AAK: Why did you decide to become a poet?
Philip Levine: I'm not sure I ever did. I discovered when I was
quite young, thirteen or so, that I got enormous satisfaction from
creating little compositions with words. I don't think I would then
have called them poems. Today I might call them bad poems. When I
started reading modern poetry in college I fell in love with it and
thought, I'd like to try my hand at something like this. And I've been
at it ever since, trying my hand at something like those poems that
AAK: Is there a particular poet who influenced your work?
PL: There've been many. The first was Stephen Crane. His
influenced lasted no more than a week. T.S. Elliot for a year until I
discovered the depth of his racism. Then Auden, Dylan Thomas, Yeats,
Hart Crane, Hardy, Wallace Stevens. I'm constantly reading other poets
so it changes, and it's hard for me to separate influence from
inspiration. The ones who've been with me the longest are Whitman, W.C.
Williams, Chaucer, Garcia Lorca, Cesare Pavese, and Sr. Thomas Wyatt.
What is the most significant source of inspiration for your poetry?
PL: What I read--all those poets and the ones I forgot to
mention as well as the fiction writers I love and what I experience.
AAK: What is the biggest mistake novice poets make?
PL: Too often they're impatient in several ways, impatient to
find a distinctive voice even before they find out what they're going to
write about, impatient to publish before they've written anything that
should be in print, impatient to be noticed before they have anything to
AAK: What is the strangest reason you've ever had for
writing a poem?
PL: I was asked that question by a grade
school student at the Packer School in Brooklyn where my grandson went
to school. I loved the question. My answer: once in 1968, I was living
in Spain with no money and suddenly two grants I'd applied for came
through and we were in the chips, all five of us. It was around my
birthday, so my wife went to Malaga to get me a gift and she came back
with a Pelikan fountain pen and a bottle of ink. I filled the pen, and
then I actually wondered if there was a poem inside, so I sat down and
started writing, and sure enough the poem came out. A great pen.
AAK: What are the uses for poetry? How does it enhance our lives?
PL: I can only speak for myself. Over the years, poetry, and
all literature for that matter, have had different uses. As a young
guy, a teenager and a young man, I learned from books how to become a
person. In my daily life I didn't meet people as remarkable as the
people I encountered in Shakespeare, Chaucer, the Bible, Tolstoi,
Balzac. Or if I did, I couldn't see how remarkable they were. I think
the great books taught me to look closely at people and to listen
carefully to them. For years, I derived enormous energy from poetry.
I'd read a terrific book and walk away with this renewed desire for
life. And of course I was enriched by the words of Whitman and Tolstoi
and Williams and saw my life very differently, began to see what an
enormous gift it was. And I saw the lives around me very differently,
as equal to my own and wonderfully various.
AAK: How can someone
who doesn't "get poetry" get it?
PL: I used to say that
life was incomplete without poetry and one day I said that in the
presence of Robert Duncan, that good and wise poet, and he differed with
me. Some people love Wagner, some people love Verdi, some people love
Charlie Parker and Lester Young, just can't live without them. If
you've given poetry a good try and doesn't do anything for you it only
means poetry is not for you. Maybe Verdi is or Lester Young or F. Scott
Fitzgerald. If there's nothing for you, then you've got a big hole in
your heart. You're missing a lot. If you can't twig to beauty, you're
missing half your life.
AAK: Do you have a favorite poem? If so,
why is it your favorite?
PL: Today, I would say my
favorite modern poem is W.C. Williams' "On the Road to the Contagious
Hospital." Why? Maybe because it has so much love for the tiniest
things, maybe because it's written with such mastery that a 4th grader
could comprehend. The greatest poem, my favorite, written in this
hemisphere, is Whitman's "Song of Myself." Again, such an outpouring of
love for each of us, even those portions of ourselves frequently
despised, such a total and pure love of the self without vanity: "There
is a lot of me and all so luscious." Words to live by.
does the future hold for poetry?
PL: It's like music and
dance. Nothing can kill it, even the best efforts of the worst poets
and critics. People go on needing to hear, to read, towatch, to take
part, to listen. It'll survive as long as we do.
Read another interview with Philip Levine done by The Atlantic Unbound.