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Philip Levine’s Lost Poets

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The following is a guest post by Donna Urschel, public affairs specialist in the Library of Congress Office of Communications. This originally appeared in abridged form as an article in the Library of Congress Gazette, Volume 23, No. 19.

Philip Levine photo from the 1950 Wayne University Griffin yearbook (Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)

In the evenings of 1942 on the outskirts of Detroit, a 14-year-old Philip Levine frequently wandered over to the undeveloped wooded areas nearby. There, in the small forest, he composed his first poems in the dark. “I never thought of these early compositions as poems. I thought of them as secret little speeches addressed to the moon when the moon was visible,” Levine told an audience in the Coolidge Auditorium on May 3.

In a lecture titled “My Lost Poets,” Levine, the 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, vividly and tenderly reminisced about his early days of poetry and the poets long forgotten who had a profound impact on his writing. The lecture marked the closing of the Poetry and Literature Center’s literary season for 2011-2012.

Levine said his solitary evening excursions to compose his thoughts would last some years. He found these literary endeavors thrilling because he discovered a voice within the self. “I had no idea it had been there. A voice that could speak of all the things I would never have dared share with anyone,” Levine said.

A high school literature teacher, the “marvelous Mrs. Piperno,” recognized Levine’s interest in poetry and encouraged it. She introduced Levine to the first poet that he admired—Wilfred Owen, one of the leading poets of World War I, who died in action on the Western Front.

In the spring of 1947, as a 19-year-old student at Wayne University in Detroit, Levine attended his first poetry reading. “I remember almost nothing of the event, except for one line of verse and one fact,” he said. The fact: The university library also included the Miles Modern Poetry Room, which held a significant collection of 20th-century poetry. The verse: “When in a mirror, love redeems my eyes,” which was the opening line in a poem recited by its author, Wayne University student Bernard Strempek.

Levine said, “Strempek was a tall, loose-limbed boy, who looked no older than 15. The poem’s recitation was in a voice the likes I never heard in all my wandering in Detroit—the high-tenor version of Cary Grant and a call to arms of a warrior . . . Bernard Strempek was overpoweringly serious about what he regarded as poetry.” Why that one line? Levine said, “I loved the music and movement of the line. I never attempted a mastery of rhythm; I was concerned with narrative and imagery.” Levine also was struck by Strempek’s “willingness to openly acknowledge his narcissism.”

A shy Levine didn’t say a word at that poetry reading, but the next afternoon he decided to visit the Miles Poetry Room. There he found Strempek, who was reading the poem “Abel” by Demetrios Capetanakis. Strempek looked up at Levine and said, “Listen to this, I’ve discovered a new master: ‘My brother Cain, the wounded.’ What an amazing opening. Why didn’t I think of that?” Levine read “Abel,” and from that day he became a fan of Capetanakis, whose poetry was published posthumously in 1947 in the book, Demetrios Capetanakis: A Greek Poet in England. The poet died from leukemia at age 32 in 1944.

Levine soon joined Strempek and other fledgling poets in monthly meetings at the Miles Poetry Room, where they read their own work and discussed poetry. In addition to Strempek, Levine befriended Ruby Teague and Ulysses Wardlaw.

During this time, Levine was obsessed with war poetry. In the Miles Poetry Room he discovered a 1945 volume by Alun Lewis titled Ha Ha Among the Trumpets: Poems in Transit. Lewis, a Welsh poet, chose to go to war only to discover that he did not belong there. He wrote personal and intimate poems of loss. From Lewis, Levine learned that there was “room for tenderness in great poetry.” In the Poetry Room Levine also discovered Keith Douglas, a war poet from England who died on the third day of the Normandy invasion.

In 1948, Teague presented Levine with a poem titled “Ring Song” by Naomi Replansky. She had seen the poem in a publication, thought Levine would like it, and typed it up for him. “I do not believe I understood the perfect justice that Ruby Teague, a gracious, rural Southern Baptist, should bring me the gift of a poem by Replansky, a New York Jewish leftist,” said Levine. He said Teague—despite her manners, genteel speech, and looks—turned out to be a warrior for human dignity, and Replansky, who was appalled by cruelty and greed, was her poet.

Of the four poetry pals, only Levine evolved into a prolific and award-winning poet. Strempek, who published one volume of poetry, died at age 32 in an auto wreck. Levine said that Teague was driven by the need to help others, and that “she left for the wilderness of Latin America and vanished.” He also said that Wardlaw’s pursuit of poetry was “silenced by the vagaries of life.” Levine said, “Back then, I did not know just how much I needed them, or how much they had already given me. I needed not only their encouragement, their criticism, their intelligence and dedication and their soulfulness—for these were powerfully soulful people—I needed their fellowship in our ancient discipline, their belief that we would share in the singular glory of poetry. Where would I have been without that belief?”

About the other writers, Levine said, “Where would I have been without Capetanakis and his strange vision of our origins, without Alun Lewis and the songs he hurled in death’s face, without Replansky and her righteous indignation . . . without the calm and surgical poems of Keith Douglas, without the dreams of all my lost and forgotten poets?”