Philip Levine talks to Ahren Warner
from Poetry London, Spring 2016
Philip Levine, who died last February, made his reputation with poems about the lives of blue-collar workers in his native Detroit. Ahren Warner interviewed him in 2014 as part of the Bloodaxe Archive Project at Newcastle University.
AW: You've said before that you got a lot from reading poets' letters, and you say somewhere that you found that the letters of poets have been a great fascination for you. The letters of Keats, for example, were a big thing.
PL: Dylan Thomas's letters, I loved them. Byron's—I remember reading Byron's and being very surprised by how rich and interesting they were. And Williams and Stevens. Emily Dickinson. Yeah, I love those letters. Hart Crane's. My old teacher, Yvor Winters, had been an early promoter of Hart Crane, and they had an exchange of letters, and when Winters was dying he wanted his letters destroyed, except for the letters from Hart Crane. And they're published and you can read them and they are interesting; they're really interesting. I mean, he had such a vision of what he wanted to accomplish. And I was surprised by Dylan Thomas's letters, the immense wit in them. And the kind of saucy fellow he was. He was so saucy and, you know, the fuck you attitude. It was quite wonderful. I mean, I thought, Jesus, I would have—I did meet him once, but just for a few seconds, you know—I would have loved this guy. Keats's letters are, for me, in a category all by themselves, because they contain a vision, and they're so miraculous. He was so young, and to be—even though wracked with illness and everything—, to be so at peace with creation, in spite of his intense social awareness, is something quite remarkable.
AW: You talk about the letters having discussions of technique and form, and I wondered if we could talk about your early work and syllabics, because I've read you talk about it as a kind of impulsive move on your part.
PL: I found that it could give me a sense of structure, even rhyme, and at the same time sound so much like speech. It could help me make decisions, which is one of the things which I think form is valuable for; it helps you make all kinds of decisions about where the line ends and what it contains. And yet it wouldn't be so intrusive as to sound academic. I also found that I wrote it differently. Because I wrote for many many years metrical poetry. And I found that in metrical poetry, with rhyme, I was always thinking in terms of a stanza, and you're going to work out the rhyme and blah blah blah blah. But with syllabics, I found that I'd get a sense of more like a paragraph, how it would proceed down the page, and I might write eighteen, twenty lines in two minutes, you know. And at the time I was very comfortable with rhyme, and syllabic rhyme is so much subtler and quieter. You could work it in there and it would give you a sense of form. Gradually, after a while, I discovered I didn't need this sense of form. I think the sense of form was there because my life seemed disorganized, and I wanted to impose some kind of structure in which I could write. 'Here, this is a form. You're in here. You know where you've got to go'. But as my life became more formal in a way—married, children, controlled—and I had a job, the poetry could be more reckless. It could go where the hell it wanted. And so I got looser and looser and looser. Never really trying to write like Walt Whitman. Much as I love his work, it just wasn't me. I grew up loving a certain amount of finish to a poem, a kind of roundness to it. But then, you know, a point came where—let's see what this poem will do—where I didn't feel I had to impose anything on the poem. Let the poem kind of dictate where it wants to go, and I'll see if I can do it. And if I can't, well, it's no big deal. You know, when you're young, every poem seems to matter so much, because maybe you've got twenty poems that you like, really, you're fiercely devoted to. So each one is—what, twenty of them?—each one is five per cent of your collected works. Whereas later on, you've got so many poems out there that if you fuck it up and it's not worth having, big deal. You've got all these others that are there. So you get chancier, and more willing to take all kinds of risks. I don't care if I write a lot of them, 'cause what I want to write is something that I can be proud of.
AW: It struck me that in some ways, although your work progressed away from syllabics to the kind of signature line and the longer line of more recent work, there was something of the syllabic form that imprinted itself, specifically on the way you break lines. You have a very particular line-break and I wondered whether that was something you felt did come from writing early on in syllabics.
PL: Yes, I think it did. And from reading William Carlos Williams and WB Yeats I would say. A poem like 'Easter, 1916' seems to me just a blindingly fabulous poem, the way it sneaks down the page and yet has such a sense of authority and, you know, it's like, total genius. And then Williams too, and some of those poems that move down, like 'The road to the contagious hospital', and the way he uses the run-overs to get that oomph, that speed, that power. I remember Berryman saying to me when I was a student, speed in poetry converts to power. You run over, and you pick up power. If you stop every line, you can't generate any rhythmic power. I think syllabics had a huge influence on everything I wrote after that. Everything. And a lot of the poems that I published say in the last twenty-five years, begin as syllabic poems. I start writing them in a fixed line, and then once I get it established then I don't care. I just want it there for me. It's there for me and because it's there for me it doesn't matter if I violate it. If I don't... well, this word here, that adjective. I don't need that goddamn adjective. So the line's shorter, ok. So I don't care anymore about sticking to the syllabic count, but it helped me in the beginning. When I started of course, I needed it. I needed that form. Now, it's so familiar to me to start that way.
AW: While I remember, and talking about syllabics, you were friends with Thorn Gunn, and I wondered about that relationship ...
