Author Study Guides - From the National Book Foundation Archives

Interview with Philip Levine

Born in Detroit, Michigan on January 10, 1928, two-time National Book Award winner Philip Levine first began composing poetry at the age of 14, inspired by the flowering of a mock orange bush he had purchased with money he had earned washing windows. "I looked on the work my hands had wrought," he recalled later, "then I said in my heart, as it happened to the gardener, so it happened to me, for we all go into one place; we are all earth and return to earth. The dark was everywhere, and as my voice went out I was sure it reached the edges of creation."
It was not until he had graduated from Wayne State University, however, that he decided to become a poet, after spending several years working at a succession of monotonous, back-breaking, dangerous jobs at factories in Detroit.
Four years later, in 1954 he married Frances Artley, a gardener, and the following year he received his MFA from the University of Iowa, where he taught before joining the faculty of California State University in Fresno in 1958.
The author of 20 collections of poetry, including What Work Is, which won the 1991 National Book Award for Poetry, he has won many other awards as well, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and an Award from the National Book Critics Circle.
The father of three, he remains dedicated to writing poetry "for people for whom there is no poetry...the people I grew up with who brothered, sistered, fathered, and mothered me, and lived and worked beside me. Their presence seemed utterly lacking in the poetry I inherited at age 20, so I've spent the last 40-some years trying to add to our poetry what wasn't there."

Diane Osen: I know that you first discovered your voice as a poet in your backyard, when you were a kid. What led you to poetry as an adult?

Phil Levine: It was a freshman composition class. A teacher named John Sinclair asked to see me. I had handed in a long personal essay, and he said to me, "Have you ever thought of becoming a writer? You have much more talent than I do, for example. I'm talking about a gift for writing."

I was elated and stunned. Shortly thereafter, I read Stephen Crane's poems -- they were the first poems I had read on my own that really excited me, though I got tired of them in a week -- and then read T.S. Eliot, and found his poems extraordinary. I had never seen the modern city in poetry, and it suddenly occurred to me that I lived in a modern city and that the poetry I might write would be very different from the poetry of William Cullen Bryant and Longfellow and Poe, that I had read in high school. I might find it useful being me, having been born in an industrial city and having grown up there. So I immersed myself in the whole tradition of poetry in English.

I didn't know anything about how poets lived, but I had a feeling it would probably be difficult making a living doing this stuff. On the other hand, both my mother and my twin brother were very enthusiastic and supportive emotionally. It wasn't until I graduated college that I began to think I had some options. I had a notion that if I didn't over-use my mind I could keep it for writing, so the kind of work I looked for was largely physical work. I did factory work, worked on construction, drove trucks, out of superstition. Then, at the age of 22, I found myself with some money that I'd saved and no financial obligations, and spent a year doing almost nothing but writing. I had decided I was going to be a poet.

DO: Who were some of the most important early influences on your voice?

PL: My first poems, the ones I wrote when I was very young, were inspired largely by the rhythmic structure of the Bible and the rhetorical structure of evangelical preaching, which I loved to listen to on the radio. I loved the language they used, and the high seriousness, and the way they structured their spiels. When I came back to writing, I was much more cognizant of the movement of traditional English poetry, Eliot being an early sponsor of my work. Robert Lowell was another powerful influence; I could hear in him an American talking to other Americans, very seriously, very musically, very lyrically, but still talking. In Hart Crane, too, I could hear this speaking voice. And when I looked at Lowell and Crane, I could see the immense formal control; they were able to do things with traditional English structures and rhyme that were very difficult. Then I looked at William Carlos Williams, the most important voice I came across, and I didn't see any of that, and I wondered, Why is this so extraordinary? I had to dig another level deeper, and hear how his exploiting the natural resonance of each word created forms that never existed before. I was intrigued by his use of people speaking, by the idea that the vitality of the spoken voice could be captured in poetry. There was something magical in Williams that I was striving for, but I doubt I ever quite got it, to be frank. I have been a more controlled poet.

DO: What Work Is is distinguished by the many vivid portraits of ordinary people that emerge from the poems. How did you come to be interested in working people, and how do you go about creating the speakers and characters who figure in the book?

PL: I had never encountered the people I worked with in the movies, and for the most part, factory workers don't exist in popular literature, either. It occurred to me that they ought to -- and that I should do something about it.

Some of it also had to do with just falling in love with certain men and women. I'm not talking about romantic love. It's so obvious that they're unique and irreplaceable, and so there's always this desire to make them available to other people. In many cases, they are people I met who taught me things that proved permanently useful.

For example, "Tom Jefferson", in my poem "A Walk with Tom Jefferson," is an amalgamation of several people I knew. It's my best poem, I think, and it's about an imaginary walk the speaker conducts with an elderly black man through a bombed-out neighborhood in Detroit. I wrote half of it within two or three days, and stalled. I didn't fret over it; the truth is that I'd sought some different characters, and as I shaped them they began to bore me, so I dropped them and stalled. Then I remembered a conversation I'd had with a man on the day I'd walked through that neighborhood. I remembered a very moving remark that he'd made, and I looked at my poem and realized I had left it out. The remark was, "That's biblical," and I suddenly realized where the poem was going to go.

Rilke used a phrase that first intrigued me 30 years ago; he wrote about "spilled religion." My sense of it had to do with the failure of formal religion to hold our enormous sense of religiosity. When the vessel of formal religion cracked for me, the religion poured out over the objects and people I encountered. I have a deep belief that we encounter what we might call the eternal -- if we encounter it at all -- minute by minute, in ordinary experiences. The angelic is all around us, in ordinary people; it's up to us to figure out that what seems ordinary is in fact divine. So that's where my allegiance is; I'm not interested in poetry that strives to rise above the everyday.

DO: Did you intend, as you were writing these poems, to create a book?
PL: I don't write poems with books in mind. When people ask what my next book is about, I answer truthfully that I don't know; I'll have to see when it's done. I only write poems one at a time, so I don't see the connections between them until I have about 30 or 40 poems. I didn't really see that What Work Is was going to be about work until I wrote the poem "What Work Is." By that time I was maybe halfway through the book, and once I saw what it was going to be about, I went back to my poem "Burned," which I had started writing at least 15 years earlier. It was actually the last poem I wrote for the book. What that underlines is my greatest virtue as a writer: I'm enormously patient.

DO: What place does What Work Is hold in your writing life?
PL: It liberated me from the obligation to write about work anymore, although I know I will go on, as other events and people revive themselves in my mind, and write other poems that have to do with work. And I'm constantly surprised by how many people read my poems. It was very thrilling to discover, for example, that I had all these fans in Canada, who saw in the quality of my work the quality of their own lives.

I'm working on another book now, but I haven't reached the point where I can say what it will be about. But I have a deep belief that the ideal appears before us in actual form, and that will always be the subject of my poetry, because nothing is higher. It is the most significant thing.

Readers who want to learn more about Philip Levine are encouraged to seek out some of the books that have shaped his writing life:

USA by John Dos Passos
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
The Collected Poems of Hart Crane
Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
Spring and All by William Carlos Williams
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson
Southern Road by Sterling Brown

Books by Philip Levine:

On the Edge 1963
Not This Pig 1968
Pili's Wall 1971
Red Dust 1971
They Feed They Lion 1972
1933 1974
The Names of the Lost 1976
Ashes: Poems New and Old 1979
7 Years From Somewhere 1979
Don't Ask 1981
One for the Rose 1981
Selected Poems 1984
Sweet Will 1985
A Walk With Tom Jefferson 1988
New Selected Poems 1991
What Work Is 1991
Bread of Time 1994

-- Interview by Diane Osen