≡ Menu

Phillip Levine

I thought since I had to witness a whole bunch of snotty poets dissect the working class poets (or lack thereof) on a thread today, I’d have some fun and brand them as they brand folks like me.

First this is the general gist of what they inferred. All white working class people have disappeared. We don’t really exist and so must be represented by Philip Levine and James Wright–two men who didn’t spend as much time in the factory as they spent teaching at leading universities. They wrote about working class people. We were interesting back in the day. We had clout because class and fashionable communism (not the real thing, but the kind you embrace when you take a theory class) prevailed. Now all we got is the “white working poor,” and we all know those fuckers just show up in photos of fat asses in the people of Wal-Mart and as extras in movies that prove it was working class whites who lynched all the black folks, and the rich white elites tried really hard (they really, really did) to stop them Yeah, Sure. Right.

If every upper middle class southern novelist’s family had been as “different” as they are in the novels, there never would have been Jim Crow. So myth number one: working class white folks no longer exist and that’s a good thing because they lynched all the colored folks while upper middle class whites sang Joan Baez songs and went on secret life saving missions with their black maids to the poor side of town. Uh huh…. Fucking spare me. Now only poor working whites exist and that’s a bad thing because they’re really stupid, have fat asses, and vote Republican, and we all know what that means: they must be sterilized.

My own branding iron on artsy white folks: the first thing artsy white people check out are your clothes, your weight, and your shoes. The next thing they check out is what program you were in and who you studied with. Then they check out where you were published. If it’s a rainy day, and they’re bored, they may even check out what you actually wrote (to make sure its what they write, only different–different in the same way).

Artsy white folks call themselves foodies then waste 60 percent of the shit on their plate. Al dente is misapplied to everything. Everything is almost raw. This allows them to think they are cooking things the right way and showing off their good teeth, yet not eating much because all the chewing tires them out and reminds them they need to up their anti-depressants. Upper middle class white artsy folks do not like soft foods. They like crunch and bite, and things you have to chew for hours. They like soup, but only if its “comfort food.” Artsy white folks use comfort food, the phrase, the way pool players call a safety when they have no shot: it absolves them from being branded working poor. When I eat macaroni and cheese among artsy white folks I say: “I’ve had it rough lately. Time for some comfort food.” It doesn’t work for me because I’m husky and I never order anything I have to chew for more than four seconds. I also don’t wear the right pants.

Artsy white folks still hang out with people who fucked and dumped them and gave head to their best friend. This allows them to feel bitter indefinitely, and say sarcastic, bitter things while pretending they are mature and above holding a grudge. This also allows them to feel that they have real and important issues. Artsy white folks “grow apart.” They “move forward.” They “let go.” For some reason they use some of the same terms in romances as they do in business meetings.

Artsy white folks all try to look like William Hurt or the older Jessica Lange if they are over forty. If they are in their thirties, they all try to look a little like a cross between Natalie Portman and Kathleen Keener. If they are really artsy, they all look like Katherine Hepburn playing Joan of Arc in 400 dollar jeans (both the men and the women). There is always someone who looks like Catherine Keener among their friends, and this person is always mean and funny. Artsy white folks keep a rich supply of mean and funny people around them at all times. These used to be their gay or bi friends, but then they realized this was stereotyping, so now all their gay friends are happily married men or women who wear expensive Irish sweaters and really “grock them.” Mark Doty is always on their book shelves. Artsy white folks know enough not to listen to Pachelbel (though they have hidden him somewhere in the house with the one pack of cigs, and the can of beefaroni). They listen to Philip Glass instead, and, sometimes, even John Zorn. They go to Lyle Lovett concerts even if they never listen to country music. They want the whole country to be Brooklyn, Portland, or Austin, Texas. All artsy white folks eventually live in one of those three places. If they can’t, they live in Jersey City or in Nashville.

All artsy white folks can get really conflicted when the cashier says: Plastic or paper? They have different strategies for dealing with it. Some get haughty and say:”you must be joking,” And then hope the cashier gives them plastic. Others say paper and don’t really mean it. Still others look around quickly, say plastic and live with their decision. If they ever shop at Wal-Mart, they wear a disguise, do it in the dead of night, and make amends the next day by walking in the breast cancer or gay pride parade. They are all green conscious people who lived in the suburbs which destroyed the woods and created the fossil fuel emissions problem. Now, because they said oops and want to solve it, they all think they dance with wolves.They moved back to the cities because they realized the suburbs were a cultural desert and unsustainable. You’ll know when artsy white folks are moving back to your urban neighborhood because both the rents and the police presence goes up and everything starts to resemble a slightly cooler version of White Plains, New York.

