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Living in Levine

By Benj DeMott

Philip Levine responded to early First of the Months with assonance-first praise of your editor whom he termed a “young warrior for justice in the nut house of America.” That praise was insanely over the top and I proved it to Levine double-quick by screwing up a quote in the poem he contributed to the next First. He gave me dispensation—“Forget it.”—and I need more now since I’m about to ignore his last bit of advice about First. I checked in with him last summer: “What am I doing wrong?” He wrote back: “Ask your wife.” Then he added: “It’s good that First lives on. Maybe fewer words would let in more light & silence.” But, a month after his death on Valentine’s Day, loss means more…

My title nods to the name of a lovely chapter in Levine’s memoir, The Bread of Time. “Living in Machado” looks back on Levine’s sabbaticals with his family in Spain where he learned the language and first encountered the work of the great (impossible to translate?) poet Antonio Machado. I won’t travel as widely here but take this as my trip through the land of Levine—a big country that includes poets he didn’t know, pieces he didn’t write, and a place not on any map.


It was Presidents Day when I found out Levine had died and I’d already planned to watch Heaven’s Gate with my son—part of a push to make sure he doesn’t end up a jingo with a hole in him. Michael Cimino’s once-reviled epic film centers on a small war waged in Wyoming by land barons against European immigrant farmers captained by Christopher Walken and fellow traveler Kris Kristofferson. (It’s based loosely on an actual class struggle that took place in the 1890s.) Long before the final chapter where beautiful loser Kristofferson—back east, in the money but still bereft—gazes on endless waters from a yacht off Newport, Heaven’s Gate felt in synch with the news Levine had crossed his “nameless ocean.” Levine may have been identified as a city poet but the film’s subject and politics placed it in his realm. Cimino’s imagined immigrants under attack at the end of the century are fictional ancestors of Levine’s people in Detroit (or Catalonia). I bet the poet would have felt the actor’s fire in the scene where Walken confronts monied scum who assure him the White House has signed off on their campaign of ethnic cleansing. Walken’s handsome hick isn’t slick enough to act unsurprised by the revelation of a President’s corruption but once he takes it in... “Fuck him too!” Walken’s attitude in this scene reminds me of a figure in one of Levine’s many poems of fraternity (though Walken is narrower across the shoulders):

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.

Levine didn’t always put those curses in someone else’s mouth. He may have mellowed over the years. But the eventual Poet Laureate of America always had a fuck you in his back pocket. He knew that came with his territory (rather than, say, a “Question Authority” bumper sticker) per this commentary on his sojourns in Europe from a 1983 film about anarchism[1]:

One of the things that struck me most when I went to Europe was how fucking law-abiding the people were. And how I broke all the laws. I didn’t break the laws so much because I was an anarchist … it was just because I was an American. I mean, if I came to a traffic light, nobody was there, I went through the goddamn thing. It was just an attitude, you know, What’s the point of staying here? … I found that my European neighbors went crazy. ‘Stay in line,’ ‘Be this way,’ ‘Queue up’ (in England) … And I’d say, Fuck you, you know, first one to the bus gets on … I think it was very American. We are a people who are very smart. We’ve got a lot of street smarts—we know what the law is all about. We know who made it, and how it gets enforced. I mean, I think if you stop the average American, say, What’s the law all about? Did God make it? They’d say, Oh, bullshit, God didn’t have anything to do with it. You know who made it. John D. Rockefeller made it.

Levine’s angle on America probably began to seem out of time to him during the Age of Reagan. And recent age cohorts haven’t done much to restore his faith in his country. In a late interview, he panned millennial Columbia grad students who’d objected to him allowing an unregistered student to attend a Creative Writing seminar. He’d threatened to quit if these punctilious punks persisted in trying to exclude the undocumented learner. (They must have been unaware Levine himself took classes in the 50s with Robert Lowell and John Berryman at the University of Iowa without ever registering at the school, which he couldn’t afford.)


It occurs to me those Columbia brats (or their kind) must have passed right by another stranger/neighbor who could have taught them a lot. Back in the day I often sat on the Low Library steps talking late into the night with my friend Robert Douglas Cushman. Douglas (as he was known to his New York pals) worked for years on a book of poetry, “The City Among Us,” which he finally completed to his own satisfaction just before the cancer he battled for decades showed him the Bronx (where he died in a hospice in 2003). Douglas is in my mind since I just heard the lecture Levine gave to close out his term as Poet Laureate. Do yourself a solid and listen to his moving celebration of “lost poets”.

