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Interview by Philip Levine with Chris Wyrick and Others
SOURCE: "A Conversation with Philip Levine," in TriQuarterly, No. 95, Winter, 1995/1996, pp. 67-82.
In the following interview, conducted in Harry Thomas's English class at Davidson College on April 25, 1995, Levine answers questions about the sources and subject matter of his poetry as well as his writing style. He also discusses such topics as the nature of contemporary American poetry, some of its movements and practitioners, and the poetic process in general.
[Chris Wyrick:] Congratulations on the big prize! [The Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The Simple Truth (1994)]
[Philip Levine:] Well, thank you. Yes. It's been a long time coming. But, you see, patience does pay off. Actually, I think it's better to get it when you're old. Ah, I'm happy to win it.
[George Weld:] I think now especially a lot of young writers feel a tension between the feeling that they need to be activists in their work for social change and a feeling that, as Auden says, "Poetry makes nothing happen," that poetry is irrelevant or elitist, and I'm wondering whether you feel this tension yourself.
Well, frankly, I think that Auden is wrong. Poetry does make things happen. And I think that if a young person is troubled by the idea that he or she is practicing an elitist art, then he ought to do something else. I mean, if you have grave doubts about being a poet because you will thereby not achieve your social ambitions, then don't write poetry. Poetry will make it without you. And the question you have to ask yourself is, "Can I make it without poetry?" And if the answer is fuzzy and hazy, do something else. The answer had better be very loud and very clear: "I can't make it without poetry." Because there's so much in a life of poetry that can defeat you. And the apparatus for rewarding you is so abysmal, and the rewards themselves, aside from the writing of the poems, so small, that there's no point in doing it unless you're utterly confident that that's your vocation, that's your calling. I was very lucky when I was your age. T. S. Eliot came to see me. He said, "American poetry just needs you, Phil." He took the bus. In Detroit. I was surprised to see him in a Jewish neighborhood, but there he was. I said, "You're Tom Eliot." He said, "Say Sir, son." Of course, I'm kidding. It was a long bus ride from London, from Faber and Faber.
When I was your age I had no doubt. I also had social goals, and I was naive enough at eighteen or nineteen to think that poetry or fiction could have a vast social influence because it had a vast influence on the way I felt and thought. It wasn't very long before I realized that if I wasn't being read I wasn't going to influence many people through my writing. I was aware of the fact that while I was reading poets like Eliot, Auden, Spender, Wilfred Owen, Lowell, Stevens, and Hart Crane, my neighbors weren't. They wouldn't have known who the hell I was talking about, so I didn't talk about them. I'd guess much of my family was puzzled. They must have thought, "What is this infatuation and how long will it last?" I was the only member of my family ever to finish college. There's a Yiddish expression that translates, "For this you went to college?" That's exactly what my grandfather said to me when I graduated from college and told him I wanted to be a poet. He told me about this man who lived in his village back in Russia before he left in '04 to come to the United States. This guy was some sort of lunatic who went from house to house; people fed him and listened to his terrible poems. My grandfather said, "At least he didn't go to college. Why did you go, for this?" I tried to explain to him that I didn't go to college to become a poet, that while I was there my romance with poetry deepened. He just shrugged.
But poetry does make things happen. You know that already. It changes all of us who read it. But it will not change legislation.
[Rachel Newcomb:] I have another question that's along those same lines. In an interview in 1988 you said that perhaps American poetry had slopped believing in itself, and I was wondering if you felt that contemporary American poetry has become marginal and, if so, how can poetry attract a wider audience?
I don't know why I said that in '88. I can't recall the occasion. Perhaps I was reading a lot of boring poetry. I talk to a lot of younger poets and most of them don't seem to feel their generation has found itself as yet. I had a conversation for publication recently with a wonderful younger poet, Kate Daniels—she must be thirty-eight or so—and she felt her generation hadn't yet found what it wanted to do, but she felt that my generation had to assert itself early because we were under the shadows of the giants. If you looked at the magazines in which I first published, you'd see I'm in there with Stevens, Marianne Moore, Williams. I wasn't awed by them. I knew how good they were, I knew they were writing far better than I, but I thought, given enough time, they will vanish from the earth in their bodily incarnations and then maybe my writing will get as good as theirs. Well, the first part did happen, and I'm still waiting for the second.