Artsy white people might even be amused by this post if they feel superior to me (they do, and I agree with them) They know they are the exception. Artsy white people are always the exception. They hate cops and lawyers and the industrial military complex though they are usually involved in some form of litigation and feel “violated” when someone steals from them, and they do nothing to stop the poor from fighting wars for them. They love equating getting ripped off with being violated. They hate cops even though they are likely to call them first, and they deplore racial profiling, yet count any art house immediately to make sure there is enough of a sprinkling of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and cool white people to be worthy of their presence. They are always lauding people of color yet somehow manage to end up with each other–deploring those unenlightened working class whites and Republicans who give whites a bad name. Along with corporate Republicans, they rule the world, but feel really, really bad about it…you understand? After all some day we will all be living in Agamben’s post-identity community and none of this will matter. An artsy white person who likes you can always be trusted to take you to the “real Mexican restaurant.” That’s one of the things I like about them. Artsy white people are all knowing, and always know the real Mexican restaurant. They always know what’s real. After all, they invented it.

Photo by Marco Munoz.

I always liked making things up, improvising, using my “imagination.” I do not remember my dreams because I spend the greater part of my day restructuring the past and fitting it into schemas of relationship and disrelationships, and not to any discernible end. In short, I am always in a dream. Perhaps it is the ends of art I hate–the way it is “valued” rather than integrated into the dynamic of being alive. You have to be careful saying art is for everyone because this is a sales pitch from the creativity experts and another way to make money.

Art is not for everyone. Many people are happy never to have a moment with art if they can possibly avoid it. Hell, I am happy to never have a moment with art if I can possibly avoid it. If you define art as a judgement of aesthetic value, then this is the least interesting part of the experience of making things up, improvising, and using your imagination.This is the morning after when you look at the thing you made and say: “What the hell was I thinking?” Almost everything I have ever made–songs, poems, stories, has elicited this response from its creator. I am disappointed in all but perhaps 4 poems, one story, and a couple of music compositions. I have never liked the poem of mine that is most anthologized: “Ode to Elizabeth.” I know it is the perfect “representative poem”–not my best poem, and, honestly, all it truly represents is a moment in 1980 when the chemical fires in Elizabeth, New Jersey were inspiring Time Magazine to refer to my home city as “grimy Elizabeth.” In the poem I never talk about the chemical fires, and I never argue against Elizabeth being grimy. The whole poem is an answer to one question: given that something is grimy, can it still have value–and not the value of feeling sorry for it, or wanting it to be other than it is–but the value of what no one but a consciousness that has been formed by that place can see? The poem praises Elizabeth New Jersey by saying: yes, it is grimy, and unartisitc, and full of people who have lousy taste in furniture, but I saw Amarcord there, and with a bunch of friends who had no idea about the snobby distinctions between movies and cinema, and we had a true experience of the film. We responded to it: “if art moved us at all, it was with real amazement/ we had no frame of reference.”

Art then that does not delight, move, amaze, or engage one’s most active intelligence is what I call aesthetic bureaucracy–the means that have forgotten their original ends and serve only their own process as “value.” Such art needs experts and gatekeepers, and protectors and advocates. It needs prestigious presses, and “award winning authors.” It makes me ill–not because I have been excluded from it (I have been allowed through the back door of this world, and can flash certain badges such as a New York Times articles on my poetry, featured with Allen Ginsberg, Stephen Dunn, etc) but because I never thought I was insignificant to begin with. I consider my mind, flawed as it is, to be in communion with a living God, and know that I never wrote a single poem or song, or story for “publication.”

Everything I did was out of Lordly, Godly, arrogant impulse to waste time–to spend my time making things up, and using my imagination, and scribbling on my tomb so to speak. Death is coming. it will be our only permanent accomplishment. Everything then, beyond this, is a scribbling on the tomb, a sort of ferocious, and desperate, and, yes, holy/sacramental graffiti. Everything, including how your friends remember you, is a version of “Kilroy was here.”