My lost poet grew up in the Midwest like Levine but Douglas wasn’t a city kid—he chose to become an urban person/poet. Douglas had a world view—a stance that shaped his approach to language and life: “diminish yourself in what you see.” (Levine would’ve twigged to it.[2]) He was that rare Keatsian kind who lived for the sociable (not glamorous life) without ever taking up all the air in the room.

I first met Douglas in the 70s at the West End bar where he hung with my older brother’s crew.[3] When that New York bunch faded away, Douglas found new friends to invite to lunch at ungentrified Upper West side diners where he’d religiously order a burger and a coke, buying the right to converse in public for hours. Over the years, his son Mathew inspired him to cultivate a hundred ways of being fully in New York (though it became harder for him to share his pleasure in the streets and parks and libraries and museums once he became ill). When Douglas realized he’d have to leave his family and his city against his will, he faced the awful—that was one of his words and his poetry makes it sacred—truth. It’s there in the last lines in “The City Among Us,” which evokes the distance that would soon separate Douglas forever from his son Mathew (and the games of life):

Tossing a ball
Mathew, Dalton and Eddie
run farther from me.
And farther still.

Those lines complete a note appended to this poem:

The Afternoon Light

After lunch we took our walk in the park
but soon found a bench,
me getting tired quickly now.

A young father set loose
his fierce stalker of pigeons.
Not far enough away, kids bumped and fell
in the trainwreck from their boom-box.

We eavesdropped on a group of seminarians
disputing the prophecy of numbers.
One would find the mind of Providence
in a dandelion pappus,
a second in the secrets sums of his texts
and another by what he is not,
like the salvagers of Pompeii
who pour plaster in hollows of stone
to discover a face.

A man shouted, his buddies moaned
over the slap of a winning domino.

In the afternoon light, those around us
like the leaves, which had begun to brown,
seem consumed by a continuing brightness.

We talked about her play and old movies
and Alan’s book
and my seeing the Tiepelo drawings at the Morgan
with Janet and Joe

until I fell silent
hearing the voice of Mrs. Covington,
the mother of my boyhood friend.
I hope he’s well.
Among different branches were the sounds
of father unlocking the door
to fetch the morning paper.

His attendant wheeled off an old man,
not waking him.
As others shifted home, our cast of mind
came apart with the sustaining day.

My friend must buy a fish for Alan’s dinner
she remembers.
Walking to her bus, we choke our buttons closed
and stiffen against the cold
that gives to the leaves
a severe beauty.

In the first First of the Year volume (published after Douglas's death), “The Afternoon Light” precedes this poem by Levine.

The Perfect Winter

Behind the Plymouth assembly plant
in East Warren, a clump
of tattered pin oaks and frail maples.
Sunday morning, late March,
the worshippers in dark groups
of two and three walked the long block
from the bus stop. Low clouds
dispersed, a watery sun rose
slowly toward 9 A.M. shedding
its light into standing pools
of stale water. Not far off
a river ran toward another river,
not far my father slept
his final sleep in a room
without windows. Spring punched in
right on time with iron bells
tolling from the bricked steeples,
wave after wave going out
over the acres of cars parked
in rows. I would give anything
to have February back, the perfect
winter of '37, the blanket
of snow unmelted, the dawn wind
trembling the house. My aunty Yetta
comes back in a cab, her face
smeared, her silk hose safe
between her legs. Uncle Nathaniel,
not yet my uncle, rises late
but ready, knowing the nothing
he needs to know, and brushes
his teeth with beer. Outside
snow falls on the bare branches
of the black elm, it mounds
over each link of the back fence
and buries the early thorn
of my favorite rose, a single arched
blade waiting in the nameless waste.

I doubt Levine minded my coupling an “unrenowned writer from the Upper West Side with a distinguished author from Detroit.” And I trust he’d bless my impulse to revisit their twinned City.


Levine’s speech on lost poets elaborated on a theme he’d taken up in The Bread of Time where he wrote about young writers and readers in Detroit who helped him “enter poetry.” But, as a young man, he may have been even more inspired by young jazz musicians he went to school with in Detroit—“Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell, Bess Bonnier, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris were the first people I knew who were living the creative lives of artists...and I thought if they can do it, I can do it too.” I’m reminded just now by Levine’s invocation of Barry Harris of another moment in that jazzman’s history as an exemplar. Back in the 80s I went with my crew to see Harris play with saxophonist Charles McPherson during the closing week of shows at the Jazz Cultural Theater—the performance space/school Harris ran in the 80s until Manhattan rents got too high. (We may have passed the silver Bentley belonging to jazz patroness Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter parked outside on 8th Ave as we headed into the JCT’s un-glam room.) Harris and McPherson bopped us out. What I remember best, though, were Harris’s teacherly raps and music made during the intermission between the headliners’ sets. One of Harris’s students—a ten or twelve year old girl—sat down at the piano and played Monk tunes masterfully. I hope she grew up to live a creative life. And I’m sure Levine would want someone to pass on his respect to her teacher Harris who’s still with us down here below.

