A Laureate in Letters
Editor’s Note: The November/December 2011 issue of Books & Culture included a piece by Aaron Belz, “A Laureate in Letters: Philip Levine in Correspondence, 1994-2011.” That piece came to mind when I heard the news of Levine’s death several days ago. I asked Aaron if he would write a new preface to the article, which we are re-posting. (By the way, Aaron has a third book of poetry out now, Glitter Bomb, which was reviewed in the November/December 2014 issue of B&C.) Here’s what Aaron wrote:
Philip Levine’s death took me by surprise. No matter how often over the years I’ve reminded myself that the day would come, I wasn’t prepared. Maybe it’s because Phil wasn’t distant or remote. Perhaps because there was no mythological context to understand his “passing,” there was no good way to narrate it. In fact, he wouldn’t have said he “passed” or “fell asleep.” He would have said “died” and said it frankly. Despite all his awards, despite being appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, he didn’t act like a celebrity.
What I learned from Phil amounts to only a few life lessons, but they are ones that made possible my life as a writer. No doubt, without them, without him, my ambition to write poems would have faded, because writing poetry is one of the least practical pursuits of them all. Phil answered my earliest and most basic questions—like “Why write?” and “How can I continue when I can’t get anything published?”—kindly but gruffly, as though he had time for me but not for my nonsense.
Of course you continue to write. Publication has almost no value compared to the writing itself. Looking out at the “poetry world” through Levine’s eyes I could see that the buzz, the hype, the networking, the lists were entirely useless compared to the act of writing. Even what others thought of my poems fell secondary to the writing itself. And, man, was he hard on my poems! But then again, he didn’t care for my then-hero, T.S. Eliot, either. So I learned to take both my heroes and myself less seriously.
What grew in me wasn’t cynicism. Instead of playing the game, I felt true liberty, and it was based on a principle Phil conveyed over and over: The noise doesn’t matter. Other people’s opinions of you don’t matter too much. Even your own self-opinion doesn’t matter, except if you were to hold yourself or your poetry in high regard, which would be worse than quitting altogether. What matters is the words, and why aren’t you working on the words?
His most-used signoffs, “Be well” and “Vivas,” conveyed life, not career success. By focusing on the former he did realize the latter. But that was never the point.
Philip Levine and I have exchanged almost 150 letters over the past seventeen years. I met him while pursuing a master's in creative writing at New York University. He was the only professor there with the courage to publicly shred his students' poems—shredded some of mine into oblivion, as I recall. "Not one of these lines means anything," he would say, or "Most of what happens to you in a day is not worth writing about." But he was also, at least in my case, the most affirming of teachers: "Looks like we have a young Hart Crane here," he once said after reading one of my poems, and so I zealously read The Bridge to figure out what he meant. Turned out he was wrong. He was wrong a lot, and not afraid to admit it.
I first wrote to him in 1994 when I'd heard from a friend at Duke University's short-lived DoubleTake Magazine that Levine had agreed to write an essay on the closing of my in-laws' White Furniture Company. For more than a century, White had been the heart of the Mayberryesque town of Mebane, North Carolina—now little more than an exurb for nearby Chapel Hill and Burlington. Levine, with his reputation for documenting working-class America, was a logical choice for this assignment. I was delighted at the connection, of course, and exploited it. I now realize that there didn't need to be an occasion for a letter to Levine—or Phil, of "Yours, Phil," as I and many others have come to think of him.
In August of this year, when headlines began to appear saying that Levine had been ap-pointed to poetry's highest office, I wasn't surprised. Having already claimed a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, an NBCC, a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and many other laurels, and representing, as he is said to, the voice of the American heartland, he seemed a natural choice for poet laureate. For his own part, he claimed to be "stunned" (Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2011), a characteristic response and not at all false humility. Levine is an authentic skeptic, one who sees good things as bonuses and doesn't take himself or other people too seriously. Failures and successes are to be expected in equal measure along the way.