You asked about the audience for poetry in our country. I think it's the largest it's ever been. I know we're told otherwise. There's this "expert," Joseph Epstein, who published something like "Who Killed Poetry?" or something like that. Nobody killed poetry. Guys like Epstein like to hearken back to some dreamland America in which people got up in the morning and opened their windows to the birds singing and when they felt their souls elevated they recited American poetry to the waiting world. Bullshit! If you go back to the time when Stevens, Eliot, Williams were first publishing, exactly the same things were being said in the middlebrow press: "Look at this generation of turkeys. You can't understand a word they write. They're so obscure and so negative. Give us back our uplifting verse!" That was the middlebrow response to one of the great outpourings of poetry in the history of the English language, which took place early in this century. What happened in American poetry was extraordinary: Frost, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Moore, Eliot, all writing at the same time, E. A. Robinson, the whole Imagist thing. And the Epsteins of that hour were griping just as they are now. My guess is that today it still has something to do with class; they can't stand the idea of all these poets coming out of Turkey Tech and Fresno State and Puma J. C. They're from the fancy places that once owned our poetry. We had the same response from the Eastern lords when the Beats hit the press.
I think poetry now is very healthy. There is no such thing as an official style. It's open house. It doesn't matter how tall or short you are, what color you are or what sex you are or what nine sexes, you can put anything in your work.
You can write about anything. No matter how badly you write you can find somebody who'll publish you. Time will sift the good stuff from the bad. As far as readership goes it's the largest it's ever been. I know, we're told no one is reading it, but that's nonsense. Go back and discover how large, say, an edition of William Carlos Williams was in 1944. His last book, The Wedge, was published in fewer than 500 copies. In '54 his great book, The Desert Music, was published by Random House; I'd be surprised if they did more than 1,200 copies. How big was the first edition of Lowell's incredible Lord Weary's Castle? One thousand copies? Berryman's The Dispossessed? I'd bet fewer than 1,000. The first edition of my new book is 7,500. And Sharon Olds and Adrienne Rich outsell me; they must do 10,000 of theirs. My editor told me the other day that Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares had sold 60,000 copies and is still selling. I remember a year ago reading with Galway in Portland, and afterwards they had a book-signing, and for over an hour people kept lining up with old battered copies of his books. Those books had been read, God knows by how many people. There is a huge readership. We're told otherwise by the naysayers, but it's not true.
[Patrick Malcor:] You said that there is no specific style of poetry right now. Do you think poetry is beyond the point where it can have a movement, a certain mass style, or do you think that it needs that?
There will always be movements. We have one right now that began in California, the Language Poets. Do you know their work? [Blank looks.] You don't, God bless you. Young poets begin movements to have something to belong to, something potentially exciting: "We're going to change American poetry!"
Ever since I began writing I've noticed that certain movements are there mainly to help people without talent write something they can pass off as poetry. If you can't tell a decent story, denounce poems that tell stories. If you can't create characters, denounce poems with people in them. If you can't create images, write boring generalities. If you have no sense of form, imitate the formlessness of the sea. If you have no ear, disparage music. If everything you write is ugly and senseless, remind your readers that the world is ugly and senseless. Bad poets are incredibly resourceful. But those are movements that are easily forgotten. About fifteen years ago we had something called the New Formalism, and it seems to have vanished already. Very curious movement, a sort of nostalgia for the poetry of the fifties and perhaps for the decade itself, and it occurred at a time when the best formal poets of the fifties—Wilbur, Merrill, Hecht, Nemerov—were still writing incredibly well. The important movements change the way we see poetry or poetry sees us.
When I was your age a poet friend of mine, Bernie Strempek, and I founded a revolutionary poetry movement. We called it The New Mysticism; that was Bernie's idea. I believe he truly believed in the majesty and burning of the invisible whereas I was about as mystical as a sofa. Clearly we didn't change anything, not even the way we saw ourselves, but for a few weeks we had great fun talking about how we were going to change the country. Both the Language poets and the New Formalists strike me as less interesting than the New Mystics, though I am hardly objective. They're such conservative movements: neither seems in the least interested in shouldering a social or spiritual or political agenda. Both are academic and largely praised by academic critics and by the poets themselves, but perhaps they will have a healthy impact on our writing. They probably find my work and the contemporary work that resembles it garbage, which is fine. What's important is there is not a single official, accepted style. Today someone entering poetry can take any number of directions and find other poets who will validate his or her work. I hate the notion that any style, mine or anyone else's, is the style.