A rich piece by Levine, “Detroit Jazz in the Late Forties & Early Fifties: Reflections in Poetry and Prose,” conveys how live jazz left him “feeling happier than he ever expected to feel.” (I found the piece in the NYPL’s Levine archive, but I think he published a version in the magazine Brilliant Corners.) When Levine was in his twenties, his home on Friday nights was the Blue Bird jazz club (which was a true cultural epicenter: Elvin Jones once said his 50s stint there “introduced me to modern music. In a nutshell, that was it.”) Levine hung tight with young beboppers on the come. And he heard culture heroes from Jazz's previous epoch. He evokes how Billie Holiday sounded “after her voice had lost the floating quality that had delighted me with its lyricism, understatement and ease…”

The new sound was different: frank, pained and unrelenting. She was a different singer, probably a different woman, and still the greatest jazz singer ever.

He heard Lady’s Pres a few years earlier. A “big Irish brawler” he met in an English class at Wayne University turned him on to Lester Young:

My friend so loved the music of Pres he arranged a dance at his old high school, talked them into inviting Pres to play. A couple hundred kids, mostly white, showed up for the event, held on a Saturday night and staged in a gym. My friend and I watched from the track, which served as a balcony that night; this was the autumn of ‘46 and Pres was breathtaking. Of course almost no-one danced—we were too mesmerized to even move.

But Young wasn’t made to stay strong in America. Levine tells how he later saw Pres cheat himself and his audience. Levine likened the experience to watching Zero Mostel act out in a Miami night club after failing at stand-up—Mostel had dropped his trousers, grabbed his crotch and yelled that a female heckler “didn’t even deserve this.” Pres kept his pants on (when Levine saw him in the 50s), but he still seemed to be going down to Zero.

Levine celebrated other jazz masters who kept their dignity (without being stuck on it). The first of his many contributions to First was a felt tribute to the uncompromising art-life of Sonny Rollins (“The Unknowable”). Given our rag couldn’t compete with mainline magazines like the New Yorker, where Levine was used to publishing, it seems apt he began here by recalling an anti-careerist moment in the early 60s when Rollins stepped away from stardom to practice his horn on the Williamsburg bridge:

...“woodshedding” the musicians
called it, but his woodshed was the world.

The enormous tone he borrowed from Hawkins
that could fill a club to overflowing
blown into tatters by the sea winds

teaching him humility, which he carries
with him at all times, not as an amulet
against the powers of animals or men

that mean harm or the lure of the marketplace.
No, a quality of the gaze-downward
on the streets of Brooklyn or Manhattan.

Hold his hand you’ll see it, hold his eyes
in yours and you‘ll hear the wind singing
through the cables of the bridge that was home…

The years pass and like the rest of us
he ages, his hair and beard whiten, the great
shoulders narrow. He’s merely a man

after all—who stared for years
into the breathy, unknowable voice
of silence and captured the music.

Levine once mused on sax and aging in a letter:

I never saw Hawkins near the end. I did see Webster. And it was amazing how much he got out of the little that was left. Saw Pres near the end and that was sad. He still had chops but he didn’t care much. You’d hear moments of his genius and then he’d fart around. Too bad Thomas Hardy never took up the sax. At 85 he’d have blown us away.

There’s one other geezer who still plays like a demon: Jimmy Heath, all 120 pounds of him...

Levine was responding to a package I’d sent that included a dub of Coleman Hawkins’s 1966 version of “Time on My Hands,” from Hawkins’s last recording session. Levine preserved the short piece of writing I enclosed with the music. Here it is straight from his archive:

Geezer Music

Adolph Sax, a Belgian, created prototypes of the various members of the saxophone family somewhere around 1840, but it wasn’t until the second or third decades of the 20the Century that anyone anywhere would figure out how to play more than imitation animal sounds and other comedic circus effects on a single one of them. Somewhere before 1920, New Orleans jazzman Sidney Bechet performed the deed on soprano sax, followed by Coleman Hawkins on tenor.

