It is unlikely I would have gone on to live my life in poetry, for better and worse, had I not taken a class with Philip Levine in 1985. I was nineteen at the time. I had never met a published writer, or an artist of any kind, and although I had read a small amount of poetry that had moved me deeply — The Waste Land, Howl, a few poems of Wallace Stevens, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas — and had even, for some time, carried around a notebook of my own clumsy effusions, somehow it didn’t occur to me that “poets” still existed, let alone that someone like me could aspire to be one.
I showed up at his class because his last name was the same as mine. It was the first day of the winter semester of my sophomore year, a Wednesday in January, three days after Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural. I went to breakfast in the dark, empty dining hall and came across an article in a student newspaper about a visiting writer named Levine. I had gone to school with other kids named Levine, but their parents were dentists or accountants. My own Levines were a junior high phys ed teacher and a civil servant. According to the article, this Levine was a well-regarded poet. There was a picture of him: gap-toothed, with wavy, unkempt hair, a working man’s mustache, and a nose that suggested a turbulent background. The class met at 1:00 pm in the chemistry building, which was on my way across campus. I had no hope of being allowed in — it was reserved, I imagined, for a small group of sophisticates — but I decided to stop by. A year earlier, I had shown up at a similar class to get a glimpse of Susan Sontag, and was quickly turned away.
The room was less crowded than I had expected. Levine wore tennis shoes and an old raincoat. I recall he joked about a student’s ridiculous handbag, which was clear vinyl inset with colorful plastic fish. The student seemed put off by the remark, and Levine happily referred to himself as a schmuck. He told us he was glad to have taken the job for the semester because he only had to show up on campus once a week and the salary was excellent. “I demanded what they had to pay me and they said, ‘Levine, we can’t pay you that much — you’ve only got a master’s, everyone else has a doctorate and they make less.’ And I told them, ‘That’s why I need to be paid more — you don’t want to make me feel inferior because of my poor education.’”
He asked our names. I told him mine and he said, “That sounds familiar. I have a son who goes by that.” Then he said, “Imagine how I must feel among friends with names like Donald Justice and Galway Kinnell and W.S. Merwin” — he drew out the syllables, as though he were saying “Rockefeller” and “Vanderbilt” and “DuPont.” “Lucky sons-of-bitches, put on earth with poets’ names. And here I am, Phil Levine from Detroit.” Someone asked about the procedure for applying to the class. He glanced around the room and said, “You look like nice people. You’re in.”
When I came back the next week, I was a few minutes late and had to climb over other students to an empty seat. Levine stopped talking and looked over at me. “Levine, you schmuck, get here on time,” he said. He laughed. It was, I think, the first moment during my time in college that a teacher had addressed me with anything like personal regard. I began writing down everything he said. He wasn’t like other professors. He spoke in little jabs, like a boxer, crisp and precise but without any concern for academic refinement. At the beginning of class he bit into an apple and he didn’t stop eating until he had consumed the whole thing, core and all. He was blunt and categorical in his statements. He introduced the class to Hemingway’s notion of a “shit detector.” He pointed to the use of “azure” in a student’s poem. “Question: When is the last time you heard the word ‘azure’?” A few students fidgeted uncomfortably. “Answer: The last time you did a crossword puzzle.” There was something like a collective gasp in the room. We were accustomed to having teachers address us as “the best and the brightest.” This was new. About half the students in class were veterans of the college literary scene and seemed to consider themselves members of a vanguard. Levine didn’t coddle or equivocate. Fake language made bad poems. He mocked pretension. Another student read aloud her poem in a tone full of silences, exclamations, urgencies. The writer’s circle of friends took turns celebrating her. After a pause, Levine spoke. “I heard better language coming over on the bus this morning.”
