A Poet’s Guide to Death

Philip Levine
My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry
(Knopf, 2016)

Every so often, Americans relearn a hard lesson: even our best poets are mortal. Philip Levine, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and served as poet laureate in 2011, died last year of pancreatic cancer. He was eighty-seven years old. Born in Depression-era Detroit, he saw poetry where others didn’t—in the lives of ordinary Americans, the slog of blue-collar labor, and the decline of post-industrial cities. His voice was our conscience, a reminder of the gap between what America promises and what it delivers.

Luckily, My Lost Poets, a posthumous collection of Levine’s essays and lectures, chips away at death’s tyranny. Through these pieces, Levine comes back to life and pays homage to his influences. Resurrecting the likes of Wilfred Owen, Billie Holiday, William Carlos Williams, and George Hitchcock of Kayak magazine, he recalls a life lived in dialogue with all poets everywhere. Buried in this collection, then, is a desire to remain a part of that conversation, to stay a voice in America’s head.

The book’s title essay explains how Levine became a poet. Of his first compositions, he writes, “I never thought of them as anything but what they were: secret little speeches addressed to the moon.” It wasn’t until Levine arrived at Detroit’s Wayne University that he met poets his own age and began to write seriously. Through his new friends, Levine received life-changing book recommendations: Ulysses, a young black poet, suggested Walt Whitman; Ruby Teague, a Southern Baptist, introduced Naomi Replansky; Bernard Strempek, the group’s ringleader, touted Demetrios Capetanakis. Suddenly, Levine had colleagues—or “comrades,” to borrow his term—and a lifelong job.

Levine’s approach to poetry was never solitary and always social. Like the rest of us, he rarely worked alone. In another piece, “Nobody’s Detroit,” Levine remembers returning to the city after decades away. On his way to an English department ceremony at Wayne, he met Tom, an old black man and retired autoworker whose garden became the subject of the acclaimed poem “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.”

Early afternoon behind

his place, Tom’s gathering up

the remnants of this year’s

garden—the burned

tomato plants and the hardy

runners of summer squash

that dug into the chalky

soil and won’t let go.

The debt Levine owes Tom is personal, as well as professional. Certainly, the poem would not exist without him: he epitomizes the tired-but-tireless worker struggling to keep the American Dream alive. But Levine is grateful to Tom on an emotional level, for making him feel like less of an outsider in his hometown. “That was neither the first nor the last time I returned to the city, but it was probably the most memorable, and in retrospect it was the last time I felt truly at home there,” he writes. The essay gives credit where it’s due.

All around him, Levine saw evidence that America’s true heroes are anonymous. His essays, like his poetry, honor the common person, granting him or her a kind of eternal life. In “The Spanish Civil War in Poetry,” Levine takes stock of his political education, paying tribute to his childhood caregiver, Florence Hilcock, who first taught him about Spain’s Civil War. Florence was, in Levine’s words, “one of those uncompromising, totally authentic Americans who believed in decency, a fair wage, and a never-ending battle against the excess of capitalism.” In Spain as in the U.S., she saw an epic battle against the ills of the rich and powerful.

Similarly, when Levine worked as a dry-cleaning deliveryman, he met a Spanish pants presser who was imprisoned for his anarchist sympathies. From him, Levine learned “all work was worth doing with elegance and precision, and that useful work granted a share of dignity to the worker.” As a poet, Levine labored in the tradition of the everyman. So long as we read his poems and essays, these values still have legs.

Anyone who writes poetry owes a debt to tradition, but Levine is unique for his commitment to laying bare this inheritance, especially in a culture that values originality above all. In “The Spanish Civil War in Poetry,” he excerpts a stanza of Federico García Lorca’s “The King of Harlem,” which he compares to his own “They Feed They Lion.” Here is García Lorca:

A wooden wind from the south, slanting through the black mire

spits on the broken boats and drives stacks into shoulders.

A south wind that carries

tusks, sunflowers, alphabets,

and a battery with drowned wasps.

And here is Levine:

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter

Out of black bean and wet slate bread,

Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,

Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,

They lion grow.

Both poems rely on Whitmanian lists to build tension, to cry out on behalf of the dispossessed. Levine explains that García Lorca taught him to both rein in his “chaotic ranting against American capitalism” and lean into moral urgency. Graciously, he writes, “I know now that if I had not read [García Lorca’s] […] I could not have written [mine].”

Since Levine’s death, we have been appointed custodians of his afterlife. There is so much vitality in My Lost Poets, but it’s our job to keep track of it, to ensure it’s not lost. In a 1988 interview with Mona Simpson for The Paris Review, for instance, Levine said something that bears repeating, now as ever:

We can describe ourselves as horribly racist people, which we are, as imperialists, which we have been and are, but we can also see ourselves as bountiful, gracious, full of wit, courage, resourcefulness. I still believe in this country, that it can fulfill the destiny Blake and Whitman envisioned. I still believe in American poetry.

So do I. There is work to be done.


Gillie Collins

Gillie Collins lives in New York City and writes about books, movies, and visual art.