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To Phil

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Phil and I in the Librarian's Ceremonial Office, before his final lecture as Poet Laureate.
Phil and I in the Librarian’s Ceremonial Office, before Phil’s final lecture as Poet Laureate.

In mid-January, I got a call from Charles Wright to let me know that Philip Levine had cancer. I was shocked–less than a month before, my wife and I had our annual end-of-year get-together with the Levines. We went over to their Brooklyn Heights apartment–Phil’s wife Franny made dinner, and we brought over our usual bottle of whiskey. We ate and drank and chatted away for hours. But for a sore foot, Phil was his usual wonderful self. He cracked jokes, told stories, and made us feel much loved.

I knew him for less than four years–since the day the Librarian of Congress made the call, in the summer of 2011, asking Phil to be the Laureate. I remember going to meet him for the first time, at a Brooklyn Heights café. I tried to be as direct as possible–I knew his reputation as a poet and teacher, as someone who told the truth. But right away I trusted Phil–enough to reveal how excited/awed/nervous I was to work with him in my new job (I’d been at the Library just a few months).

Trusting Phil was easy, though I can’t fully describe why . . . maybe because he was clear about his dedication to the art, and about his enthusiasms in general. Or maybe because he took me seriously, though I was half his age and had grown up reading him. Or because his strong opinions were matched by his self-deprecating humor, in a way I related to. Whatever the reasons, I became completely devoted to him–in my official position and as a friend.

I have many stories about Phil–stories I tell again and again, and continue to learn from. Here’s one: just a couple of months after becoming Laureate, Phil gave a reading at the AFL-CIO headquarters in DC. In front a huge mosaic dedicated to the history of labor, and facing a standing-room only crowd, Phil began with poems about the lives of Detroit autoworkers, including his famous “What Work Is.” Then, twenty or so minutes in, he announced he was going to read love poems–I could tell the audience was surprised and even a little confused. At the end of his reading, Phil offered his heartfelt thanks to the assembled for their work. Then he took questions–when someone asked about policy, he responded by saying something to the effect of: “There are people in this room much better qualified to answer that–I’ve been a university professor for decades.”

This story, to me, captures the essence of Phil. His truth-telling was of a deeper sort: it got down to what was most important, and challenged assumptions. For instance, he was a lyrical master, but his ear was tuned to the sonorousness of everyday speech. He infused the world of his poems, wherever it was and whoever was part of it, with a classical sense of elevation and rhetorical vigor that was nonetheless intimate. He did not romanticize or give easy answers–his “simple truth” was always bigger than that, and instantly recognizable as how we all really live, or try to live, or face what it means to live.

Now that Phil is gone, I want to say to him: thank you for taking on the Laureateship with dignity and humility, and doing the most with every moment you had in that role. Thank you for teaching and befriending so many, who you helped guide and inspire. And thank you for all you said and wrote on behalf of poetry, and for the poems themselves–so singular, and essential.

Comments (6)

  1. A wonderful tribute to Philip Levine.
    His poems live where life is.

  2. Just beautiful. Thank you Rob.

  3. Thank you for this, Rob. Philip Levine’s life and work were The Simple Truth.

  4. Bob, thank you. Dinners with Phil and Fanny have often been life changing and instructive. Much warmth and good cheer exchanged! Perhaps the highlight of my friendship with him was to draw a map of Detroit for the dust cover of One For The Rose. What a gift! Thanks again.

  5. Unfortunately, I never met Philip Levine. After reading Rob’s tribute, I feel touched by his soul. Thank you, Rob, for sharing your story and for putting into words your deep admiration and love for him.

  6. Thanks for sharing your story Rob about a very special man.

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