He seemed uninterested in interpreting poems, which was at first mystifying to a student like me, who had been trained to believe that the most valuable response to a poem was finding something clever or unexpected to say about it. He thought that the right words in the right sequence held a power that was magical and instantaneous. He read poems to us — W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Elizabeth Bishop — with a passion I had never before encountered. His voice was rough and magisterial. Words were alive in him. He read with a clenched jaw and his body almost shaking. He described John Keats’s letters and made clear his sense that the imagination was a sacred place breeding authenticity in words. He insisted that the poem be lived. One student turned in a poem that used the word “lion” a single time, to symbolize power. Levine almost blew up. “Goddamn it,” he shouted, “if you’re going to put a poor lion in your poem, I want that lion to be there.” He seemed to hunger after the texture of reality, which took many forms, but which was instantly recognizable to him. Another student’s poem began: “A window. A baseball. The possibilities.” It was a sparse and, in certain ways, abstract poem. He loved it. He saw a world in it: the object in flight, clean and clear; the suspension of time; the opening of imaginative possibility, of promised lands, however shattered, within the disappointments of the actual one.
Right away, it felt to me that Levine entered my life by the logic of dreams, bringing me to poetry when it was what I most needed, without having any idea I needed it. I had just returned to school following a five-week winter break in Toronto, where I grew up. There was heavy snowfall and bitter cold. My parents were both out of work for health reasons. My father had a spinal injury; my mother had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer the previous spring. They lived in a tiny two-bedroom house they had bought with the hope of enlarging, but construction had stopped when they ran out of money. By then, it was evident my mother’s rounds of chemotherapy had been unsuccessful, though the possibility she might die was never discussed. She was forty-nine years old and I was closer to no one. She spent most of that winter break in bed beneath an old afghan in a cramped room whose only window had been boarded over during construction. One night my father took me aside and told me he had noticed a widening crack in a wall. He was certain that the load of snow and ice on the roof was going to lead to the collapse of the house. He told me he didn’t want to alarm my mother with the news. Nonetheless, he said, he could think of nothing else. He hadn’t slept in weeks.
The first poem I turned in to Levine’s class was called “Racing.” It started with a memory of racing my mother down the hallway of our apartment building when I was six years old. She would slow down toward the end of the hallway to allow me to arrive at the finish with her. “My mother’s days have numbers on them,” the poem began. It was full of shrill writing. It had many of the traits I believed poems were required to include: elaborate metaphor, compulsive vividness, heavy-breathing strains of high music. But it also had, it’s possible, a trace of the inarticulate desperation I was living with. For a year, I had spoken to no one about my mother’s illness, though it dominated my mind throughout every day. I certainly couldn’t speak of it to my father. But I had managed, for the first time, to turn to poetry in an effort to specify emotions that were otherwise too harrowing for me to bear or to confront. Some connection I felt with this other Levine — born, uncannily, just a week before my father — had allowed me to do it. I deeply cared what he would say in class. He took the poem seriously. He was kind. He didn’t patronize me. He told me what he liked and didn’t like. He deflected the criticism of others in the class. He said, “Mr. Levine has work to do, but he has written the first draft of a genuine poem.”
He began one class by asking, “Why do you write poetry?” Several students dared to answer. “To make something beautiful” — “To interrogate the dominant ideology” — “To give voice to the powerless.” The student with the vinyl fish bag offered, “To get the bug out of my ear.” Levine said, “There’s only one reason to write poetry. To change the world.”
He believed it. He believed poetry was the most important thing a person could do, and that poems bore the impulse for collective transformation without which lies and injustice would prevail. He loathed Reagan. He spoke of the crimes that politicians and capitalists had done to language. The right words mattered, he said, because poems could restore meaning to language. Poems were forbidden from lying.
Did some students find him cruel? Perhaps. His commitment was ferocious. He read aloud a poem by a senior, one of the literary stars of the campus. In Levine’s voice, the poem, full of wordplay, ironic jabs, and references to literary theory, sounded spectacular. “Our friend Mr. D. has a flair for language,” Levine said. “He’s written something very smart, very knowing. It’s charismatic and very appealing. It takes pains to show you what a wit the poet is. And if he continues this way, there’s a good chance Mr. D. will never write a poem.”
