Philip Levine, Poet Laureate; Or “A dirty Detroit Jew with Bad Manners”

Philip Levine, Poet Laureate; Or “A dirty Detroit Jew with Bad Manners”

It was announced this week that Philip Levine, 83, will be the new U.S. poet laureate. If it isn’t obvious from his name, he’s Jewish. But that’s no surprise with regard to poet laureates–Louise Gluck was the last Jewish honoree, in 2003, and Robert Pinksy held the distinction (i.e. laureate and Jewish) three years before that. Plus, there’s Joseph Brodsky, Karl Shapiro, and many others I’m skipping.

Levine’s defining characteristics are his plain diction and narrative-driven verse, as well as his focus on the working class–he grew up in Detroit, to Russian-Jewish emigres. Yet despite his lack of self-consciousness about being Jewish–he once called himself "a dirty Detroit Jew with bad manners"–you’d be searching in vain for a ton of overt Jewish references in his work.

Which is not to say they’re not there. In my admittedly superficial search, I’ve found several poems that have explicit Jewish tropes. Here’s one, from poem called "Call It Music," from 2000:

Then I was 19, working
on the loading docks at Railway Express,
coming day by day into the damaged body
of a man while I sang into the filthy air
the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me
before his breath failed.

But more compelling is the ways in which almost all of his poetry exudes a certain Jewish mentality: one painfully aware of mortality, yet never defeated by that fact. Levine’s poetic world, as the critic Dwight Garner pointed out yesterday, is full of people, something of a rarity among modern day poets.

Or as Garner put it: "Mr. Levine’s poems aren’t lachrymose; they don’t present blue-collar caricatures. Yet he speaks for people who are rarely given a voice in our poetry, and his poems feel, crucially, populated."

Even at this late stage in his life, when Levine’s own mortality has become an increasingly common theme in his work, he hasn’t lost his joie de vivre. I don’t mean to make his work sound saccharine or jejune, but there is a life-affirming quality woven throughout his verse that is, in a word, invigorating.

The poem "Call It Music," in fact, captures what I mean. The poem describes a recently dead friend of Levine’s who knew Charlie Parker. Levine loved Parker, but only knew the image of the man–"Bird," the drug-addled genius. To fill in his imagination, Levine would ask his friend for whatever morsels of information he could get.

But his friend’s stories are less about immortalizing Parker than turning him into what he was, a human being. As Levine writes: "To him Bird / was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note / going out forever on the breath of genius / which now I hear soaring above my own breath / as this bright morning fades into afternoon."

What gave Parker life, though, was clear: his music. Without it, he’d die much sooner than his already severely truncated years. Even in his darkest day, it was that gift that made his life worth living. It’s a lesson Levine understood, as he ends the poem:

Music, I’ll call it music. It’s what we need
as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds
blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean,
the calm and endless one I’ve still to cross.

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