On April 10, 2012, US Poet Laureate Philip Levine appeared in the Plutzik Reading Series at the University of Rochester. David Krinick, a recent UR graduate, returns to a fistful of words to share his reflections on the reading.
|Philip Levine, Poet Laureate|
April 10’s Plutzik Series Reading diverged from its standard fare, opting out of the intimate Welles-Brown Room’s fifty-person capacity for a mostly-filled Hubbell Auditorium, which can accommodate over four hundred and fifty people. That is the draw Philip Levine is able to produce, and yet, his frank speech and quick wit kept the afternoon’s proceedings free from any over- bearing gravitas that one might expect from our nation’s Poet Laureate. Interspersed between readings of “Soloing,” “The Mercy,” “The Poem of Chalk,” “Ode for Mrs. William Settle” and “Gospel,” Levine drew laughs from us all with candid remarks such as recalling his son asking him, “Hey pop, so how many poems do you have out there working for you?”
His speech, however, seemed a foil when compared with his poetry. What was candid in conversation became simple truths and meaningful observations; what was humorous was spread out into a range of human experience: visceral pleasures, misery and being subject to grinding work. Levine’s work is historical, capturing and reviving fragments of American history through studies of the millions that helped build this country.
You know what work is – if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother…
|“What Work is”|
It is this unblushing free verse and an early life filled with labor in Motor City that earned Levine the title of “working class poet.” He admitted however he is not completely comfortable with the epithet, saying “I stopped doing heavy work when I was twenty-seven,” though playfully adding “I feel comfortable with the middle class, especially when they grab the bill.” Levine’s discomfort may arise from the fact that while his poetry is indelibly stamped with the effects of an industrial world, he has other facets: music, rural contemplation, and as one of his favorite poets, Federico García Lorca, said, “the constant baptism of newly created things” all run though his work.
Before reading “Gospel” he quipped, “I had a cat that was more spiritual than me, had more character than me too.” But regardless of intent or the source of the poem, its isolation and meditative quality speak to another side of Levine’s work.
…So I wander
these woods half sightless while
a west wind picks up in the trees
clustered above. The pines make
a music like no other, rising and
falling like a distant surf at night
that calms the darkness before
first light. “Soughing” we call it, from
Old English, no less. How weightless
words are when nothing will do.
Here is a world of sound and memory. This experience speaks to no one group, but as a sensory experience is open to all.
Finally, one of Levine’s poem’s that struck me most was his “Soloing:”
What a world – when I
arrived the great bowl of mountains
was hidden in a cloud of exhaust,
the sea spread out like a carpet
of oil, the roses I had brought
from Fresno browned on the seat
What a world indeed… The perilous beauty of the Tejon Pass choked with fumes, smog stained roses. What today is commonplace pollution was transformed for me, transfixed by his words.
These images left me in a bleak mood, but also flooded me with memories from hearing of this phenomenon before: Snowboarding in Park City, Utah my friends Chris, Amanda and I were stranded in a yurt while a frozen ski lift forced hundreds to pool into a isolated valley basin. There we met a well-weathered, hard-working couple of Jack Mormons, sipping on Budweiser. After brief introductions, after we shocked them merely by dint of atheism and after complimenting our speech and openness, the husband told us of the unglamorous side of the very resort we were enjoying. Being a child of nearby Pleasant Grove, he was a testament to the birth and growth of the oil sea above his small mountain town. Like the rose in Levine’s poem, he recalled how cars driving through the exhaust clouds would emerge layered in a membrane of soot, how bikers diving through would hold their breath but could not avoid being coated.
Levine revived this memory, not only acting as a confirmation of a phenomenon I have only heard of, but managed to have it grip me through its great and terrible imagery. The poem seems to say, “Look, pay attention.” Levine shows this world is wrought with unending problems, but the love we bear allows us to drive hours through miasma to share in the dreams of others.
David Krinick also reviewed a reading by Eavan Boland last November.