Phil Levine died on Valentine’s Day. How sad. How dis-heartening!
I feel strongly about this wonderful poet, this Central Valley-California poet. A great man. An important writer. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his poems, and served as Poet Laureate of the United States 2011-2012.
I wanted to remember all the moments I spent Phil Levine. When I was with him, it was as if he had all the time in the world and we were old friends— even though we weren’t. I chatted with him at his poetry reading in Berkeley about the things that disturbed me about the Bay Area poetry scene. The fragmentation. He agreed. Said he was more comfortable reading in LA or New York. I had a leisurely talk with him one day, probably 20 minutes or more, while waiting for the shuttle bus at a hotel near The Dodge Poetry Fest. He wanted to know what I thought about poetry. He listened. That’s what I mean.
He had just given an unforgettable reading of They Feed they Lion in a large tent at Dodge the year the Poetry festival met at Duke Farms in the mud— 2004. I remember how he broke-open-the-night with that poem, as I huddled in the hay bales in the cold and wet. Here’s an excerpt. Phil always took his time writing “narratives,” often more than a page or two in length.They Feed they Lion 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.
Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch,
They Lion grow.
Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
“Come home, Come home!” From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow. …
…From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.
His poems are lean and strong. Every word is working hard. He was so unassuming in person, yet seemed not to suffer fools. I wrote to him in 2005, offering to drive to Fresno if I could study with him— to tighten up the poems I was writing for my book, Untold. He wrote me back immediately, and said he wished me well, but had no interest in taking another student. “I have a good beginning on a new book, one that I believe in, but at my age it takes a lot out of me to write decent poems.” He was 77 at the time. Six years later he was Poet Laureate.
In 2012 He read in San Francisco at the JCC. I was there. Here is the link:
*Richard Tillinghast shared this wonderful video on Facebook:
His dry sense of humor, his wonderful poems. Enjoy.
Phil, we will miss you.