This personal essay then is inspired by something that happened to me recently. One of my best friends, and former students, Adam Fitzgerald, wrote “call me!” on my Facebook. So, being me, I thought something happened to him, and, being an insomniac who had just enjoyed the only two hours of sleep I was going to get, I called him. He was en route. People in Manhattan are always en route. He was with Bianca Stone and going somewhere, but he wanted me to know that Bomb magazine had said something wonderful about the chapbook we published through Monk Books by Mark Strand called Mystery and Solitude in Topeka. Great! I tried to be enthusiastic, but all I really wanted to do was Google “Long Branch, New Jersey” and remember which president died there (James Garfield). I was a little ill, and a little weary, and the book is beautiful, and the fun part was instigating it, and funding it, and watching Bianca and Adam do all the real work, and seeing the result. Affirmation of Mark Strand seemed beside the point. The guy has had his share of affirmation. I was thinking, “what about Bernadette Meyer’s chapbook, or even more importantly, Ben Pease’s chapbook, which contains one of the best and most adventurous long narrative poems I have read in years?” I was being a party pooper, a role I find myself playing with increasing frequency. On paper I should be thrilled: I am the “publisher” of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and the book I helped bring into being is being lauded by Bomb–a well known literary zine. But whatever this is, it didn’t register as deeply with me as my then urgent desire to remember that Long Branch was once the summer resort of presidents and that James Garfield went there to recover from a gun shot wound and, well, he didn’t recuperate. I attempted to imagine Long Branch then–late 19th century swimming, the anciently sudden and suddenly ancient smell of salt marsh and wave spume. It was a rude way to behave towards a friend. As Shakespeare said: “you treat comfort like cold porridge.” I behaved like my Irish relatives who, when informed that you won the Noble Peace Prize, would remind you that your cousin Pete was a state champion spoon player, and much better looking besides.

Wet blanket? Far beyond that. I realized that achievement to one who has lived all his life in loss and failure, and who has experienced more or less constant rejection, is, itself anti-climatic. The joy exists in the possibility of things–in their perhaps. Years ago, I read at an event called the Paterson Poetry Marathon. I did well, and Philip Levine, the headliner, came over to me and shook my hand and said: “I want to thank you both for your humor and your outrage.” I should have been thrilled. Instead I went into the bathroom and cried because my parents were dead and my grandmother was dead, and everyone who could have been happy for me and who I wanted to be happy for me (the people who stand and wave at you while you are going around and around on the kiddie ride) are dead. I felt desolate, destroyed. So-called success seemed to have all the flavor of cardboard. If no one had come up to me, it would have been worse, of course, but I realized the losses and years of being a tool grinder on the night shift had rendered me incapable of being achievement-oriented. I am possibility-oriented, doing-the-deed-oriented. While I am reading or writing, or playing a piano, all is possible. After that, it’s hard to take anything seriously. If I had to think of truly meaningful moments in my life as a so called artist, they’d be some of the following.

The last time Joe Salerno came over my apartment in Elizabeth with a mixed cassette tape of music he had been recently excited by: it was truly mixed–Hadyn, Mozart, and Charles Ives. We drank saki and talked about music for hours. Joe liked trees the way I did, and I took him drunk and a little unsteady up the block to show him a full grown American Elm (rare after the dutch elms disease of the 40s). I didn’t know it, but the city had cut the tree down that morning. There was only the stump. We held our glasses full of saki. We reflected like two grown men standing over a blown engine. “Well,” I said, “there’s the stump!” We laughed. Joe reminded me of the great Chinese poem in which the poets get drunk and go into the garden to admire the flowers and the flowers lament that they have gone to all that trouble of blooming to be admired by a bunch of drunks. He quoted the poem. We laughed some more. Joe was dying of lung cancer, but he had not yet been diagnosed. Six months later he was dead, and I played that mixed tape for years until it felt apart. The possibility of talking music and poetry late into the night with a friend and neither of you are talking about the art business… that has meaning. It is the not graffiti on the grave. It is the eternity hidden in transience–what Keats best expressed.

Back in 1988: Dave Roskos and I are in Manhattan placing our new magazines Big Hammer and Black Swan in a book store. It may have been St. Mark’s books. Anyway, Gregory Corso is in there talking with the manager, and he’s pretending not to be Gregory Corso, and we’re pretending not to know he’s Gregory Corso, and he leafs through our magazines and says: “I don’t know these guys… Wait, I heard of Keith Sheppard.” He reads the poem by Sheppard. “Not bad,” he says. We place the magazines on consignment and split into the hot summer’s afternoon and we are laughing because Keith Sheppard is one of my aliases, and I am new to the poetry scene and have filled one quarter of my first issue with poems I wrote under aliases (including a nun who is an expert on Hopkins and George Herbert). We have good Mexican food, and meet up with my painter friend Elieen Doster who has hair the color of new pennies. Great day–again, nothing to do with achievement, but with possibility.