We have had very important, essential movements in this century. For me the most important one was the Imagist movement, which included such poets as Williams, Pound, Ford Madox Ford, D. H. Lawrence, and profoundly changed both English and American poetry. One in England right after the end of World War II changed the entire focus of their poetry. It was labeled "The Movement" and was something of a repudiation of the high-flown rhetoric of poets like George Barker, Dylan Thomas and Henry Treece. Suddenly we got these hard-assed poems from poets like Thorn Gunn and Philip Larkin. They seemed more interested in what went on in a department store than what went on after you died and went to heaven. They'd write about trying to pick up a girl or spinning out on your motorcycle or finding a pair of pants that made you look sexy. In their poems people sound like people and not holy texts. In "Church Going" Larkin writes about a man with no religious faith who goes into an empty church and wonders what the hell it's for. At one point in the poem he says "up at the holy end"; he can't think of the name for that part of the church, if he ever knew it. It's a marvelous poem about the need for religious feelings in people without religious feelings.
And then in the late fifties we had the Beat or Black Mountain thing, all the poets represented in Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry. If you can still find that book have a look at it. You'll find it contains some of the best American poets of the second half of the century: Gary Snyder, Creeley, Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov. All of us who write poetry owe those poets a great debt for ending the absolute domination of the official Eastern establishment; that was a great service. Maybe you folks would like to start a movement: the Davidson Suicide Squad or the North Carolina Stompers. It couldn't do any harm, and it might enliven things. They're a little dull right now.
[Todd Cabell:] You mention in the first essay in your book, The Bread of Time, that anybody can become a poet, that we have democratized poetry, and then you mention creative-writing classes in colleges and high schools. I wonder, being a teacher yourself, what exactly do you view as bad in that movement?
Nothing. I think it's a wonderful thing. When I started writing there was not the sense that everybody could become a poet. Chicano poetry did not exist, Asian-American poetry did not exist, such giants as Robert Hayden and Sterling Brown were not represented in the official anthologies. I'm having fun in that essay, and I'm also being serious because I do think there are too many writing programs and many are staffed by people who can't write themselves. I visit places where poetry writing is taught in graduate programs, and I can't believe the level of writing. Then I see the poetry the teachers write, and I know why. And you visit a class, and everything is praised: the MO seems to be, "Let's pretend all this writing is poetry." Once you create a program you require students, so you let everyone in and you keep them in by making them happy. I also visit writing programs in which real standards are operating, the students have talent and are reading and working like mad; the teachers are dedicated, demanding, fair, and they are gifted and productive poets themselves. There are two things you must have for a valuable writing program: first and most importantly, the right students. Then the teachers. You could have mediocre teachers if you had great students because the students will teach each other and inspire each other. The problem is great students rarely gravitate to mediocre teachers.
[Chris Wyrick:] I'd like to ask a question about your method of writing. In What Work Is, in the poem "Scouting," you say, "I'm scouting, getting the feel of the land," and in the poem "What Work Is," "Forget you. This is about waiting, shifting from one foot to another." And I want to ask you if you could tell us more about this process of scouting that you engage in your poems.
That's a difficult and interesting question. How do you research a poem, which is what scouting is? Or at least that's one of the things I'm scouting for in the poem, the poem itself. You know you're constantly obliged when you apply for grants or things like grants to describe the specific steps you're going to take to write the book you're asking for financial support to write, and of course you rarely know exactly what you'll have to do. If you've been doing it as long as I, you have some idea, and I'd call it a kind of scouting. It's a circling and circling, quite literally—a cityscape, a landscape, a subject, an emotional obsession. I'll give you an example. I have this fascination with Spanish anarchism, so back in the seventies I went to one of the great collections of anarchist literature, The International Institute for Social Study in Amsterdam. The records of the CNT and the FAI—the National Workers Confederation and the Iberian Anarchist Federation—were stored there. Most of the stuff is in Spanish, and at the time my Spanish was good enough to read it. The people who worked in the library there were very helpful and generous; they brought me whatever I wanted to see, old newspapers, posters, memoirs, manifestoes, anything I asked for, and I sat there for hours, day after day, reading. The poetry I finally got had nothing to do with Spanish anarchism, though I have written many poems out of that obsession; this "scouting" produced poems that had to do with being in a library. They had to do with the quality of light, the sadness that invades a library late in the afternoon when you've been there all day from 9:00 in the morning until 5:30 and suddenly you realize the light has changed and the day is ending. In Amsterdam the weather can change very suddenly, and I would glance out the window and dark clouds were blowing in from the North Sea, and the day was totally different from the one I left when I entered the library. My heart was always yearning to go out in the streets and to be in Amsterdam; it's such a beautiful and lively city. I learned a hell of a lot about Spanish anarchism and I wrote about my hours in the library, the people I met there, the yearning for the city, the shocking realization of how quickly time was passing and the light going.