PL: Yeah, I met him when I was at Stanford, and we remained friends for the rest of his life. And I loved his work. And I loved him. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He was. There were many contradictions in his character, you know. He was such an intelligent and rational man, and yet in another way he was sort of reckless in the way he lived and everything. It's curious that in all the years I knew him his sexuality never came up. Never. It didn't matter to me, and I don't think it mattered to him. He came—I invited him down to Fresno when he was in the Bay Area, and he came down there and read and he invited me up to read in the Bay Area. We traded books. I think every book he ever published he sent me, and every book I published I would send him. And he would comment. He was more direct than I was about that. I think he was braver, in that he would indicate, you're not doing it as well as you can Philip. His early syllabic poetry really knocked me out. I remember the first time I ever read Thom Gunn. I was in the library in Tallahassee, Florida, and there was an issue of Poetry magazine, and it had like eight poems by him or something, from that first book. They weren't syllabic. They were written in Britain I think. He hadn't come to the States yet. And I said, Wow, who is this cat? He is somebody. And then I was delighted to meet him at Stanford. Yeah, he was one of the people who you could say I wrote for. If there were people who I wanted to admire my poetry, he was one. I mean I never wrote a poem saying I hope Thom likes it, but it mattered, you know.
AW: To go back to the line—and the line that really is your signature line, and that makes up a lot of the big middle section of your poetry—I wondered how much you thought of it as defined as a 'narrow' line, defined by length, or by other criteria?
PL: It would depend on the poem. I mean some poems are meant to be quiet, and some poems demand to shout. And in general I'm a shouter, and so I suppose that's one of the reasons. I'll tell you the truth, there was something about that seven syllable line that I found very elegant, and I'm not an elegant man, as you can see, but I appreciate elegance, and I think Thom was a much more elegant man than I, much more sense of style, presenting himself. And he was more elegant, but I liked the elegance of that line. It just delighted me, and for a while I thought there isn't anything I can't do in this line. I mean, that I wanna do. And then later on, I don't know, I went to other things. You could see, in a poem like 'They Feed They Lion', you know, the line's too short to contain that rage. And I wanted something that was closer to pentameter, more traditional. Still, my favorite line of course is pentameter. I mean, you know, it's Wordsworth's. I love, you know, the great Wordsworth poems, Coleridge poems.
AW: And with a poem like 'Breath', you know, as you moved to a longer line, was it for something that was closer to the pentameter, about having something more traditional, or having more space, loosening?
PL: I don't think I can answer that. I mean, I'm not a theorist. So I really don't have theories, which means I kind of invent each poem as I write it. Not always true. Too many times I'm imitating myself, and I get crap; but I think when the poems are interesting to me, they surprise me. The last poem I wrote, for example, that I liked, just before I got sick, was a poem that I had not been able to complete for years. I was writing it in eight-line stanzas, ten-syllable lines, and just couldn't get anywhere with it. I liked the material of it. I liked what I was talking about. I had imagery that I liked, but it just wasn't happening. And so one day I sat down with it and I said to myself, let's go at this completely differently. Let me write it in two-line stanzas. Let's see what happens if I start trying to write it in these little couplets—didn't work. Three-line stanzas—it worked. I could see it coming together. I could feel it, that what it needed was that. And meanwhile, I'm cutting out all kinds of writing. And it's not bad writing, but I don't need it anymore, 'cause I've got this poem that's gonua be like, oh, maybe a dozen, fourteen, fifteen, little tercets. I don't need all this fucking material that I had before. Now I can get this thing to behave and it's probably about an eight- or nine-syllable line basically; and it just worked. I looked carefully at the poem, and I realized that the first draft of this poem was written in 2001. It was that old. And I had been struggling with it all that time. I'd found this typed version of it, before I even had a computer; this was my old Olympia typewriter. And, somehow, the idea of going at it in a completely different way formally, released me from all of this exposition. I can throw that shit out. I don't need that. I can get at what I'm getting at with so much less and make it much more potent, quiet, but powerful. So it was quite thrilling. I haven't looked at the poem since. In fact I left it in Fresno. I don't even have it. I don't care, I mean, let it grow. I think it's done. I showed it to my wife. I don't usually show her poems that I don't have any confidence in.
AW: If we move from forms, which we've talked about a bit, to content. I want to read you something you said, once, in an interview:
Much of our recent poetry seems totally without people, except for the speaker. No one is there. There's a lot of snow. A moose walks across a field, the trees darken, "the sun begins to set and windows open. Maybe from a great distance you can see an old woman in a dark shawl carrying an unrecognisable bundle into the gathering gloom. That's one familiar poem.
People do fascinate you?
PL: Oh yeah, absolutely. It seemed to me that the situation that I was born into, the people in the family, the people in my neighborhood, the people I went to school with, my teachers. They were just an incredible fund of richness. Storytellers. My grandfather was a great storyteller. He was probably bullshitting all the time but who cares! It was marvellous entertainment. It seemed to me when I thought about it, this was an immense gift that I received. What a gift to be born into a community with these fascinating people. Some of them are just awful but they're fascinating and they're weird.
