Poet Laureate Philip Levine

America’s street-smart new poet laureate has a few choice words to say about a lifetime of experience with good librarians–and some bad ones

November 14, 2011


At age 83, Philip Levine has been appointed 2011–2012 poet laureate consultant in poetry by Librarian of Congress James Billington. He took up his duties October 17, opening the library’s annual literary season with a reading from his work. “Philip Levine is one of America’s great narrative poets,” Billington said. “His plainspoken lyricism has, for half a century, championed the art of telling the simple truth—about working in a Detroit auto factory, as he has, and about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives.” Levine is the author of 20 collections of poems, including most recently News of the World (2009), which the New York Times Sunday Book Review described as “characteristically wise.” He won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth, the National Book Award in 1991 for What Work Is, and in 1980 for Ashes: Poems New and Old. Born in Detroit in 1928, Levine succeeds W. S. Merwin as poet laureate. He and his wife, actress Frances J. Artley, divide their time between Fresno and Brooklyn. Levine spoke by phone October 19 with Leonard Kniffel of the American Library Association. What follows are excerpts from that conversation, edited for clarity.

AMERICAN LIBRARIES: How did you feel when you were asked to be poet laureate of the United States?

PHILIP LEVINE: Well, at first I was very surprised. I wasn’t home, and there was a message on my machine saying that a man named James Billington wanted to speak to me from the Library of Congress. When I called back, I said to myself, “I’ll bet he wants my advice on who should be the next poet laureate.” That’s what occurred to me because of a) my age, and b) a long history of political radicalism, you could say. I didn’t know how that would go down.

He got down to the facts very quickly when he came on the phone. He said, “I would like to invite you to be the next poet laureate.” For about five seconds, maybe a bit longer, I thought, “Do I want this?” and the answer came back, “Yes.” It was a curious answer in my head. I felt like, if you don’t accept this you’ll kick yourself forever. Maybe it was three seconds. [laughter]

On his duties as poet laureate:

The bare‑bones obligations, which are very small, in fact: A reading in October, which I did on Monday [October 17]; the choosing of two American poets sort of in mid‑career for the Witter Bynner Awards and introducing these poets at the Library of Congress; a reading with the poet laureate of the U.K., Carol Ann Duffy, in Chicago in March, I think; and then a lecture or a reading in May. And so I thought, “Jeez and you get $35,000 and a $5,000 travel stipend?” I thought, “Oh, I’m not going to be overwhelmed by work.” So then I thought, “Hell yeah.” [laughter]

On doing a special project of his own design for the Library of Congress:

I haven’t worked out the details with the library. I would need a lot of help with this. I approached him about it when I finally met James Billington. He seemed like a very agreeable man, and I described a couple of things that I was interested in, but I didn’t get a chance to talk to the people who would have to supply me with a lot of help to carry out this project. So until it’s really accepted, if it is accepted, no announcements. And you know, the world is not waiting breathlessly to hear what I say.

On visiting the Library of Congress as poet laureate:

I had been in the Library of Congress three times, but only once in the Jefferson Building, and I had either forgotten or never seen that sort of great hall there, where they had a big reception after I read. I took no part in the reception because I was upstairs signing books for over an hour, and by the time I was done I had no handwriting left. But I had re-met some people. A woman came up to me, looked at me, and I knew she had been my student and I said, “How you doing?” She looked different, much better actually, married, two kids, and still writing. And a woman came up to me with my yearbook from Central High School in Detroit, and there I was with a full head of hair. And, you know, I’m a twin. My twin brother was there. He looked so bad there in the photograph; it didn’t look like him. I’m afraid mine was a good resemblance. [laughter]

On using libraries as a youngster:

When I was quite young—I would say 7 or 8—about once every month on a Saturday my mom would take me and my twin brother to the Parkman branch of the Detroit Public Library. If she was looking for books herself, we would rummage around and find something for ourselves, and I would say it was probably once every couple weeks or once a month, but it was a pretty regular thing. It was a lovely building, and it was very quiet in there and even though we were fat mouths, both of us, we learned to respect the silence.

Then we moved when I was 12 or 13 to the outskirts of the city. My mother bought a house; it cost $7,000, can you imagine? After we’d been there about two years, the city rented or bought a space on Livernois—what had been some kind of a store—and they created a small library. I would say once a week would be the least amount of time I went there, because they also had a lot of magazines that I couldn’t afford. World War II was on, and I was a kind of news junkie, and the Detroit papers were pretty bad, but the photographs in Life at that time were extraordinary, and for me Friday—I think it came on Friday to the library—that was a very exciting moment for me. I would never miss; I would always be there to see Life magazine and see the photographs in the magazine and find out what American right-wingers thought of the war.

