A Laureate in Letters
I have come to agree deeply with this view of human responsibility, borne for Levine of hard 20th-century experience (and which he underscores in a later letter by saying, "It wasn't God who urged Christians to slaughter Jews for centuries"). Whatever God might represent to Levine, he/she is not a mere projection of the imagination: "The other day (night) in class I responded to a poem which declared, 'God is a feeling ….' I responded with some heat & surprised the class by taking exception to the claim. I could almost hear their thoughts: 'This atheist Jew is claiming God exists outside our own collective emotions! He's lost his mind' " (October 25, 1995).
For Levine, and now also for me, this sense of responsibility finally resolves in poetry, even if the work we do—both the art we make and the desire to make it—has a tendency to slip our grasp. He concluded one letter memorably: "I'm now trying to get back to poetry one more time. I seem to do this over & over. There's no end to it. There's nothing to stop me now except myself. Perhaps the same is true for you. So let's get on with it. Tennis on, but I'm not watching. They can go on without me" (August 30, 1997).
This spring, on the way to give a reading in Davis, I had an opportunity to visit Phil and his wife Franny at their modest home in Fresno. Franny prepared boeuf bourguignon and poured wine. They introduced me to the fruit trees in their massive back yard. We ate to-gether and ended the evening with a glass of scotch and some talk of NYU. Finally they put me up at a nearby hotel. I've never experienced a more welcoming stop on the weary, low-paying road of poetry. I hope that my own road comes to a similar end.
There's more worth saving and remembering from my correspondence with Philip Levine, but I suppose it will have to wait—in his own words—until somebody cares to peruse it in a "yellowing archive." Meanwhile, there's the poetry.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.