A Laureate in Letters
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).