When I really wanted to find something that I had trouble finding, I would just take the bus to the Woodward streetcar and go to the main branch. Once I started college, Wayne [State University] had a pretty skimpy library, but it wasn’t terrible. The thing they did have, which was fabulous, was a collection of 20th-century poetry, the Miles Modern Poetry Room.

On his early years as a budding poet:

The poets of Detroit, not just the ones from Wayne, we had a schedule of meetings in the Miles Modern Poetry Room. I believe it was on Thursday nights, like the first Thursday of the month during the school year, and a couple of poets who weren’t students would come as well and even a couple of faculty members who wrote poetry, or what they thought was poetry. Well, everything we wrote at the time was what we thought was poetry. And we would meet there; usually we had a theme, usually a poet. Somebody did a thing on Robert Lowell. I did a thing on Wilfred Owen. Somebody did a thing on Archibald MacLeish. Nobody did anything on 19th‑century poetry; it was all fairly contemporary.

This guy Theodore Miles had taught at Wayne and gone into the Navy just after Pearl Harbor and had been killed, and he willed his library to Wayne. His widow worked in some administrative capacity, and I suppose she helped establish this room, and there was money put aside to keep it up to date. So if you were a habitué of the place, you could request a new or recent book and the library would provide it. It was just terrific. The librarians at Wayne were very nice. They would aid and abet your searches, and this isn’t always the case.

On a bad experience in a research library:

There was a period of my life when I had trouble with librarians. The worst librarians I ever encountered were at Harvard, Columbia, and Florida State University. I had real trouble with those people. I think some of them had come to identify their own physicality with the book.

For example, at Florida State, my wife was teaching there. We’d just gotten married, and supposedly, as her spouse, I had privileges to check out books. I was given a card, and every time I went to check out books, I got in trouble. They didn’t want me to check them out in the capacity of a faculty member. My wife was in the drama department, and I was finishing a master’s thesis on the odes of John Keats, a degree from Wayne State University. I’d finished my coursework, and that’s all I needed, and they didn’t have everything but they had enough for me to write a decent thesis, I hope (I mean I never looked at it after I did it).

There was actually a time where I had to struggle with a woman, tear the books out of her hand. Obviously some of these people were helpful and some of them were not. Somebody called and said that eight books that I asked for that were crucial to my research were in. I’m re-imagining the number is eight; it might have been 10. I go there and the woman who’s always been giving me a hard time is there and nobody else. I sigh. I go up to her and I tell her about the phone call. She tells me the books aren’t here. “I don’t know why that woman called you. Do you know her name?” And I said, “Yeah.” I gave her the name. “Oh, no, she wouldn’t have done that.” In other words, she’s calling me a liar. And then I see on a shelf behind her back, down near her back on the floor, the books. I recognized them because I’d used them at Wayne. I said, “They’re right there, ma’am,” and she said, “No, they are not.” And I went around the goddamn desk there and grabbed them. She was close to hysterics. And I said, “They’re not your child, honey, they’re books.” I was really sore, and I stomped out without even checking them out. I just walked out. That was the first time I really had trouble with a librarian.

On stealing from libraries:

I’m a respecter of libraries. In fact, not long ago, maybe 10 years ago, a student showed up in class with a book stolen from a library. I knew it. I’d been using it in the library at Poets House. It was Hard Labor by Cesare Pavese, and not bilingual, all translations by William Arrowsmith, a fantastically good book. I had xeroxed a couple of poems and brought them to the class and we talked about them and he shows up with the book. The book’s been out of print for 20 years and that version maybe even longer. He had the hardback, and I went up to him and I said, “Can I see that a moment?” And he tried to not let me see it. He knew what was happening. I said, “You took this from Poets House, you son of a bitch.” And I said, “If you don’t take this back, I’m going to flunk you and I’m going to call up and make sure . . . or go over there.” And he took it back, and then I got a thank-you from Poets House.

On two more bad experiences in academic libraries:

Harvard had a book on the Spanish Civil War that Tufts did not have. I was teaching at Tufts, which is only a mile and a half or so away. So I go over and I look in the card catalog and I had my faculty card from Tufts and I go to check out the book. Uh uh. “Oh yes, you can check this out, if, and only if, you bring a letter from the librarian at Tufts explaining that they do not have the book and that you need it for some sort of worthy purpose connected with your teaching or your research.” And I looked at this guy and I wanted to throttle him.

Then the Columbia one: My selected poems were going to be published and I was searching for a cover. In my mind I had an idea of what I wanted. So I went to the Columbia library. I was teaching at Columbia at the time, and I found a book that dealt with the holdings of a museum in Berlin before World War II. The book was printed before World War II, so who the hell knows what’s still in that museum.