And "Scouting," the poem itself, is about my days in North Carolina, your dear state, where I lived the summer of 1954 in a mountain town called Boone. I thought I'd made a drastic step that might mean I would never become the amazing poet I had seemed destined to become. I had just gotten married. I had fallen in love with a woman who had a young child, and so we married. I thought, "Look what a foolish thing love has driven me to do. I must now be a responsible human being. I'm only twenty-six years old and I've thrown my young life away." You know, men at twenty-six are total idiots. I would go for long walks most days. I didn't have to work, my new wife was working and supporting all of us. I was supposed to be writing poems, but my mother-in-law had come for the wedding, and no one can write with his mother-in-law in the house, even, as in my case, if she's a lovely woman. So I went on these long walks and began to discover the landscape of those mountains and the people.
I'd knock on doors of these little cabins and say, "Could I have a drink of water?" And besides the water, which I always got, I'd get different responses. "Where you from, son?" "What are you doing here?" They'd hear my accent and know I was not local, these gracious country people sharing their water with me, their time; we'd have wonderful conversations. It was a kind of scouting. As I got further and further into it I realized I was carrying out research, I was researching myself as well as these people and their place. My mother-in-law left, so in the mornings I'd work for hours on poetry; I found Saintsbury's History of English Prosody in the local library, never had been read, pages uncut, and I poured over that. I'd been trying to write poetry for ten years, and I still didn't know how to do it and knew I didn't know. But I was getting clues and I was also learning how to research poems: you keep your eyes open, your ears open, all your senses open. The world responds to you, and you respond to the world. It goes on that way, it never ends.
Keats has a late letter to Shelley. I don't think he ever truly cared for Shelley. It might have been a class problem, Shelley coming from the rich and famous family and living his "spontaneous" life. Like Byron, Shelley wrote all the time. Keats had long bouts of silence, what we too easily call writer's block. He suggests to Shelley that his poetry might be richer if he "loaded every rift with ore," if he wrote less and did it with more intensity. He goes on to say that he has sat as long as six months without writing. I think Keats believed, as I have come to believe, that not writing is part of the process of writing. Not in the beginning—for first you have to learn what the hell it is you're doing—then you must write, as Berryman said to me, everything that occurs to you.
I've been very lucky. I've never had one of those terrible droughts. Three or four months is the longest I've ever gone without writing poetry or something I could regard as poetry. I've come to think part of the process, an essential part, is waiting, being patient, and avoiding what one might call busy work. There's the temptation to construct what you secretly know is second-rate and keep working at it because it beats not working at anything. I think you're better off not writing at all than just soothing yourself with busy work. I'm not talking about beginning writers; they have no idea where anything will go and should plow ahead with whatever comes to them. By the time you've been at it fifteen years you know when you're just imitating yourself.
"Scouting" is also about that dreadful moment here in North Carolina when I said to myself, "Philip, you have o'erstepped your usual timidity and entered upon marriage." You know I was just like any other jerk my age. No one had told me how to become a poet, and I'd figured out that if you didn't have money there were two ways to live: you can have a family or you can write poetry, but you ain't going to do both. How the hell are you going to take care of kids, help dress and feed them, get them off to school, and then write a poem? What kind of nonsense is that? I figured I should have someone coming into my study with toast and tea, I should have silence interrupted at intervals for wonderful meals. Wasn't that how Rilke lived? How many nights do you think he sat up with a sick kid? You know at one point or another in your life you have to wake up and become a person. The irony of all this is I was incredibly lucky. I was marrying a woman who had a profound regard for poetry and this kid I adopted turned out to be one of my best friends. It was probably one of the three or four intelligent decisions I've made in my whole life. Another was buying the house I work in in Fresno. Another was not going to the Korean War. I can't think of another one, but there must be a fourth.
[Mary Stephens:] I'm interested in how memory works in the writing process because so many of your poems are retrospective. How does this process differ from poems that are observed at the moment of conception? And how important is looking back, not only on your own experiences, but on your earlier writing?