Week by week, though, it became clear that Levine was enjoying our group enormously, and the class developed both intimacy and boisterousness. Word got around, and visitors would come to sit in. Most everyone in the room was writing better, more ambitiously, more honestly, and Levine celebrated our small triumphs. He often reminded us how much he preferred us to the graduate students he met immediately after our class. “There’s very little talent in that class,” he told us. “Last week a student brought in a poem and asked, ‘How can I make it better, Phil? How can I make it better?’ And I said, ‘There’s only one way to make it better. Throw it away.’”
He was fifty-seven, but he was not famous and his bearing was embattled. “I didn’t find my voice until I was older,” he told us. “It was good for me to have the time to work at becoming a poet, and it would be good for you, too. But by the time I was thirty-five and still didn’t have a book, I’d had enough, and I was in danger of becoming a real asshole.”
Less than halfway through the semester, I returned to Toronto. My mother was in the hospital. I spent the next three weeks in her room. She suffered tremendously. She put up with one monstrous procedure after another in an effort to live marginally longer. I had terrible fights with my father. A stream of visitors came to the room, draining my mother of what energy she had. I had a poem folded in my pocket that I wanted to read to her, but I couldn’t find the right moment. Just before she died, as a nurse was struggling to prod a needle into a vein, my mother turned to me and said, “To hell with it.”
I returned to school. In the dining hall, prior to Levine’s class, I wrote a draft called “Poem For My Birthday, April 17, 1985”:
I have shoveled gravel onto our muddy driveway
To keep the mourner’s cars from sinking,
Spreading the stones with my old hockey stick.
I brought the poem to class. Levine’s presence, his voice, his vision of poetry, had become something of a lifeline for me. After class I went to the bookstore and bought his Selected Poems as a birthday present for myself. It was the first book I owned by a living poet. I had never seen such poems: “Baby Villon,” “Silent in America,” “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” “Zaydee,” “1933.” I was overwhelmed. The work was living proof of what I had been hearing in his class: that art could be made out of forceful, hard-won everyday language; that poems didn’t have to decide between rage and humor, sorrow and joy; that the imagination gave access to a larger life. I hadn’t imagined that one could write poetry as an unapologetic urban Jew — not a tony, long-assimilated German Jew, but one of the more recently arrived, a child of Yiddish-speaking, tenement-dwelling Russian and Polish Jews, shopkeepers and laborers, who didn’t have fine manners, who were over-concerned with money, who argued loudly and ate bad food and sometimes got sick and died young and were inconsolable.
A few weeks later, I showed up to the last class. It was a beautiful spring day. Levine was all smiles. “I’m feeling great,” he told the group. “I just picked up my paycheck.” I brought in a new poem called “My Milieu,” about being on vacation with my parents when I was fifteen. “In other times,” it began:
My parents and I woke early
To eat at a bar,
A ninety-five cent meal
It was, I think, a hard thing for me to have written, let alone to have brought to class: a poem about being embarrassed by my parents;
about being attached to them; about belonging to a family that was gone. The poem ended, “They liked the food, / For them it was / Eating out.” My draft of the poem has my handwritten transcription of the class discussion. One student said, reasonably enough,
“I don’t believe it. It feels pretentious.” Another observed, “It’s about the relationship of the self to particular societal classes.” Levine
responded, “What it’s about is how difficult it is to live, to live as
a young person and then to live as an old person.” He recommended I read Rimbaud’s “Poet at Seven.” He added, “I may be wrong — this poem may be a piece of shit.” Several members of the class challenged the poem for its cynicism. Levine interrupted. “You know, people often call my poems cynical,” he said. “They say, ‘Levine, why are you so damn cynical? Why must you be so cynical?’ And I say, ‘Fuck you. I’m not being cynical, I’m being realistic.’”
After class, I got my courage up to ask him if we could have a beer together. It wasn’t possible that day, he said, but we would find a time to do it soon. He told me I could send him a few poems in the mail when I felt ready to do it. He had given me his honest attention when I needed it, and he would step back and let me be free of his influence when that was called for. It’s what one would hope for, but rarely receive, from a teacher or from a parent. A month later I was back in Toronto. It was a difficult time. That June, I received Levine’s written evaluation of my classwork. It was a more than generous paragraph. Its last words shocked me — “He could make his mark as a poet” — and changed the course of my life.