There were two copies there and in that book was a relief, I guess you would call it, of a bird, and that bird was just like the bird in one of my poems. I was looking for something like that, something ancient and lovely but strong—this is Egyptian art—and so I take it up to the desk and try to check it out. “Uh uh,” says the woman. I think, “Why not?” She says, “We can’t even let it out for a day because somebody else might come and look for it.” I said, “There’s a second copy.” She goes to look in her catalog. “Yes, this is true, but there might be more than one person.” I said, “This book hasn’t been looked at in 37 years, ma’am. You know perfectly well.” The book was in German, by the way. So I go to the higher powers. I’m allowed to take the book out. I want to show the cover to my editor, and in order to do this I have to leave a credit card and my driver’s license. Also, should we decide to use it, they hand me all these forms—that I would have to get permission, not from the museum but from them, to use their picture of the art. I said, “What? You don’t own this.” And then I shut my mouth, I just shut it. I said, “Yes, of course.” I said, “You know, it’s late in the day.” “You can have until 10 tomorrow morning.” You know, the generosity here is just fantastic: “You can keep it overnight.”

I take it to my publisher, who says it’s perfect. “Perfect, Phil. Yes, it is the bird in that poem.” And then I tell him about paying. He says, “I can have a photographer here in 15 minutes. We’ll just photograph it and we“ll credit the museum in Berlin.” So I waited. They photographed it. I took it back. I said my publisher didn’t like it. Yes. I lied. [laughter] And it’s there, it’s there on my selected poem, published sometime in the ’80s. I have a new selected poems, so that one’s out of print. But it’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful bird.

On his local public librarians:

The library in Fresno and the library in Brooklyn, they’re terrific. I like the way they’re run. The fact that you can reserve books via the internet, that you can go through the whole thing. . . . Fresno County Public Library has vast holdings, and they’re incredibly generous about it, and it’s very easy to renew the book via the computer. I’ve taken to giving a lot of books to the libraries.

There is a library north of San Francisco [Coast Community Library]. I was invited by this library to give a poetry reading to celebrate the opening of this library, which is a private library because this county didn’t have the money or the population to support a public or even a county library, but the citizens got together and built a library, and they supplied computers for the young kids especially to use. The one thing they really lacked was books, and of course, poetry books. Over the years, I have sent them—I don’t know, 200, 250 books. Those people were, God they were wonderful. They were generous. It was one of the nicest things. I was almost ashamed of what I charged them for the reading. Almost. [laughter]

On his remark that Detroit poets were writing “what we thought was poetry”:

The remark was a little facetious because what all of us are doing is writing what we think is poetry. Even Whitman and Emily Dickinson wrote what they thought was poetry, and it turned out that time has judged it to be good, in their case to be great poetry. I know I write verse because it’s in verse, but is it poetry? Well, hopefully. That’s really all that I meant by it.

Was what I was writing back at age 18, 19, 20, or even earlier in my teens, was it poetry? If it was, it was pretty bad poetry; I can tell you that. I’m not a protégé of Aquinas, so I don’t want to go into whether bad poetry is poetry, and I suppose Plato or Aristotle would say bad poetry is not poetry. I’ve had teachers who have said, “That’s not poetry,” and I’ve said it to students, “That’s prose that you’ve chopped into lines.” Prose has its dignity. We need it. It informs us. It delights us. It moves us profoundly. And sometimes it almost rises to the level of poetry.

It’s kind of a tricky thing about what is and what isn’t poetry. Today, with the varieties of poetry being written in America, it’s almost impossible to give a definition of poetry. I remember when I was teaching a summer program for like three days and I said something like, “Well this isn’t poetry,” and a student said, “Well, give us the definition of poetry,” and I give him the definition. And he said, “That’s poetry?” and I said, “No, that’s a definition of poetry.” And he said, “I don’t understand the difference.” And I said, “Well you can’t define poetry, but it is easy to make up a definition: Poetry is a form of writing, you know, and then go to the specific, the lines of which are happy to be with each other.” I wasn’t that facetious, but I made it clear. I made it clear that as a critic, Coleridge was closer to my heart than Samuel Johnson, although I thought they were both wonderful.

On a recent trip to Detroit, the city of his youth and a lifelong inspiration:

At first it was daunting. Driving into the city and then being driven around and seeing how neighborhoods had simply vanished and how shabby and dead certain areas were that had been very lively and had their own personality and where you might go to hear music or get certain kinds of cooking, food, cuisine, meet certain kinds of people, and you go there and there was no “there.” I mean it was just fallen-down buildings, and I went by the Packard Plant and it was just pathetic. Chevrolet Gear and Axle, where I once worked, was gone, which was a good thing because it was an ugly building anyway. The Fisher building and the GM building, they look pretty good. The Union Guardian Building, on the other hand, is fabulous—that crazy lobby there. Wayne looks great, I thought.