1985: I’m with my friend Marco Munoz in a long defunct art gallery called Oroe Electric in Hoboken. The clarinetist Perry Robinson is playing with his father, Earl Robinson, winner of an academy award, and a man who played with Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and whose songs were performed by Paul Robeson and Frank Sinatra. Earl is an old radical and union man and calls me brother when he finds out I’m a tool grinder on the night shift. The party after the event hosted by Susan Shafton, includes a lot of wonderful musicians, including Gary Schneider, conductor of the Hoboken Symphony Orchestra. I am young and arrogant and happy and drunk enough to play piano among them, and sing my songs, and Perry joins in, and Gary likes the way I play piano, and Earl shakes my hand and beams. No hierarchy, none of that stupid, God forsaken, spiritually bankrupt pecking order we call “The arts.” We play for hours–folk music, atonal music, hard bop, weird mongrel versions of all of the above. I am dressed in a cool suit and so is Marco who scats happily along. Joy, art. Not “the arts.” I hate “the arts.” It takes all the fun out of things.

1977: The year my mom died. My friend Huey is over my house, and I am playing a song I wrote. I hear blubbering, and I look over and Huey is crying–this big, good looking jock. he says: “that’s beautiful.” I never had a friend say that to me before. where I come from, it takes great courage and a good heart to say such things openly. 34 years later, it means more to me than getting nominated for Pushcarts. You can put Pushcarts on a curriculum vitae, but its not what makes you create. If it is, then you’re pretty fucking pathetic. Nothing is more pathetic than someone who achieves and is not alive except for their achievements. Such a person is a slave to the wrong master. It is terrible when no one appreciates your art or wants to hear or see or recognize it. It is more horrible when that’s all that matters.

1999: my first year as an instructor at arts high. The students don’t want the class to end and I teach a summer program (for free) in a wonderful place called Rutgers gardens. There are kids playing guitars, and writing poems, and hiking through cedar and bamboo forests, and I am not making a dime, and they are not getting a grade, and everyone shows up every Thursday for no other reason than we are making shit up as we go along, and enjoying the energy of making shit up as we go along. The next year, I have forty kids in the woods–Adam Fitzgerald being one of them. My former friend’s son, Danny Salerno comes by to visit and recites Beowulf in the Anglo Saxon and the girls (and probably some of the boys) all swoon because he is good looking. Later, at the pizza joint we repair to after working on being artists, Danny and Adam get into a huge fight over whether Falstaff or Hamlet is the greater character, and they almost come to blows. I am not there since I have to go to my 4 to 12 shift job in the factory, but I hear about it from the other students, and I am delighted. What teacher would not want 17 year old students almost coming to blows over Falstaff and Hamlet?

I am not knocking people who are achievement oriented. I wish I could feel proud of anything I achieve. I can’t. Even if I won awards, and became a “living legend,” I’d still be short and balding, and full of the griefs I experienced, and I’d still be most excited by a chord progression I accidentally stumbled upon. I’d still miss the people who died and who I loved–which is almost everyone I ever loved. The best thing about being famous would be the money. I’d blow most of it on instruments and art projects, and taking my wife out to eat. I’d give money to artists I thought were unrecognized, and I’d be able to shit on the heads of all the so called big shots who snubbed me over the years. Being “snubbed” is part of “the arts.” I hate the fucking arts. I love the possibility of 40 young people in a field fucking around with paints and guitars. Maybe only one of them becomes well known, but it took all forty to create that one well known artist. Desire is never isolated.

