Once a year or so, when I forget myself and say something incisively critical about a student poem in class, bluntly, sometimes humorously; when I state with conviction what’s “wrong” with a poem, or missing from it, or messy with it; when I joke about a bad move a poem has made, teasing it a little bit, acknowledging failure as quickly as success; I am not so much forgetting myself as remembering how I was taught to talk about poetry when I was young. I am lapsing back into the way my college classmates and I spoke to one another—the way Phil Levine spoke to us—as if we were, all 12 or 15 of us, little Levines nearly every semester for three years. I realize now that it was like a private language, the kind some siblings develop. Once I entered grad school, I understood that my spoken comments—blessedly few thanks to a natural shyness—were considered hard-ass. I was instructed to preface my remarks with phrases such as: “It seems to me that,” and “If this were my poem I might,” and “There is so much to admire here but I wonder just a bit about the….” Diplomacy didn’t win me any new friends but it didn’t gain me new enemies either. And when I began to teach workshops of my own, as a blonde, blue-eyed, 25 year-old doctoral student leading 18 year-old Mormons through the mine field that is Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, and Langston Hughes, I was grateful to have had my poetry passion tempered. In those years and all the years since then, I have been reminded over and over that there is really only one of us who can get away with being Philip Levine, and it’s not me.
In autumn 1977, I enrolled in Philip Levine’s poetry workshop at Fresno State. I was beginning my sophomore year after a disastrous year as a scholarship student at a wealthy, Christian, southern California college. I felt defeated, but my idea was to use up my California state tuition money for the year and then beat it out of Fresno, where my parents were living, as soon as I was able. I’d written poems at a nearby high school and knew about the legend that was Philip Levine. He lit student poems on fire with a cigarette lighter and stomped the flames out with his motorcycle boots. He cussed in the classroom. He was a card-carrying Communist. So the stories went. After the year I’d had battling fundamentalist right-wingers and Malibu millionaires, I thought, Bring it, Levine.
As it happened, there was no lighter, no motorcycle boots, no brandishing of membership cards. Phil, as he asked us to call him, had recently given up smoking and wore gym shoes every day. He was going to the gym. He complained about vision problems. He complained about almost everything. He laughed about almost everything, too. Or praised it: the perfection of the pear, the charm of the mockingbird—as if fruit or bird had just that morning come into being for him. He praised his wife’s sense of humor, her cooking, her gardening skills. I had never heard a married person speak so fondly of his or her spouse, and that alone made Phil exotic to me.
Even after he’d published over five books and won a couple of significant national literary awards, Fresno State assigned Phil the requisite faculty load of composition courses. He walked to our class from one of them, stopping to pick up his mail on the way. Phil sat at a lab table-with-sink in front of the chalkboard—poetry workshops were held in one of the Agriculture buildings—and flipped through his mail as students shuffled in, raising an eyebrow to a thin new volume of poems or wisecracking about a big poetry paycheck. He might read short passages to us from the books he was teaching in comp, Studs Terkel’s Working, for example, before moving on to our work, chosen and mimeographed by him, two to five purple poems to a page. Often the odor of cow dung hung in the air, laced with the scent of gardenia on the best of days, pesticide on the worst. It was always either too hot or too foggy. An inversion could mean no blue sky for days, even weeks. In those days, Fresno State students were preppies in Izod, Ag kids in cowboy boots, or Bulldog fans in ball-caps, but few of these enrolled in poetry workshop. It’s possible I’ve conflated two or three workshops in my memory, but I know I capture the spirit of most of them when I say they consisted of a handful of badly dressed white kids like me, one or two Latino kids, a couple of veterans, a girl who rode a Harley, and two or three older, non-traditional students with full-time jobs and families. The glory days of Levis and St. John, Roberta Spear, Lawson Inada, Gary Soto, Sherley Anne Williams, Sam Pereira, and other notables were long gone, and we newbies were irremediable dopes. But their legacy was palpable—perhaps because of the overt pride and pleasure Phil took in their successes—and I remember thinking of them as the older brothers and sisters who’d learned well, worked hard, and gotten the hell out of Fresno. Years later, when Larry Levis was my teacher at University of Utah, I felt we indeed shared a psychic familial shorthand. Like Phil, Larry wore his intellect lightly. Like Phil, his devotion to the craft was infectious.
