Friday, October 14, 2011

Poetry Friday: Poet Laureate Philip Levine

Time is a tricky thing. It seems like W.S. Merwin was just named U.S. poet laureate a few days ago. But apparently his term in that position is nearly over. While The Small Nouns was on hiatus this summer, Philip Levine was named to the post. In typical fashion, Mr. Levine's response to his appointment included this nugget: "If you take it too seriously, you're an idiot."

His career is quite accomplished. He has published over 20 books and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. I'm particularly fond of his poems because of Mr. Levine's roots--he was born and raised in Detroit, the city I grew up not far from and in which I currently work. He has written about Detroit often and, in my opinion, some of his poems reflect an urban "grittiness," that definitely resonates with Detroiters.

So while I'm a few months late to the party, I want to showcase a few of Philip Levine's poems here for my weekly Poetry Friday post. I start with one about a Detroit landmark:

Belle Isle, 1949
By Philip Levine

We stripped in the first warm spring night
and ran down into the Detroit River
to baptize ourselves in the brine
of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,
melted snow. I remember going under
hand in hand with a Polish highschool girl
I'd never seen before, and the cries
our breath made caught at the same time
on the cold, and rising through the layers
of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere
that was this world, the girl breaking
the surface after me and swimming out
on the starless waters towards the lights
of Jefferson Ave. and the stacks
of the old stove factory unwinking.

Read the rest of this poem here. It's worth it. I just love the imagery. Here's another, the title poem of his Pulitzer Prize winning book:

The Simple Truth
by Philip Levine

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner
 with a little butter and salt.

Then I walked through the dried fields 
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me 
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste 
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way, 
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat" she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering 
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

Read the ending of this poem here. His poems, in my opinion, have a similar voice, but each stands out on its own as unique somehow. Also, they all seem to have really good endings. The last few lines of "The Simple Truth" contains this amazing line: "Can you taste what I'm saying?"

Here's the ending of "He Would Never Use One Word When None Would Do:" 

Fact is, silence is the perfect water:
unlike rain it falls from no clouds
to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
to give heart to the thin blades of grass
fighting through the concrete for even air
dirtied by our endless stream of words.

I love that. The rest of the poem can be read here

I hope Philip Levine's poetry appeals to you as much as it does to me. I can see how it might not, but if it doesn't, give it another chance. You might change your mind!

Poetry Friday is hosted at fomagrams today. Please get over there and check it out!


  1. I'm not a huge Levine fan, but I do agree that "silence is the perfect water." And anyone who holds the Poet Laureate post deserves our attention. What an honor. Thanks for sharing.

  2. i remember reading "what work is" when it came out and wondering "where has this guy been hiding?"

    and i agree, i think he does capture a certain urban grit, but i also wonder if a place like detroit will always be what it is. i wonder if by the time the city is 300 or 400 years old if it'll still possess that same grittiness or if it will recede like a once-bustling european kingdom into a quite village on the water.

  3. My heart caught in my throat as I read the lines:
    "silence is the perfect water:
    unlike rain it falls from no clouds
    to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
    to give heart to the thin blades of grass
    fighting through the concrete for even air
    dirtied by our endless stream of words."

    I like how Philip Levine's Polish *ex*lover inspired him to write so vividly and beautifully.

  4. I'm with you! When Levine was named to the Poet Laureateship, I cheered and celebrated. Wonderful poet, wonderful time right now for him to sing the song of the working man. Thanks for posting these examples of his work.