Political Poet Finds Images Down on the Farm

Nationally renowned poet Philip Levine frequently ascribes animal characteristics to people in his writing.

So it was no surprise when, as the featured reader at the recent Laguna Poets Winter Festival, he announced:

"I have a brother who's a pig, and I envy his ability to trot out to the great banquet table of life and take his share, and my share, and your share. But my character is much more (that of) the fox."

When a man calls his brother a pig, it would seem safe to assume that sibling rivalry--or enmity--is behind the words.

But Levine, 59, said the comment about his identical (but much heavier) twin brother, Edward, was intended as a compliment. He likes pigs, Levine said. In fact, one of his 12 books of poetry is called "Not This Pig."

Winner of the 1980 American Book Award, the 1980 National Book Critics Circle Award, the 1977 Lenore Marshall Award and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Levine traveled south from his Fresno home with his wife, Fran, to give four readings in five days--at UC Santa Barbara, two private San Diego high schools and the Laguna Beach festival.

Levine's poetry, known for directness of statement combined with emotional and philosophical resonance and musical beauty, has influenced many younger writers. A poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, he is much in demand as a performer but does not give many poetry readings.

Earnings from 12 to 15 readings a year supplement Levine's income from teaching writing and literature at Cal State Fresno, where he has been a professor of English since 1958 but has taught only part time since 1975. Each fall, he also teaches at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. In the past, Levine has taught for short stints at Princeton, Brown and New York universities and Vassar College.

Levine started imagining people as animals when he was a small child. "It was something I sensed very early, that different people had different animal characteristics," he said.

As his recent poetry reading went on, his own "foxiness" was revealed as he mingled serious and light poems with short, wicked anecdotes.

Slyly staring down his long nose, Levine kept the 60 or so listeners gathered at the Forum Theater on Laguna Canyon Road intently focused on his words, despite the distraction of a nearby open-air wedding party's rock 'n' roll music drifting in through the theater's thin walls. (Levine's reading was preceded by a poetry reading by Marcia Van Wyck, a Laguna Beach writer.)

Other Personas

As a poet, Levine frequently takes on other personas--including those of people from other eras. "Most of the time I'm not the speaker in my poems," he said. "One time a reviewer noted, with considerable surprise, that I had fought in the Spanish Civil War. She checked the dates and found I was 11 years old (when that war ended), but she didn't budge from her position that I was an autobiographical poet."

Rather than being an autobiographical writer, Levine said in an interview the day after the reading, he is a "political" poet.

Breakfasting in a West Los Angeles restaurant with his wife (a warm, unassuming woman to whom Levine has been married for 33 years) and a reporter, Levine said that while few of his poems are overtly political, many speak to a "deeper politics."

"I don't think a political poet would necessarily tell you to vote--as in my case, he might tell you not to vote at all," he said. However, he added, "I think if you portray American life with some accuracy, you're writing political poetry" that unmasks "racism, sexism" within the culture's fabric. Such poetry "goes to the deeper politics of the society," he said.

Levine once was actively political. From the early 1960s until the late 1970s, he passed through what he calls his "mystical anarchistic phase" when he worked toward social change through anti-war protest.

"I really thought I was participating in something that would change the way men and women thought of themselves . . . that people would come into their own," he said. "That things like money and property rights would be obliterated. That we would recognize that we own nothing, that we are stewards put here to take care of the earth and the animals.

"I had a profound belief that God is imminent in the universe, that there is a portion of us which is God, that we would discover ourselves. . . . That's why the Vietnam War was so painful to me. I really felt like my fellow citizens were killing God, tearing apart landscapes and animals.

"Maybe it was too painful to keep seeing things that way. I don't know what happened to (my) faith. . . . The world just looks different to me."

Disturbed by Current Trends

He is disturbed by some current trends in American poetry and criticism, Levine said.

"I think recent poetry has echoed American life," he said. "I don't think it's an accident that conservative criticism has come into power in the Reagan years" and been voiced in a "denial of the (Walt) Whitman tradition (of the) truly democratic" impulse in American literature and life. "It's hard to think of a time when our country was in greater need of a poetry that would speak politically," he added.

Although his poetry has won Levine considerable fame and modest fortune within the literary world, he still considers himself a "working class" writer. Born and raised in Detroit and educated at Wayne University, he frequently writes poems that draw on his memories of his hometown and of "a succession of stupid jobs" he worked before moving away in 1954.

Family Business

The "stupid jobs" included working in the family business of making replacement parts for cars, being "the chrome-plating guy" in a plumbing parts factory and driving a truck, Levine said.

Then, for a while Fran was the wage-earner, teaching drama at Florida State University until the first of the Levines' two sons was born.

These days Levine is putting together his 13th book of poetry, tentatively titled "A Walk With Tom Jefferson" and scheduled for publication by Atheneum Books in April, 1988.

He lives rather quietly when at home in Fresno, Levine said. There he preserves six mornings a week for writing, although "most days nothing happens--but I set aside the time, I don't muck up the day, I don't listen to the news, I don't tarnish the hours. . . . (Yet) somehow if the (poetic) impulse isn't there, you just hang there like a big dummy.

"I don't know what makes us write, but I know what stops me from writing. Lying is one thing. . . . I separate lying from making up tales" which may express a deeper truth than surface facts, he said.

"I have this obsession with not lying, and . . . it has to do with being able to be alone with my (poetic) voice," he said.

The ongoing mental "talk" that is "the voice of my poems" requires him to be honest so that it can be "heard and recorded. I have to like that voice, to trust it" in order to write well, Levine said.


When Nellie, my old pussy

cat was still in her prime,

she would sit behind me

as I wrote, and when the line

got too long she'd reach

one sudden black foreleg down

and paw at the moving hand,

the offensive one. The first

time she drew blood I learned

it was poetic to end

a line anywhere to keep her

quiet. After all, many morn-

ings she'd gotten to the chair

long before I was even up.

Those nights I couldn't sleep

she'd come and sit in my lap

to calm me. So I figured

I owed her the short cat line.

She's dead now almost nine years,

and before that there was one

during which she faked attention

and I faked obedience.

Isn't that what it's about--

pretending there's an alert cat

who leaves nothing to chance.

Copyright by Philip Levine, 1987. Published by permission.

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