For a brief introduction to his work, listen to U. S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine read “What Work Is” on the PBS News Hour, here.
Philip Levine is one of those poets whose clarity of vision is so fierce his technique often goes unnoticed or uncommented upon. We assume the narratives and character portraits in Levine’s poems compel us forward because they are so vivid, and they are. But it is Levine’s complete mastery of the tightly controlled free-verse line that determines how these poems progress and takes them beyond storytelling.
His first two collections still showed the influence of the poets writing in traditional forms who first drew him to poetry. His later collections, although often described as very free free-verse, never lost that early sense of exacting attention to the use of meter to hasten or slow the pace of language, and to shaping the line into rhythmic units that move the reader through the experience of the poem. This attention to pacing and line forces us to linger on whatever word or image the poet wants to draw to our attention. Done with subtlety, as in Levine’s case, and we don’t even notice what the poet is doing unless we go back and reread the poems.
Levine is one of those poets whose work appears so effortless and natural that its effect reaches us before we notice how he achieves his effects. Levine is not one of those poets who writes to draw our admiration for his technique; his technique is at the service of a larger sense of purpose
Levine has Whitman’s yearning for the possibilities of the dream of American democracy, but it is tempered by the experience of having held down brutal, spirit-breaking jobs from the age of fourteen, and having lived first-hand through the experience of how such work can pound the hope out of people. He is our post-industrial, post-World War II, post-Vietnam Whitman. Although he’s witnessed the mistakes, messes and downright catastrophes that followed the optimistic dreams of the 19th century, he still hasn’t abandoned hope or passion. He’s just gotten so mad he has to weep.
This is not to suggest he’s lost tenderness toward the world. Quite the contrary. The Mercy isn’t just the title of one of his collections and the name of the ship his mother emigrated to America on; it is what he calls down to earth in each of his poems, not from any god or idea of god, but from our own capacity to feel compassion for one another.
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