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.
In evidence, and with the author's permission, here are several excerpts from his letters to me. I'll avoid the newsy or personal remarks, the cranky asides (of which there are plenty), and comments on my own poems. Instead I'll sample the wisdom—advice for a clueless young writer, straight from the pen of a successful postwar-era, post-Romantic atheistic humanist, someone who'd clearly had it with the "bizniz" of American poetry but still believed in America, or at least the basic idea of America, and very much believed in poetry.
I'll begin with the passage that was and still is most helpful to me. I've not only used it as a benchmark in my own career but have quoted parts of it to my creative writing students and young poets who email asking for advice. The key word is "doggedness":
You asked for detailed advice on how to deal with taking yourself seriously as a poet & yet not puffing yourself up & at the same time believing in yourself as a poet. I can tell you this: long before I believed in what I was writing I believed in myself as a poet, believed I had something to say but had not yet found out how to say it. I suppose I was saying to myself, Philip, you are a person of intelligence, feelings, wit, some charm, you have as much right to this poetry thing as anyone else, though it is obvious that some others are more gifted (Hart Crane, John Keats, Wilfred Owen, etc., I was not yet 25), so stick at this thing & see what happens. No harm will come from this doggedness. I don't recall if I actually said just that, but I know I thought just that. I know also that I loved imaginative writing & that it had meant something magical to me, & I believed I could add my pennyweight to it. And I have. My sense of humor certainly helped. Not a day passed during which I did not laugh at myself: "The very thought, Levine a poet! Ha ha!"
(November 30, 1995)
In the same letter, Levine has this to say about getting poems out there: "Don't worry about not publishing yet. Most of the poets I know who published early got big heads & perished as poets. Or became obsessed with the bizniz of poetry & became that sort of jerk bizniz poet. A few saw through that shit & came back to poetry, but most became sad fools. Send the poems to any magazine you like & see what happens; it won't do any harm."
I've followed both hemispheres of this advice and have had success in doing so. Although I'm not a great poet, I'm good enough to compete with what's out there (most of which is also not great), and I'm especially good when I truly don't care what editors think about me. It frees me from all prejudice, lets me do my personal thing (which is nerdy and weird), and encourages me to do so "doggedly." Leave it up to editors to make the call. I learned independence from Levine. Much more recently, I also learned from him the inner workings of the writing process:
[You must] find a way to let the "other" fellow speak in your poems. He might embarrass you at first …. When the noise fades & you welcome the silence, that other heretofore silent fellow will speak IF you are listening. Don't rush it; just let the game come to you, as they say in tennis. Now for a vision, you must go back into the earlier you, the one who lived a life with a vision, but don't take that vision, that was then, you were a lad with a lad's vision; don't throw it away. No, no, you must honor it. Let it be the rich compost in which the present vision will grow. Then you can leave it where it is.
(July 17, 2009)
When I quoted this back to him saying I would "keep this advice," he wrote back cringing—in a letter now apparently lost. He commented that he couldn't believe he'd written those words or that I would think them worth keeping.
A final aspect of Levine's letters I've found instructive is his forays into transcendent questions. Although his preferred range is the tangible (such as jazz and baseball), he addresses the question of God from time to time. And although he styles himself an atheist, he allows for the possibility of God's existence, seems even deistic in some passages. I broached the subject once when working on a review of Mark Jarman's Questions for Ecclesiastes, which I interpreted as putting God in the dock, and Levine had this to say: "Frankly I don't blame God for anything, not even the fact I'm getting old. He/she got no time to worry about me, he's got to see that the tides behave. There's a lot that's wrong with the world, but most of it seems the work of people. Greed, racism, the inequalities of opportunity, the cold closed hearts that abound—all of that's our doing" (December 12, 1996).
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.
Aaron Belz is the author of two books of poetry: The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX) and Lovely, Raspberry (Persea).
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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