Philip Levine Feted Tonight at Cooper Union

By Neal Comment

“You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.”

philip-levine.jpgTonight at 7 p.m., the Cooper Union is hosting a birthday tribute to poet Philip Levine that just about every poetry-themed group in the city is sponsoring: the 92nd Street Y‘s Unterberg Poetry Center, the Academy of American Poets, Cave Canem Foundation, Poets House, the Poetry Society of America and Poets & Writers (along with Levine’s publisher, Knopf.) Among the scheduled readers and speakers: E.L. Doctorow, Edward Hirsch, Galway Kinnell, Yusuf Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds and Charles Wright, just for starters.

And he didn’t merit this widespread affection just by surviving until his 80th birthday. “Phil Levine has meant everything to me as a poet and as mentor/friend for the past 25 years,” says Kate Daniels, another of the evening’s featured celebrants. “Though we grew up in vastly different worlds—his: mid-century, first generation, Jewish, working class Detroit, and mine: baby boomer, white working class, segregated South—his powerful vision of the social, cultural, and economic forces that create injustice and oppression, setting people against each other, helped me to understand the sorry conditions of my own very different life, and to find a kind of
rough beauty in my family and friends, as well.”

“Phil was an amazing teacher,” concurs Malena Morling, “generous, honest, sweet and funny as hell. I remember floating out of his classes at Tufts, having laughed for two hours and at the same time having been awed by his brilliance. As a poet he has written a staggering number of extraordinary poems. Regardless of how many times I have read a particular poem, I always find a new layer of connections and a depth of compassion that is startling.”

Daniels adds that there’s nobody like Levine in American poetry except maybe Whitman, especially in terms of a focus on work and workers. “But Whitman wrote without benefit of the 20th century’s consciousness of Freud and Marx,” she observes. “Even at 80, at the beginning of this bizarre new century, Levine continues to write and publish poems that have something to say to us about the place of work in our lives, our need for work, and the many ways in which the powers that be conspire to ruin us through meaningless labor or too much work.”

Of his creative process, Levine has said, “You get yourself into a state where what you are intensely conscious of is not why you wrote it or how you wrote it, but what you wrote. You just read it as a piece, as someone else might read it, and you see where it’s alive. If that voice that you created that is most alive in the poem isn’t carried throughout the whole poem, then I destroy where it’s not there, and I reconstruct it so that that voice is the dominant voice in the poem.”

(quote from one of Levine’s finest, “What Work Is“)