I don't know if I can answer the second part. It seems to me that you made a distinction between writing a poem that would come out of memory and one that would come out of an experience that was before you. But you'll notice that in my poems it almost doesn't seem to matter what's before me: I go back into memory and try often to twine what I remember with what I'm observing. And I'm not sure why I do this, although it's obviously something that I do. I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that I feel an urgency to record things because they seem so transitory. And I am now a kind of archive of people, places and things that no longer exist. I carry them around with me, and if I get them on paper I give them at least some existence. And that seems like a legitimate thing to be doing with poetry. To be granting some form of permanence—I mean, however permanent the poems are—to the things, to a way of life and the people who made up that way of life.
As far as looking back at my own writing, I try not to. I purposely don't memorize my poems. When I'm on the brink of memorizing a poem I stop using it at readings. I wait for time to erase it because I don't want to memorize it. I don't mind memorizing other people's poems, but I'm not going to sit down and write a poem that I've memorized by Hardy or Wyatt or Dylan Thomas. I'm not going to do that. Whereas a poem that's my own may haunt me if I go back to it. I don't want to go back to it. I don't want to look at it. And sometimes when I look at them I'm a little depressed by the fact that they're better than what I'm writing now. That's another thing: I believe some of the older poems have more imagination, more vitality. I know that these last two books have won all these honors, but I actually prefer some of the older books.
People ask me, for example, what's the book I'm working on now, what's it about, and when I tell them the truth they think I'm putting them on. I say, "I don't know yet. I won't know until I'm done." But that's the truth. That's happened with every book I've ever written. I didn't know what the book was about until I finished it or got close to finishing it. And then I saw, "Oh, that's what I've been obsessed with!" For example, in writing the last book, The Simple Truth, I saw at a certain point that there were three poems I needed. I had taken out a group of poems that either weren't good enough or didn't belong. I said to myself, "I need three poems to go right there," and in the next month I wrote them. That was very rare for me.
With the book What Work Is, I suddenly realized I needed a long poem at the center, so I revived a poem I'd been working on for at least a dozen years and had failed to finish, "Burned." I looked at what I had and knew the time had come to finish it. And I got it. I didn't get it right, but I think I got it as right as I would probably ever get it. Sitting over it another year wouldn't have made it any better, so I let it out into the world. And it was well treated. Have I answered your question?
[Geordie Schimmel:] What if not poetry? If not the dialogue with stars and trees at thirteen, what would you have chosen?
It would have been the dialogue at fourteen. That's what I was going to do. I don't have the least doubt about it. Before I was ten I was utterly fascinated with language, with the shape and flavor of words. And I got so much pleasure out of using language, and I used it with snap. Besides, there weren't that many other options. I couldn't have been a dancer, I'm too awkward. I can't draw so I couldn't have been a painter. Maybe an Abstract Expressionist, except my sense of color stinks. I can't carry a tune worth a damn, so although I love music it wasn't for me. I might have become a critic. No, never a cricket, as Mark Twain calls them. Better to be an honest huckster and sell Buicks. I might have become a novelist. When I was in college I worked as hard at fiction as I did at poetry, but back then my temperament wasn't suited for it; I hadn't yet developed the incredible patience a novelist requires.
[William Robert] I'd like to return to your works for a minute and ask you a question about them. Pretty consistently, from the earliest ones to the ones that just came out in The Simple Truth, you develop many philosophical threads. And one of the most fundamental seems to me to be the lack of, the impotency of, even the impossibility of, true communication between individuals. Do you see this as an ironic stance for a poet, namely one who depends on communication, to take?
No, no, I don't. Failing to communicate is part of what we live with, part of our condition. Poetry is about as good as we can get at communicating without the aid of gestures, without the aid of our bodies. Rilke wrote somewhere that without our bodies we cannot love. Also with our bodies, with our gestures, with our facial expressions, we can communicate far more fully than with merely words on the telephone or words in a letter. Poetry is as close as we can get to complete communication with words alone. And I think it's good enough. I believe that when I'm reading Keats or Hardy—another of my favorite poets—I'm getting it, the essence of what they have to say and even more than the essence, lots of the particulars. Obviously I'm not getting it all. There's no such thing as perfect communication. Hardy's experience of the world is not mine, though our lives overlapped by some months. Keats's experience of the London of his era is not mine; their experience with the words they use is so different from mine. But the miracle of poetry is that it can cross so many of these barriers. Approximate communication seems so amazing itself when you consider how separate we are or how separate we have conceived of ourselves. I believe that we aren't nearly as separate as we think we are. If, for example, someone in this room were running a fever we would all heat up a bit, we'd feel it even though we might not know we felt it. Our eyes tell us we're more separate than we actually are, and our conscious experience tells us, and we've conditioned ourselves to believe we're more separate. But to get back to poetry, given who we've created out of ourselves, poetry is miraculous.
