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'It's Me, Singing, Gone But Here': Honoring Poet Philip Levine

06/23/2015 04:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

By Isaac Gewirtz, Curator of The New York Public Library's Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature

The Pulitzer prize-winning poet Philip Levine (b. 1928) died on February 14, 2015. His papers, housed in The New York Public Library's Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American literature, will be the source of a small exhibition honoring his work and legacy ("It's Me, Singing, Gone But Here"). The exhibition will be on display in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building's McGraw Rotunda through June 25. The title appears in the 1994 poem "Dust and Memory," a meditation on impermanence, death, and humanity's oneness with nature.

Levine was born in Detroit to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, and after his father's early death, the family lived in near poverty. From the age of 14, Levine worked nights in factories while attending public high schools. At Wayne State University he began to write poetry, encouraged by his bookseller mother. He explained, "I saw that the people that I was working with... were voiceless in a way. In terms of the literature of the United States they weren't being heard... And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that's what my life would be." Like Whitman, he speaks to us with a conversational simplicity and intimacy about what it means to be human and a poet: "Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song / in my own breath." This line appears in the 2000 poem "Call It Music," a loving memorial to the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-1955).

Levine discovered that he was both a poet and a gardener in the autumn of his fourteenth year. One night, in a small forest behind his house in working-class Detroit, he climbed a tree, and began to speak quietly, first to the stars and then to his own hands. As he recalled in his memoir, The Bread of Time (1994), he said to himself, "'These hands have entered the ground from which they sprang'... then I said in my heart, As it happened to the gardener, so it happened to me... 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." Some days later, while lying against a favorite tree, he looked up at the stars and "began to speak both to and of them... I would say rain and moon in the same sentence and hear them echo each other, and a shiver of delight would pass though me... Best were those nights after a hard rain... 'The damp earth is giving birth,' I would say, and then in sentence after sentence I'd go on to list all that was being born within and outside me, though in the dense night I could hardly discern where I ended and the rest of the world began."

His influences were various, but none was more decisive than John Berryman (1914-1972), a luminary of the Confessional School of poetry. Berryman became Levine's "one great mentor" at the University of Iowa, in 1953-1954. Levine recalled him fondly and with deep gratitude: "'Crude bastard' was his highest form of compliment... As the years pass his voice remains with me, its haunting and unique cadences sounding in my ear, most often when I reread my own work. 'Levine, this will never do,' as he rouses me from my self-satisfaction and lethargy... until I make it the best poem I am capable of." A highlight for Levine of his tutelage under John Berryman was Berryman's reading of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Levine described it as "the most memorable and impassioned reading of a poem I have ever in my life heard." Berryman's lectures on Whitman convinced Levine "that 'Song of Myself' was the most powerful and visionary poetic statement ever made in this country. Those lectures not only changed our poetry, they changed our entire vision of what it meant to write poetry in America, what it meant to be American, to be human... Whitman had laid out the plan of what our poetry would do."

Of his own creative process Levine wrote: "I don't so nearly search for my poems as they find me... You have to be there. In some state of readiness and hospitality... I do nothing... You have to be silent and see if the voice will enter you." Certainly, Levine fulfilled his early aspiration to be a voice for the voiceless. His 1991 volume, What Work Is, contains "Fear and Fame," a bitter, raging poem about working in an automobile steel factory. He portrays himself as a sorcerer, an alchemist of toxic, acidic brews which he, after being lowered into a hellish pit, applies to sheets of steel: "A gallon of hydrochloric / steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash / of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm, / metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts, / until I knew the burning stew was done." Levine had no patience for the myth that harsh, manual labor ennobles men and women. To the contrary: those who are condemned to body-wasting labor ennoble their work.

Though his rage at social injustice and cruelty did not flag, as Levine aged, he began to wonder ever more insistently at the mystery of his own being, as expressed in the poem "Scouting" (1990):

I'm the man who gets off the bus
at the bare junction of nothing
with nothing, and then heads back
to where we've been as though
the future were stashed somewhere
in that tangle of events we call
"Where I come from."
...
What is it like
to come to, nowhere, in darkness,
not knowing who you are, not
caring if the wind calms, the stars
stall in their sudden orbits,
the cities below go on without
you screaming and singing?
I don't have the answer. I'm
scouting, getting the feel
of the land, the way the fields
step down the mountainsides
hugging their battered, sagging
wire fences to themselves as though
both day and night they needed
to know their limits.