Philip Levine Is the Reason I Became a Poet
Nineteen years old, in 1992, at Wayne State University in Detroit, where I was a pre-med student, I stepped away from a chemistry experiment taking a long time to turn one thing into something else, and at the campus bookstore I picked up Philip Levine’s New Selected Poems and read the poem that, then and there, ruined the dream my mother and father had of me becoming a doctor.
I like to tell the story of how a Philip Levine poem changed my life. I like to tell it a lot. Sometimes I say the poem is “Belle Isle, 1949,” sometimes, “You Can Have It.” The truth is, I don’t remember which poem it was. That day, I read both. In fact, I went through most of the book, completely forgetting and ultimately not caring about the chemistry experiment I’d left behind.
The next semester, I took a poetry writing course with Stephen Tudor, a kind, reserved Michigan poet who resembled Ernest Hemingway. By the end of the course, Tudor told me he thought Levine would enjoy my poems. A couple years later, Tudor, also an avid sailor, vanished while sailing the Great Lakes—his boat was found, his body was not.
I could not explain, to myself or to others, why, suddenly, I felt I had to write Levine, to let him know my admiration for his poetry. Maybe the sudden disappearance of one poet from my life compelled me. Or maybe, simply, I loved Philip Levine’s poems. Every poet I know loves another poet, but most poets never know how much they are loved. Whatever the reason, I typed up a letter, and, as young poets will often do, I threw in a few of my poems, which were, at best, mediocre imitations of Levine’s.
I told myself that I did not care if he wrote me back, that I only wanted him to know what he did for me. But I did care. And he wrote back—a handwritten letter on yellow-lined paper torn from a legal pad.
I kept the letter neatly folded in my pocket for a week. I read it several times. Some sentences I read more than others, among them, these two:
I am pleased to have been of some use to you in the same way that Wm Carlos Williams & Dylan Thomas & Hardy were of use to me. We poets put the stuff out there & hope someone will find it useful.
His words proved to be very useful. After finishing up at Wayne State, I chose not to earn an MFA, so I didn’t have any more poetry teachers, or a poet mentor, and while through occasional correspondence Levine could hardly become a full-fledged mentor, he did guide me in small but crucial ways.
In a letter dated September 9, 1996, he wrote about his former student Larry Levis, who had died earlier in the year:
I’m editing the final book of my friend Larry Levis, who died in May at age 49 & left his papers in a mess. Do you know his work? Take a look; I think you’ll be astonished. I truly think he was easily the best poet of his generation.
He was right. Levis was easily his generation’s best, and I at twenty-three years old had not read his poems and was about to have my world turned upside down when I followed Levine’s advice and took a look.
Levine urged me to read a number of poets. Once he grumbled about not enough students reading Sir Thomas Wyatt, who died in 1542. I didn’t dare admit that I never read Wyatt. But he wasn’t all poetry, either. In one letter, he divulged a bout he had with neck pain:
Right now, I’m screwed up: pinched nerve in my neck causing all sorts of grief. I went to my son’s chiropractor this morning & he tried to convince me I’d been walking, sleeping, sitting & standing all wrong for sixty years. And then he snapped my neck and stomped on my degenerating spine. I feel only slightly worse.
But mostly, the exchanges dealt with poetry and a poet’s life. I admitted to him my worries about “making it” as a poet. He wrote back:
Our poetry is full of people who weren’t supposed to succeed... No one expected me to make it, including me. I wasn’t that lucky at first: bad jobs, & then three kids I loved & had to make a life for. And a great wife. They believed in me, & I made it one day at a time, a poem, & another poem.
He ended this bit of advice, and the letter, with the following: “My friend, I expect you to make it. You have a story to tell, you have a gift for telling it. Now you need luck & devotion to the task.”
Through his letters, Levine gave me what I needed to keep at the hard, rarely gratifying, and lonely work of becoming a poet, which included steering me away from the influence of his poems over mine and toward the voice he recognized as uniquely my own; he also recognized and acknowledged that what I was writing about—which he termed “the poetry of Arab-Detroit”—was worthwhile. Perhaps most important of all, he told me that I was good at writing poems. He offered up praise, tempering and qualifying it, turning it into advice—but it was, nevertheless, praise.
The same year that Levis died, my mother had also died. I wrote a number of elegies that year, and I sent him a few. Toward the end of that year, which at the time I believed to be the worst of my life, he wrote me the following:
Let me tell you, at 23, I doubt I wrote as well as you. One thing for sure, I had not learned yet how to include so much of my life & the lives around me. That may be partly due to the fact that I grew up on such different poetry. When you get there is not as nearly as important as the simple fact of getting there. It’s not an athletic competition, though there are those who behave as though it were.
Until now, I kept this bit of praise to myself. Telling others struck me as cheap, a kind of name-dropping, patting myself on the back. Besides, it was for me, not anyone else—I needed to hear it—or in this case to read it. Exactly why I needed it, I couldn’t articulate then, though I certainly felt it. But now I can, or at least I think I can. We enter deeply into the judgments of others, and we do so, in large part, because what others think of us matters; their opinions and judgments define us, they shape who we are and how we see ourselves, and they can be sources of pride and humility, or else embarrassment and shame. Plain and simple, we want to be valued for what we value most.
As a young poet, before I came to love the work of many others poets—Audre Lorde, Hayden Carruth, Donald Hall, Lawrence Joseph, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jim Daniels, to name a few—Philip Levine was the first. He was the father, so to speak, of my poetic family. His opinion about my poetry mattered more than any other because I respected his poetry more than any other.
A few years after I sent my first letter to Levine, I ran into him outside the elevator door to the English Department at New York University—and not by accident, either. I went there to see him. I was stepping off the elevator, and he was about to step on. I recognized him immediately, but he had never seen my face, so I introduced myself. It was close to dinnertime and he was heading home from a day of teaching, but he invited me back to his office anyhow, and for a long time—it seemed like two or three hours, but it was probably a half hour, forty-five minutes at most—we talked, and talked. I had worried so much that in person he would not be as generous and kind as he was on the page. Those worries turned out to be unfounded.
Over the years, I’ve met other poets with similar Levine stories, which, in retrospect, does not surprise me at all. He was one of the master poets of the twentieth century, and he was also, apparently, a good teacher and a good person. Others may hold an entirely different view of Levine—the man, the poet, the teacher. It’s impossible to say how I would have viewed him had I been his student or had I gotten to know him not only through letters and poems, but I’ve now come to appreciate that having had such a relationship allowed me to be acquainted with the best Philip Levine possible. With the exception of that single face to face meeting, I knew him the way most people know poets—through written language, which, carefully crafted, can deliver meaning in a way that seems pure and natural, even though it may be anything but. This was so with Levine, and in the end, what more did I really need?
The son of Lebanese immigrants, Hayan Charara grew up in Detroit, Michigan. He earned a BA in English from Wayne State University, an MA in humanities from New York University, and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. He is the author of the poetry...