But you're right: there is an obsession in much of my work with the failures of people to communicate, but those failures are usually very specific. I'm usually concerned with a few people, perhaps only two, and how they fail to communicate. A book that moved me enormously when I was young, maybe eighteen, was Winesburg, Ohio. I remember a story about two very lonely people, a man and a woman, who have no one to communicate with and whose experience of love is very limited. As I recall—I haven't read the story in ages—they get together and they discover they have these mutual needs and they could be dear friends. As I recall the man oversteps the bounds of this budding friendship; while the woman is trying to speak out of her joy that she has a listener he shuts her up by kissing her. There's this awful and wonderful irony that he has chosen to communicate his love or joy in the occasion this way, and she wants to communicate it another way and you can't do both at the same time. She says something like, "But, Harold, let me tell you what it was like to be six and a solitary girl," and he goes smack, smack, as if to say, "Let me show you what it's like to be twenty-seven and a man in the company of a woman." I thought Anderson had captured something amazing: how even when we fail each other the miraculous happens, they cross that great divide that separates one person from another. I believe it's possible. I believe I've done it, totally. I try to record it in my poem "The Escape." The communication between the speaker and the woman is total, and he becomes a creature endowed with two sexes, an angel with no wings. They don't do it merely with words, but they do it. He touches the woman and discovers he's also touching himself because they've become one being.
[Kristina Nevius:] Through this interview you've mentioned languages. What effect have foreign languages and cultures had on your poetry?
When I go to a foreign country where I don't speak the language I usually make no effort to learn it. I'm just "The Ugly American," as Eugene Burdick called us in his novel years ago. I enjoy the ignorance, I use it. Say I go into the Campo Fiori, the great open market in Rome. I stop and listen to two people standing in line to buy eggs. The man says to the woman, "Was there ever a more perfect shape than an egg? And the luminosity! The amazing delicacy of the color, the way it takes the hues of the air. Not only does the egg contain sustenance for us, for our bodies which feed our souls, but within each egg is the potential of a creature that can fly." Amazing, they say such rare things in such common places in Rome; Italians are angels. Of course that's not what they're saying at all. The guy has turned to his cousin Elfonzina and said, "Holy shit, the bastard raised the price again!" Because I don't speak Italian I've endowed him with poetry, and I say to myself, "How fortunate you are, Philip, to be living among such profound people when in fact they're saying the same trivial things they'd be saying in Fresno or Detroit."
One invaluable thing I learned from studying Spanish was how great our own poetry is, how many things it can do that Spanish poetry hasn't done. We appear in American poetry and we speak in our daily voices. It gave me a new regard for American poetry. Discovering the great poetry written in Spanish in this century was intoxicating. There's also much more awful poetry written in Spain than in the U.S. because anyone who goes to the university in Spain publishes a book of poetry. The dentist will hand you a beautifully printed book of poems—each dentist has one—all about the perfume of flowers, the brightness of the moon, the tenderness of kisses, the sweetness of the night air of Andalusia, the kindness of wild herbs. The poetry of love, dreams, moonlight, fantasy. Absolute garbage. It's so bad they couldn't even sing it in Nashville, and they can sing anything in Nashville. The great poetry is able to use the same vocabulary and break all the silly conventions and astonish you.
Even though I had to work like a demon on my Spanish, I got a great kick out of being able to speak it and understand it. I also found it exhausting to speak it for hours on end. One day I got so tired I went into a little park near the futbol stadium in Barcelona, flopped on a bench and slept for hours. Once I started dreaming in Spanish I got scared I'd lose my American English, so I would go down to the port and speak to American sailors and marines off the ships.