The Detroit Institute of Arts had been enlarged, and it had been changed. It was unfamiliar to me, but it was kind of a discovery because it’s organized in a different way, but I could see why it was reorganized. People were incredibly nice to me. I was there as part of this photography show, and I had written an essay that went into the book Detroit Disassembled. It’s a book of photographs by a man named Andrew Moore, and they are incredible photographs, and I have a long essay about my view of what Andrew put in his book, and my memories of the place as well, but mainly my memory of the first visit back when I discovered that the place is almost turning into an agrarian heaven.

I have a long poem called “A Walk with Tom Jefferson,” which grew out of a visit to Wayne to take part in a retirement party for one of my old teachers. That was in the ’80s, maybe ’85, somewhere around there. I spent a lot of time just walking around. People told me I was crazy, it was not safe, but nothing happened to me, and I met some terrific people.

Detroit meant everything to me. I was shocked, you know in the ’40s, by the first riots [1943]. I was stunned. You know, I was going to school with black kids; they seemed to be getting along pretty well, but the kids didn’t create the enmity. And then I thought that the citizens had learned something from the agony of that, and I’m sure a great many of us did because what had happened was always there.

As I got older I was working with lots of black people, and sometimes they would bring the subject up and we’d talk about it. I especially remember some women that I worked with once talking about what happened. They were older than I. So it was shocking in the ’60s to discover that we had practically the same police force that would take black men out and just shoot them, and then you would get that kind of crazy rebellion, which in some ways was something magnificent, or so I thought when I wasn’t there.

I went back shortly after that. I realized, even though I was going through neighborhoods where I had lived, that I was clearly identified as what I was: white and middle class now and part of the problem. So I had very mixed feelings, mainly sorrow.

When I went back this time, I began meandering. I met a lot of people who were very hopeful about the city. My host, a woman named Nancy Barr, who runs the photography and print section of the Detroit Institute of Arts. She was very upbeat and very positive, and I met people who had moved back to Detroit. Some were writers, some were artists. It’s a different city. The city of my memory, the arsenal of democracy—because I really came of age during the Second World War and during this kind of full employment in a city just flush with money and nothing to buy back then, almost no building of housing, cars weren’t being manufactured—became a city of good times. During the war, Detroit was one big party on the weekends. I loved it. I would take the bus downtown—and you could get a job.

When I was 16, I was doing factory work in the summer. I would just go to a factory and lie and say “I’m 19,I need a job until I get drafted” or something. “Oh yeah, sure.” They didn’t care what age you were. They just needed some hands. So I was flush with money—for me—and I went to the great dance halls on Woodward Avenue and tried to pick up ladies, and girls. [laughter] I really loved the city. It had its own character. It was tough. I felt a lot of anti-Semitism from a very early age; of course, Father Coughlin was on the radio all the time.

Because of that, I started to train as a boxer, and I wasn’t that good. My coach, who was very good, had been the amateur champ of the U.S. middleweight, training for the 1940 Olympics that never happened. He advised me to find another art form. [laughter] But after working with him for a couple years, two or three times a week going to the gym, yeah, in some ways the city was responsible for the kind of stance I took toward the world, a kind of don’t-fuck-with-me stance, you hit me I’ll hit a you back harder than you hit me. I carried that with me a long time.

Detroit was . . . jeez I was so happy and so sad at what’s taken place, but as I look back on it I realize Wayne was the perfect school for me, absolutely perfect. The politics were crazy. I mean it had everything, the full spectrum. It had Marxist clubs and Trotsky clubs. The people who would found the John Birch Society and their children, the people who would go on to found the Tea Party. They were all going there. It was an exciting place, and like any mediocre school, if you snoop around you find the good teachers and you get a hell of a good education.

On still being a tough guy at 83:

I don’t have it anymore. I mean, if I hit you, I’ll break my hand, so I don’t dare hit you. [laughter] Or if I do hit you, it will have to be with my left because I have to write with my right. But I haven’t hit anybody in a long time, although I did in the 1980s. I got in a fight. I was like 60, and I got in a fight in the subway in New York. A guy shoved my wife, almost knocked her down. So I tripped him and threw him down on the floor of the subway. And the guy’s looking at me and I’m pretending I’m 190 instead of 150, and he said, “I know what you did to me.” I said, “You’re supposed to, asshole.” It was during rush hour and the subway was very crowded and that was why he had shoved her, to get in. There were too many people there for there to be a real fight and I was happy for that, and all he did was he got a good distance away from me and called me names, and I laughed. Everybody laughed when he did that. Today I wouldn’t do that. I would ask him to apologize.

Actually nobody shoves us now. You know what happens now on the subway? People get up and give us their seats. I kid you not. Last June a black young pregnant woman got up to give me her seat and I said, “Ma’am, do I look that bad?” and she laughed and said, “No, no, no, take the seat.” You know, I look my age, 83.



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