Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Philip Levine, RIP

While not quite as flashy as other poets, Philip Levine carved out quite a career for himself in a fairly unassuming way.  He considered himself a Detroiter, despite having left the city years ago.  He also portrayed himself as a working-class poet and generally a political progressive, though much of his life was spent as visiting professor of poetry at various top tier universities. (He was actually Poet Laureate from 2011-2012.)  This isn't meant to tear him down, but simply point out the contradictions inherent in artists who keep playing up their working-class roots, as they inevitably stray from them.

Here is a nice obituary from the Detroit Free Press (Levine died on Valentine's Day 2015 at age 87).  I can't guarantee the video will always play, but at the moment it is set on Levine reading his poem "The Last Shift," which apparently has never been collected in book form (it is in Michigan Quarterly Review from 1986).  There is also a nice piece in remembrance from The Paris Review and the probably uncollected "She's Not Gone" published in The Paris Review in 1980.

Here is a list of his published collections (not counting Selected volumes):
On the Edge (1963)
Not This Pig (1968)
Pili's Wall (1971) (more of a very short chapbook)
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)
One for the Rose (1981)
Sweet Will (1985)
A Walk With Tom Jefferson (1988)
What Work Is (1991)
The Simple Truth (1994)
Unselected Poems (1997)
The Mercy (1999)
Breath (2004)
News of the World (2009)

There is a fairly long gap from News of the World to the present, and we know Levine was still writing (as he has a couple of poems in the Winter 2014-15 edition of Ploughshares, which I will have to try to track down soon).  I suspect his editor could pull together one final posthumous volume, which would probably be worth peeking into.

As it happens, I have New Selected Poems, which came out in 1991, and covered -- reasonably well -- basically all of his individual volumes through A Walk With Tom Jefferson.  There were no poems from What Work Is, which personally I thought (at the time) was trying a bit too hard.  I suspect I would be more open to the poems in it now (and I did like a few from that collection).

I kind of let the other collections pass me by, though in 2011 I picked up News of the World from Powells (the one in Chicago), presumably around the same time that I was trying to sell off quite a few of my books.  After I heard of Levine's passing, I decided to order Unselected Poems, and get the rest out of the library.  I am still somewhat surprised that there is almost no Levine at all in the Toronto Public Library, but virtually all of his poetry collections are in the UT library.

I came pretty close to going on Saturday (adding even more stress to a day in which I always seemed to be running late), and I went today (Monday).  I really thought some enterprising English grad. student would have beat me to the punch, but no, they were all on the shelves, and I checked out everything from Sweet Will to Breath.  So this week I will have a chance to really dive into his work.

I know there was a poem or two I was strongly considering for my transportation poetry anthology, and I'll try to dig that out shortly, and I am sure I'll find another one or two that really catch my eye as I work my way through his later collections.

So I have found my list of transportation-related poems by Levine.  In the bus category, I selected "Coming Home from the Post Office" from What Work Is.  In the car category, I choose "Coming Home, Detroit 1968," which is in They Feed They Lion.  If you scroll about halfway down, the poem is reprinted here.  Finally, in the airplane/air travel section, I was hoping to anthologize "Salt."  This was published in Poetry Magazine, all the way back in 1979.  It turns out that it turns up in Unselected Poems and it may well have been published in One for the Rose.  In any case, it can be read here.  I think of these three "moving" poems, "Salt" is probably my favorite.

At the moment, I don't really have anything profound to say about his work, other than I enjoyed reading it when I remembered to make the time.  He had a long, productive and seemingly happy life. RIP.

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