Philip Levine never forgot his roots.
The former US poet laureate, who died last year of cancer, was born in 1928 in Detroit and raised in the depths of the Depression. He had lost his father by the time he was five and started working at industrial jobs at age 14.
Levine, who won a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards, drew from that struggling Rust Belt past to create verse that was often direct, angry, confessional, and full of the turmoil of contemporary life. In this posthumous collection of Levine's essays and addresses, that sense of inclusiveness comes through. His writing describes a life in which poetry is part of the texture of everyday life. Not ordinary, but vital.
Poetry came early to Levine, although he did not realize it at the time. In the title essay, which opens the book, he talks about his emergence as a poet and the education he received rather haphazardly, at first, from friends and other young poets.
Like many writers, he describes composing first for himself. As a teenager wandering the woods that then existed on the outskirts of Detroit, he would create what he considered "secret little speeches" to the moon and other elements of the night. He wasn't always sure to whom his compositions were addressed, although he was convinced "they were listening." What he did know, even then, was that he had to put words together, whether to say thanks or to "no longer be alone and misunderstood, and for that," he concludes, "you needed poetry."
That conviction deepened as he began to experience others' poetry. After a respected high school teacher, "a lover of literature,'' read a poem out loud not once but twice, Levine notes, "I could lie and say those poems changed my attitude toward my understanding of the importance of poetry. No, what it changed was my attitude toward myself."
For Levine, this education grew in concert with his sense of community. As a student at Wayne University (which became Wayne State), he saw a notice for a reading and decided to attend. There he met other young poets, who in turn introduced him to their favorites and guided his reading. " 'Do you have any brothers?,' " one new friend asks. When Levine replies in the affirmative, his friend says, " 'Then this poem was written for you,' " and hands him "Abel," by Demetrios Capetnakis, one of the titular "lost poets," who died of leukemia in 1944 at the age of 32. From Capetnakis, Levine began "learning to take pleasure in the mystery of poetry.''
In these essays, Levine writes of other poets who served as comrades and teachers, including greats like John Berryman and Robert Lowell. But loving poetry is different from loving all poets. Although Levine writes with great respect and affection toward many peers, as well as their great predecessors, he reserves much of his praise for the other aspects of everyday life that inspired him.
Levine was no rarified aesthete. A reader of both comic books and Life magazine, he was also a great fan of jazz. He writes affectionately of even lesser practitioners — sometimes at the expense of poets. In "Detroit Jazz," for example, he recalls an evening when the pianist Erroll Garner had played for "what seemed like several hours," filling in until the headliner arrived. "It took me years to realize how beautiful was the modesty of Erroll Garner that night," Levine recalls. "He knew the audience had come to hear [Art] Tatum, he certainly knew . . . how great a difference there was between his command and Tatum's," and "yet he did his best.'' And with a touch of sly wit, Levine concludes: "I hadn't yet learned that the world is overpopulated with people who never tire of hearing themselves. I was only just starting to meet other poets."
Despite such reservations, Levine's love of poetry comes through in this collection, encouraging readers to explore on their own and to wrestle with the poems that illustrate these essays. One can imagine, from Levine's commonsensical approach, how wonderful a teacher he must have been, although he is frank about the problems and limitations of teaching poetry. Remembering Lowell, for example, he is quite straightforward: "People often ask me how Lowell taught," he recalls. "I can answer quite simply: badly." Still Levine never gives up on his mission to excite and engage, or at least, in his words, "befuddle" his audience — provoking them to question and explore.
Closing one essay, he recalls a panel discussion with the poet Robert Duncan. "Some people," said Duncan, "do not twig to poetry," Levine recalls. For those people, it might be opera or dance, or "V-8 engines or drop forges" that excite passion. The important thing, Levine concludes, is that something does. MY LOST POETS:
A Life in Poetry
By Philip Levine
Knopf, 224 pp., $26.95
Clea Simon, a novelist and freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.