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Spencer Kornhaber, The Atlantic: The Works of Philip Levine, America’s New Poet Laureate

The Works of Philip Levine, America’s New Poet Laureate
by Spencer Kornhaber, August 10, 2011

The Library of Congress named  Philip Levine, 83, as the new poet laureate of the United States this morning.

The Pulitzer-winning writer’s work has appeared in The Atlantic a number of times over the years, the first instance being the publication of  his poem “Holy Day” in 1973:

Los Angeles hums 
a little tune — 
trucks down 
the coast road 
for Monday Market 
packed with small faces 
blinking in the dark. 
My mother dreams 
by the open window. 
On the drainboard 
the gray roast humps 
untouched, the oven 
bangs its iron jaws, 
but it’s over. 
Before her on the table 
set for so many 
her glass of fire 
goes out. 
The childish photographs, 
the letters and cards 
scatter at last. 
The dead burn alone 
toward dawn.

Hear him read the poem here (it’s a download).

In 1999, he was interviewed for the magazine by Wen Stephenson. In the exchange, Levine spoke about the downside of poets acting as performers—an interesting take, given his newly public role as poet laureate:

I don’t think that performance has helped American poetry. I really don’t. I think a number of American poets have almost ruined their careers by going out and getting that kind of attention — going from campus to campus and being sort of awe-inspiring for an hour and a half, and feeding on the adulation. The process of writing poetry depends on being alone in a room, and being comfortable being alone for long periods of time — almost reveling in solitude and slow time. I’ve had friends tell me, younger poets, that when they came back from their early reading tours they’d get very depressed. I guess they were waiting for applause as they picked up pen and pencil. But there is no applause.

He also talked about how his ideas about the power of language changed over time:

To be truthful, when I began writing poetry I thought language could do anything. And I thought I could do anything with language. I’m talking about a guy who’s sixteen or seventeen years old, saying, “I’ll master this crap, and I’ll do anything that’s necessary.” But as I got older, I began to realize, both in daily living and in what I read and what I wrote, that I was often coming up against the limits of my ability to use language, or my ability to comprehend language.

I also became more and more aware of how much idle chatter went on in the world. It seemed to me there was so much prattling, and that the world was full of meaningless words. In my second book, there’s a poem called “Silent in America” (written around 1966) that was built around the fact that I was mugged once, and I got a broken jaw, and I couldn’t talk because my jaw was wired together. I spent two months listening. I just listened to everybody: my children, my friends, my wife, my brother. They were boring the hell out of me! I became aware of how language was being used — usually not to communicate but to disguise, to obfuscate. It was only two months of my life, but it was a powerful experience.

There’s plenty of his work in our archives. A few selections:

“He Would Never Use One Word When None Would Do” (Jan 1999)
“The Return” (Sept 1998)
“The New World” (Nov 1997)
“Magpiety” (Nov 1994)
“Ode For Mrs. William Settle” (Oct 1993)

Image credit: Library of Congress / Geoffrey Berliner


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