I think, too, it's very good to read poetry in another language to discover the immense possibilities we're not taking advantage of in our poetry. I know you can discover much of that reading translations, say of Zbigniew Herbert or Tomas Tranströmer, but I think you get an even keener sense when you read someone like Garcia Lorca or César Vallejo in the original. And you're inspired in the same way you're inspired when you read Whitman or Dickinson or Williams. I can still recall struggling with the poems of Miguel Hernández in the original and those sudden glimpses of how astonishing the poetry was, how brutal and lyrical at exactly the same moment. I'd never read anything like it; it reconfirmed my belief in the power and beauty of poetry in the face of the worst life can dish out. These are poems that grew out of the most tragic circumstances. They are full of indescribable pain, which he foresees. They are very great and very difficult poems; I had to work hours, and then I would get this glimpse of their majesty. Going to Spain, living there, was a wonderful experience for me. I owe the discovery of the poetry mainly to Hardie St. Martin, the poet and translator I met in Barcelona. He was working on his great anthology, Roots and Wings, and generously took me into his stable of translators.
[Alex Crumbley:] Did it take you long to become comfortable writing persona poems? And when you do, do you have trouble with people assuming you're the narrator when you're not?
First thing, it didn't take long at all. Once I decided I wanted to do it, I just did it. I had written a lot of fiction, at least a dozen stories and large chunks of two novels, so I was used to the problem of getting into the heads of other characters and getting them to speak in my writing.
As far as people misreading, I don't much care. I remember a review I got, I think it was in the Village Voice, in which a woman wrote that one of my poems from 7 Years from Somewhere was very curious. The poem, "I Could Believe," is in the voice of a guy who has come back from the Spanish Civil War. This woman wrote something like, "Levine is an autobiographical poet, so it's amazing to discover that he fought in the Spanish Civil War, which ended when he was eleven." She mused over this, and then wrote, "Perhaps he's trying something different." Perhaps if I'd written in the voice of someone coming back from the American Civil War she wouldn't have missed it, but you can't be sure. If you're troubled by being misunderstood then you'd better not publish.
Even our fellow poets and friends read our poetry differently. I remember going to a class at the University of Minnesota and having a conversation with them; it was much like today. At the end someone asked if I would read one poem. I said, "Sure, let me read something I'm working on and we'll see what you think of it." I read "Listen Carefully" in an early draft. After I was done a young woman asked me if I would publish the poem. I said, "Yeah, if I ever get it right." "But if your sister read it, how would she feel?" I said, "I don't have a sister." She was shocked. My host, Michael Dennis Browne, an English poet who has become a fine American poet, then told an interesting story.
He said, "You know, Sharon Olds was sitting in that same chair last year, and for some reason she got on the subject of Phil's poetry. She told us how she had asked Phil where she might get 'chocolate cookies in the shape of Michigan,' cookies Phil refers to in one of his poems. To Sharon's surprise Phil said he just made it up." Michael quoted her in a surprised voice, "He made it up!" as though that were unheard of. Sharon is a dear friend of mine, and my guess is she was having fun. It's very possible it's not something she would do in her own poems, but I'm sure she knows it's something I do all the time. To me it's always open house; if you want it and it doesn't exist, just make it up. This poem with the cookies in it is about an amazing kid, a kid so amazing he's not human and yet he is. He's what human beings would be if human beings were totally themselves. Now how would I know what human beings would be if they were totally themselves? I'll tell you how; I've been totally myself. I've experienced it. That's what you become when you're inspired, you become totally yourself. We pray to the muse and all the rest of that. Poets tell us, Coleridge and Keats for example, that they wrote some of their most inspired works when they were invaded by a force not their own. Maybe they're right, but I have a different notion: I don't believe there is this outside force. I believe that we are so rarely totally ourselves that when we are we don't know who we are. I think it's similar to what athletes refer to as being "in the zone."
That's what poets live for, those days when we are totally ourselves. I know when I'm there. I awaken in the morning, and I know I'm there, that today it's going to happen. I've been working toward that day for ages, and when it comes I'm in no hurry. I learned from Alberto Giacometti to take my time when the day comes. I think it was in 1968 I read a book called A Giacometti Portrait, by James Lord. One chapter describes a day on which Alberto knows he's going to do great work, he just has it, so he just goes about his day very slowly. He wants to touch and perhaps bless as much of his daily life as he possibly can, the people and the places and the things that make up his daily life. He takes a long walk, he visits his usual haunts, he talks to people, and then he gets down to work. I had no idea you could do that until I was forty or forty-one; I didn't know the poem wouldn't run away from me. When you're inspired there's no rush; it's who you've become. Take your time, move around, absorb all you can, reach out as far as possible. You're not going to lose it. It's there. It's you.
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