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Philip Levine

philip_levine1When I heard of the death of the poet Philip Levine, I thought of his brother, Ed, who wasn’t mentioned in the New York Times front-page obit. I’d never met Ed, but I remember the way Philip talked about him. It was with love, of course, and with respect for the way Ed made a good living for himself as a businessman, a far better living than Philip, as a poet, ever could make. Still, Philip, sometimes referred to as the Poet of the Proletariat, professed that he had what he needed — a nice sport coat, a pair of pants to go with it whenever he was invited to a fancy occasion, and enough in his bank account for him and his wife to travel wherever and whenever they wanted to. In the poetry “industry,” that’s rare.

On that day in Brooklyn Heights many years ago — I interviewed him in advance of his appearance at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival — he talked too of growing up in Detroit and then going on to teach college in Fresno, California. “Yes,” he said, “Why not leave one shit hole for another.” We also talked about his poetry, of course, and specifically about his collection, The Mercy, which was the name of the ship that brought his mother to America. The opening lines of the title poem:

The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
Eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.”
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
“orange,” saying it patiently over and over.

The poem reminded me about the randomness of life. What would have happened had she not been able to take The Mercy, or if the Scot had never taught he the secrets of ordinary fruit, or if much later she had drummed some sense into the twin who wanted to be a poet: “Son, poets don’t eat bananas or oranges, just cat food and noodles. So don’t follow your dream.”

Because that never happened, Philip went on to record what no one else was writing about, the gritty factory floor and its legacy, and a world view shaped by that legacy.

I still think of the night he opened the fifth season of our poetry festival in Farmington, Connecticut. It was an uncommonly brisk June evening, and when he took the podium, he wrapped a scarf around his neck and said, “Everyone here was so nice to me. They told me how to get here. They told me that there would be a large and welcoming crowd. But no one told me I’d freeze my ass off.”

I presumed at that moment that his brother Ed faced no such discomfort back in his warm and wealthy Detroit suburb.

Remembering P.D. James

I am late in weighing in on the death of P.D. James, whom I knew in two ways — as a devoted reader of her Adam Dalgleish novels and as a colleague in a writers conference in Key West many years ago. I remember that, walking to a panel discussion, she took my arm andContinue Reading

A Week With Roya in Italy

  A few years ago, the director of Fairfield University’s MFA in creative writing called me into a meeting on Enders Island, where we held our residencies. He’d also summoned fellow faculty member Roya Hakakian. Each of us had been scheduled to deliver writing seminars in about thirty minutes’ time. Michael C. White told usContinue Reading

Goldfinching: Four Ways to Experience a Masterpiece

The endurance course titled “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s modern 784-page masterpiece, tests the standard of making every word count. I won’t argue here that she did. The ending alone — a long discourse on the Meaning of Something or Other — may inspire a reader to ask, “I’ve come call this way for this?” OnContinue Reading

Klinghoffer and Artistic Freedom Die

If you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry or any combination of these, the recent tragic aria sung at the Metropolitan Opera House should make you shiver. Those of us who create for a living already face sufficient obstacles – the demands of the work itself and the fickle nature of the marketplace immediately come to mind.Continue Reading

25 Books I Love To Hear (Part 1)

I listened to my first unabridged audio book in 1989 while commuting. In all over the last 25 years, though that commute ended long ago, I’ve heard more than 200 novels, memoirs and nonfiction books. Brilliant actors such as Henry Strozier, Barbara Rosenblatt, Simon Vance, George Guidall and John McDonough have made great books jumpContinue Reading

Fearing a Poet’s Power

Ricky Greenfield died last month. He was an accomplished businessman who, steadfast in his intolerance, became my literary benefactor. And for that I remain grateful. Many years ago, Greenfield bought the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, a weekly that circulated around the state and once — in the golden age when people actually read newspapers — hadContinue Reading

Make Lunch, Write a Book

How do books come about? The most common way is when a writer gets an idea and then slaves over that idea for anywhere from ninety days (the remarkable achievement of memoirist Carlos Eire, in “Waiting for Snow in Havana”) to a decade (Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”) or more. Another method of creation:Continue Reading

The John McPhee Reader

John McPhee’s work appears in nearly every writing class I teach. I offer it as a prime example of the carefully constructed and compelling narrative, though I have little interest in the subjects he writes about. I was never curious, for example, about the geology of the Grand Tetons or the intricacies of cattle brandingContinue Reading

Writing, Italian Style

They’ve gone. They’ve packed their laptops, narratives and memories of a week together on the Amalfi Coast. Here, they read and critiqued (with love) each other’s work. They laughed and cried and hugged and, when parting, swore to stay in touch. We all ate meals so irresistible it seemed we could raise funds for theContinue Reading