And my reading at the time—I started reading and reading in my late teens. I would read somebody like Dostoyevsky and think, oh my God, what a bunch of characters in this goddamn book. What was it like to live in that? And then when I went around I realized, wow, it wasn't that different, you know. We didn't have the secret police watching us—but maybe we did actually! Prose fiction meant a great deal to me. Especially the Russians. I felt such an honoring of what humans are in novelists like Tolstoy or Chekhov's short stories, even Dostoyevsky. This honoring of the human, in all of its quirkiness and strangeness, majesty and awfulness.
I love people. I'm not all that social. I get tired out. But I have a lot of friends. I thought they belonged in the poems. And I thought some of the people that I met were really, to push it a little, kind of heroic—the way they faced life with so little, in the way of security or wealth, comfort. People I worked with. They didn't complain. Did their work, enjoyed themselves, added spice to my days. Shit, you know, you couldn't thank them enough. That's why, I suppose when I was a teacher, the most interesting thing about teaching was my students. My colleagues were a bunch of bores, but the students were sometimes amazing.
AW: I wanted to ask about teaching. But first of all, to go back to people, can your fascination with them be seen as a reaction to the Modernism of Eliot and Pound, where characters are often symbols, stripped of humanity?
PL: Yeah, and he humiliates them.
AW: Yeah, they're just ... that's their point really. The point is to be de-humanized. And so do you see it as a break with that kind of, perhaps aristocratic, poetry?
PL: Oh absolutely, absolutely. I even exaggerated. I was interviewed on television by this guy Bill Moyers. You can find it on YouTube; it's about half hour I think—last Christmas I guess, around then. And at one point—he's studied my poetry—I read five or six poems on goddamn national television! It's so rare. I thought he was gonna ask me, you know, social shit, but no, he was interested in the poetry. But at one point he said something about your being poor. I said, 'I'm not poor!' and, I said, 'No, I'm not poor. I was never poor!', and he was sort of surprised. And I said, 'No no no, I always had a roof over my head. We always had enough to eat. It wasn't good food—my mother couldn't cook. But no, we weren't poor. We were lower middle class!' And I kind of ruined it for him because he wanted me to be this guy who came up from, you know, an Okie something out of Steinbeck's Okies. No no, we were civilized people. There were books in my house, fuck you! I mean, my god, my mum was a reader. So was my father. We had class, you know, lower class, but there was a certain pride in who we were.
AW: Is there a necessary link for you between politics and poetry, or are they independent and, you know, it doesn't matter about Eliot's politics?
PL: There's no requirement that a poem would have to be political. Though, when you look at the world that you and I live in today, it's hard to think of something that isn't politicalj everything's been politicized. I mean our language is constantly being misused. Take a phrase like 'extraordinary rendition', which the US uses to describe torture of suspects. When I think of the phrase, 'extraordinary rendition', actually the first thing that popped into my head (this is nuts) was hearing Erroll Gamer, the jazz pianist, playing 'Body and Soul', for about fifteen minutes without stopping. And that was the rendition of that tune, and that's what that phrase meant to me and when I first heard it. And it's this beautiful phrase that meant something quite ... You know, maybe the way you saw La Bohème, and that was an extraordinary rendition. And suddenly these fuckers come and they take it and they simply destroy the language. So even a phrase like that, ordinarily, you would never think had a political implication. Forever now—well not forever but for the rest of our, my life—it has that thing to it. I mean, everything has become political. So, in that sense, you can't avoid it, right.
AW: You mentioned college and teaching, and you've talked before about being tough with your students. And your own teacher, Berryman—he looked at some poems after you'd left, but it was really out of the nest and into the world. So I guess that interested me, the necessity of being tough with people when you're teaching them. And I wondered how you found teaching generally?
PL: I liked teaching. It took me a year or two to find out that I was good at it, and that I could be comfortable in the class, and that I could be candid, and since my best teachers had been, like Berryman, very candid. Not mean, never nasty, never saying something, you know, in a chicken-shit way, but dealing with the strengths and weaknesses as you saw them. And more often of course you saw weakness than strength, 'cause they were beginners. And some people couldn't take it, and they left. It was fine. I tried my best to be direct, and helpful, in the way that Berryman had been direct and helpful for me. And also to be resourceful, and I think I was resourceful, because I was always writing.
I think when you're always writing you have it in your fingertips to look at somebody else's work and see, Oh wow, you know, you could go about it this way or you could go about it that way, because you're always thinking of the ways you're going about things. And you can see all these alternatives to what they're giving you. It could be quite thrilling to watch a young man or woman really become a poet. It was something. It was very satisfying, even thrilling, 'cause I had several students who were just marvellously gifted. I think more gifted in some ways than I was. None of them had the push that I had: that kind of I'm gonna do this fucking thing, nothing's gonna stop me. Yes, I had a lot of ferocious commitment. Where it came from, I don't know. I think my mother convinced me that I was a genius and that the world needed my work, or something like that.
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Poetry Editor: Ahren Warner
Co-Editor: Martha Kapos
Reviews Editor: Tim Dooley