blog join in their assessment, I ask merely one question: why is it that I have no hesitation in calling P.D. James a major novelist of the 20th century? My indifference to Piercy’s writing is not an issue of the gender of the author. P.D. James writes marvelous sentences, one after another, and the cadences of her narratives are alluring and ooze wisdom and wit. I am not worthy to touch the ribbon of her typewriter. In the limited time I have on this planet, I want to spend as much of it as possible reading only work that has earned my attention to every syllable. It’s all in the coil and recoil of one’s sentences, and I do not want to settle for anything less. Nor am I alone in this. In saying all this, I do want to add that it gives no pleasure to write such a grouchy critique. But what can one do when what I call the Charles Dickens’ Syndrome is so actively sedating the very consciousness that imaginative sentences are meant to revivify?

Perhaps, of course, Piercy does not care whether she is remembered as a writer. She has had a career as a prolific writer, and she has continued to publish poetry as well as fiction. If she is satisfied, then I congratulate her on a life that has fulfilled her original impetus. Some of her best writing, in fact, in her most recent book of poetry, Made in Detroit, is about those days as a youthful writer. “Why did the palace of excess have cockroaches?” is a fine haibun in which youthful folly is mocked with rueful, disenchanted nostalgia, and “My Time in Better Dresses” decants the bittersweet discrepancies that branded one’s self-awareness from the days of one’s first job. On the whole, though, there are just too many poems with predictable or unsatisfying outcomes.

In thinking of Piercy’s writing, I suppose one might remember the distinction visual artists make between painters and illustrators, with the latter category not being particularly admired. Piercy does seem more like an illustrator, though when she is at her best, it is well done. In fact, better than well done. As a counterbalance, therefore, to the dismay I have reluctantly shared in today’s blog, I would like to end with the first stanza of “The Late Year,” in which the image lingers long after the words are read. To do that even once in a writer’s life is no small accomplishment. Piercy has done it more than once, of course. I just wish she had reached this level with more consistency.

I like Rosh Hashanah late,
when the leaves are half-burnt,
umber and scarlet, when sunset
marks the horizon with slow fire
and the black silhouettes
of migrating birds perch
on the wires davening.
(from “The Late Year”; Made in Detroit, page 93)

This is not as skillful or well rendered as Sylvia Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” or Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” but it’s a like a small oil painting over in a quiet corner of a museum. I am grateful for the nearby chair and for the fact that the room is empty except for me. Maybe it doesn’t take my breath away, but it reminds me to breathe more slowly, and to be grateful for that breath. The rest of the poem is worth reading, too, and it will more than repay the time it took for you to find it.

(I wish to thank Bird & Beckett bookstore in San Francisco for having Piercy’s MADE IN DETROIT for sale on their shelves. It is always a pleasure to support such an enterprise.)

“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.