Three years after I started teaching the summer program, the school made it official and put it in doors, with air conditioning, and ruined the integration of painting and poetry and music, and put each in its proper hole. They had the best intentions. I hate intentions. I had only one–to waste time. I was teaching my students how to hang out. Who the fuck died and left the experts to decide what is significant or worthwhile? If no one invites you to the party, throw your own and fuck them! This is what I was teaching. I was trying to teach my students the necessary arrogance of art, and its humility. The humility is this: nothing will ever feel as good as actually doing it–not awards, not achievements, not anything that results from doing it–nothing, and if the other things begin to take precedence, you are in danger. I hate “the arts.” Right now, I wish I knew a good cello player, and one who could wing it, and they’d come over and play with me for a couple hours. Sometimes, while I’m playing the piano, I can hear the cellist beside me playing other riffs. I get excited and I start to dream of the possibility. if a real cellist came over they would want to work towards a goal. A truly accomplished cellist would probably snub me, so a half-assed cellist would do just as well. As my grandmother said: If the picture is crooked, and you can’t adjust it, adjust your head.” My standards are low. A 17 year old student so passionate about Shakespeare that he takes on a 22 year old guy who can speak Anglo-Saxon is as exciting to me as Bomb magazine praising a book I was involved with. Whenever that isn’t true, I begin to feel spiritually sick inside. So my apologies to Adam. What really thrills me is that I knew Adam when he chewed key chains incessantly and played Visions of Johanna 20 times a day. I am happy to see him flourish. It’s like being a parent and watching your kid go around and around on a ride and, suddenly, you realize he isn’t a kid, and he’s calling you up when you’re ill and tired and lonely for a world that was not all fucking achievements and kudos and you ought to wave–even if you’re half dead. I feel more than half dead. Possibility is hard to come by, especially when everything is to a purpose. I believe in wasting time. I am trapped in a goal-oriented, sick America of insane positive thinking and achievement psychosis… someone get me a half-assed cellist. Quick! Someone get me a park and 40 young artists wasting time. I love making stuff, writing, composing, fucking around with my garden. I hate “the arts.”

…“This is the world,”
I think, “this is what I came
in search of years ago.”  Now I
can go back to my single room,
I can lie awake in the dark
rehearsing all the trivial events
of the day ahead, a day that begins
when the sun clears the dark spires
of someone’s god, and I waken
in a flood of dust rising from
nowhere and from nowhere comes
the actual voice of someone else.

-from “The Music of Time”

As we have been trained over decades to expect from Philip Levine, his latest book of poems, News of the World, is an unsurprisingly likeable collection of environmental portraits rendered with acute sensitivity to history and class.  Those who know Levine’s work will find much familiar about many of these poems—and happily so, as his strengths as a poet have resisted dulling over time and profuse exercise.

The spoken quality of this master’s voice and the guileless feel of these poems’ shapes are subtle forces in News of the World.  In the above closure of “The Music of Time,” Levine’s loping parataxis, his casually exacting “someone’s god” and “actual voice of someone else,” his flirtation with negative capabilities—above all else his unique narrative space of a kind of American subaltern—are prominent features of these recent works.  Yet for Levine’s fans and the uninitiated alike, News of the World delivers on the promise in its title.  The real force behind the collection is its gentle insistence on dialogue as a source of inspiration—the interplay between Levine’s liminal yet capacious narrative space and other voices in these poems.  Vital statements, questions, and ironies are threaded throughout in exchanges that begin between a “you” and “I” (which occasionally resolves to “we”) in “Our Valley,” the opening piece, to be sustained in the various voices of Levine’s family and intimates, historical and literary figures, writers, songsmiths, and of course the poet himself.  Whereas in so many works the voices of others become foils for or extensions of the author’s own voice, some of the best poems of News of the World suggest the possibility of hearing “the actual voice of someone else”—with a stress on the actual.

Perhaps nowhere is Levine’s dialogical bent more evident in News of the World than in its third of four sections, which is comprised entirely of prose poems.  This section opens with an overheard exchange between a doctor and a young patient—a prose poem ironically titled, “Fixing the Foot:  On Rhythm”—which is surely what Levine referred to in a March of 2008 interview as “the first good prose poem I ever wrote,” and closes with the book’s namesake.  Many of these fine poems embody such actual listenings and recastings of speech, effectively assuming postures of tenderness, fractiousness, and play—all with Levine’s signature restraint and regard for humanity.   They treat us to the voices that enlarge and enrich our own individual humanities.  What once might have been seen as Levine’s anger and righteousness is transformed into an impulse to listen and share what he hears—an experience that he creates for his readers rather than telling us, ‘you don’t know what ______ is.’  This is a truly engaging facet of the new Levine collection, and just part of what makes these poems well worth experiencing first-hand.

So, while News of the World certainly offers some typical-feeling moves to those familiar with Levine’s oeuvres, it also contains formal variations and preoccupations that will amuse and surprise both his admirers and those who don’t yet know his work.  And most hopefully, at least possibly, we might find “actual” other voices here—voices that waken in us the best and most thrilling aspects of what it means to live.