In the late ‘70s, Phil’s career was coming into full bloom. Stephen Yenser published an insightful and influential essay on his work in Parnassus in 1977, before Levine turned 50. It is remarkable to consider that he had already written his poems, “Belle Isle, 1949,” “On the Edge,” “Animals are Passing from our Lives,” “Heaven,” the widely anthologized “To a Child Trapped in a Barbershop,” the singularly spectacular “They Feed They Lion,” and the disturbing “Angel Butcher.” He was head-hunted to teach elsewhere. Spring semester ‘78 he went east to Tufts; someone named Mark Strand took his place at Fresno State. In three years Phil would leave Fresno again to teach at Columbia, where I was a beginning MFA student. If it hadn’t been for Phil, I wouldn’t have been there. I remember distinctly, in 1979, looking up what the acronym MFA meant. I discussed programs with Phil, by which I mean he told me what three schools to apply to. I did as he said and got into all of them. A few months before I graduated with my BA in English, Mr. Levine, as I called him then—I was such a nitwit—Mr. Levine told me there were three things I’d need to be a poet: talent, perseverance, and luck. “You’ve got the talent,” he said. “Only you can tell whether or not you’ve got the perseverance,” he said. “And I’m your luck.” The talent and luck parts sounded good to me. And though I thought I understood about perseverance at the time, I had no idea.
Phil often said to us in class that we had more interesting things in our pockets than in our poems. And he was right. That lint, loose tobacco, and couple of cents were infinitely more interesting than anything in our poems, and more useful. A similarly effective pedagogical method was to shake our poems above his desk—the lab table—and listen for the “real stuff,” the good stuff, for any stuff to fall out of them. These were the best lessons in the value of concrete language and the importance of specificity, image, and detail to poetry that I’ve ever learned, and I use them with my own students and, secretly but without fail, on my own poems to this day. He also used baseball metaphors in class. One student was batting 200 with his poem one day, another student 300: “But you know what that means, don’t you? You write one more hit and your batting average goes up to 400 and you sign a million dollar contract.”
Eager to “stuff” my poems and improve my batting average, I submitted to workshop one semester a serial poem based on the immigration experiences of my Irish grandparents. After discussing two or three in the series, Phil urged me to title the poem. I said I was considering, “The Irish in America.” Phil said, “Who are you, James Michener?” We laughed. Even I had heard of James Michener. “Very ambitious, very ambitious work.” The poem was awful, of course, but I wrote poems off the energy of that single comment, “Ambitious,” for years.
In those days it was true for the majority of Levine’s Fresno State students that Poetry lived on the East Coast, if not in England, and we lived on the not-quite-West Coast. Crappy luck. Except Levine lived among us, too. He’d lived among those like us in Detroit. He continued to live in Detroit in his poems and continued to live in Fresno in real life. By choice. We were delighted when he complained about his “private school” students after returning from one of his east coast teaching gigs. I’m not making too much of this when I claim that what Levine’s work in the classroom and on the page did was stir our spirits out from under the crush and devastation of the ordinary, ugly, and poor, and because of that, poetry became possible for us. Because of Levine’s subject matter, his prosody, his humor, his anger, his allegiances to and alliances with the political and social underclass, his students found not only a way to speak, but were reassured of their right to. The courage and confidence we’d been in danger of losing—to observe the world, criticize it, mourn it, praise it, analyze it, create and recreate it—was restored. And it became clear that if we chose to, and worked very hard, we might just make poets of ourselves, as Philip Levine had. Literature that had once seemed largely inaccessible or irrelevant to me and to my peers suddenly seemed necessary—ours for the taking and, most astonishingly, ours to make.
One story about Phil that I’ve doled out to only my nearest and dearest over the years happened while I was his student at Columbia University in 1981. Phil was then the age that I am now. I honestly don’t know how strange it was for him to be teaching at an Ivy League, but for me, to be living in the dormitory that my grandmother had once cleaned at one of the most prestigious universities in the world made me both wildly happy and incredibly nervous, as if I could be found out and kicked out at any moment. Phil’s appearance that year provided me with a touchstone, a sort of footing, though he treated us all the same and behaved in the classroom exactly as he had in Fresno. A poem once came up for workshop with the phrase “Habla espanol?” Bizarrely, I’d managed to pick up no Spanish, either in New York where I’d been raised, or in California where I’d finished high school and gone to college. “What does that mean,” I asked, “Habla espanol?” “Do you speak Spanish,” Phil answered. “No,” I said, “that’s why I’m asking.” Phil dropped his head down on the workshop table and laughed. As if I had made an absurd and deliberate joke, which I hadn’t. When I realized my gaffe, I suffered a moment of panic. I had exposed my ignorance, my inexperience, and an apparent ability to flaunt both.
I was not, after all, thrown out of the hallowed halls of Columbia University. Nevertheless, the memory made me wince for a decade at least, and for years after, when I was finally willing to tell the story, I told it with some embarrassment. We are all of us breakable, but the unformed thing is especially fragile. There is a tenderness to most young people. I am gentle with my students because Mr. Levine was, in every essential way, gentle with me; I attend to their poems with seriousness because Mr. Levine attended to mine with seriousness. Writing of his teacher, John Berryman, Phil comments on Berryman’s ability to “devastate the students’ poems without crushing the students’ spirits.” Alas, there is no poet or teacher good enough to teach someone how to survive a life, much less a life of poetry. But Mr. Levine comes close. There is only one Philip Levine: just my luck.