For the next 40 years, Hawkins would be known for a sensuous, often dangerous muscularity of tone and phrase, a signature warmth emanating from chest and belly. He had a “sense of a ballad” as advanced, and as simple, as any hornplayer’s ever, and was a majestic improviser. According to lore, he was the chronological FIRST to ever “tell a story” on a saxophone, and as time went by the stories got longer and more intimate. (Check the ‘39 “Body and Soul,” the ‘43 “Talk of the Town,” the ‘48 “Picasso.”)

In 1966, at his last session, the phrases he has at his command for storytelling are fairly short and unmenacing, and not always perfectly formed (or even sturdy), and they end up often as not with an almost gauzy vibrato like that favored by his acolyte and rival Ben Webster. You can just about hear columns of soundless, pitchless air vibrating, and ceasing to vibrate…sound into silence.

A minute and a half into “Time on My Hands,” the rhythm section drops out, and the for the next two minutes plus, which feel to the listener like five or six or ten—time as perceived being so palpably molded, so altered—the 62-year-old Hawk delivers not so much a story as a valedictory. So little breathing time remains, yet time is his…micro-duration is macro…all time is NOW. It’s not always such a great idea to lean heavily on metaphors, but astro-time implodes, matter too, and Sirius, brightest star in the heavens, becomes a neutron star…a campfire…a matchbook aflame in a skeleton hand. All entropy, all destiny compress the final recitation to a throaty whimper…a final peep.

A poignantly MAGNIFICENT peep, but a peep, then neverending stillness.

The copy of “Geezer Music” in the NYPL has a penned in heading—
“Sent by Benj DeMott”—which might mislead someone. It was written by Richard Meltzer who’s best known as one of the original rock critics.

Meltzer once noted those noise boys “were never as totally, abjectly outside” rock as Beats were to bop—“the music they interloped.” But Levine slips that antimony. He never aimed to come on as an insider, but he got close to players who were living jazz lives in Detroit. In that piece about musicking in his city, he recalls how the superstar of a trio featuring Bess Bonnier and Elvin Jones treated them with respect and the audience with contempt. “Up close Getz looked like a movie star; up even closer you could tell he knew it.” Levine shared reefers with Pepper Adams and hard goofs with Bonnier. (“When a woman saw Bess was blind, she gasped and said: ‘Oh my dear you’ve lost your sight.’ Bess replied: ‘How careless of me.’ Bess said to me: ‘She tried to make me feel like a penny waiting for change.’”)


First’s band of outsiders included another elder Jazz lover who was in the tradition. Nobody came closer to getting the music down on the page than Amiri Baraka. For a long time I assumed Baraka and Levine would prefer to be secret sharers when it came to jazz because they disagreed on other matters. Levine grew up hearing debates between anarchists and Communists and, unlike Baraka, he never yearned for an American Lenin. He was wary, as well, about amped-up “performative” approaches to poetry, which he feared might overwhelm the Word. But I probably overthought what separated these two originals as I realized when Levine emailed me after Baraka’s death: “The last time I saw him we read together in Newark—maybe 2 years ago—& he was amazing. And very dear.”

It’s inspiring to think of Baraka and Levine hanging tight in the Ark, setting an example for their tribes. I’m reminded just now I once planned to use a poem of Levine’s in a piece I tried to write about conflicts between blacks and Jews back in the early 90s. “The Sweetness of Bobby Hefka” begins with a Finnish immigrant schoolboy’s admission of racism in a Detroit classroom. Levine’s twin brother Eddie then asks (“menacingly”) “How do you feel about Jews?” But Bobby refuses any link between his racism and anti-Semitism: “Oh C’mon Eddie...I thought we were friends.” Their teacher intervenes…

“What is it about negroes you do not like?”
Mr. Jaslow asked in his most rational voice
which always failed to hide the fact
he was crazy as a bedbug, claiming
Capek’s RUR was far greater than Macbeth.
Bobby was silent, for a long minute, thinking
“Negroes frighten me,” he finally said,
“they frighten my mother and father who never
saw them in Finland, they scare my brother
who’s much bigger than me.” Then he added
the one name, Joe Louis, who had been
busy cutting down black and white men
no matter what their size, Mr. Jaslow
sighed with compassion. We knew that
before the class ended he’d be telling us
a great era for men and women was imminent
if only we could cross the threshold
into humanitarianism, into the ideals
G.B. Shaw, Karel Capek, and Mr. Jaslow.

Every gen in America has its own Jaslows—Sleeper cells whose fantasies about “the declining significance of race” obscure the legacy of white supremacy. Levine was aware as a child that Nazis were hunting Jews and he grew up fighting back in “the most anti-Semitic city west of Munich,” but he didn’t conflate the situation of Jews in this country with that of black Americans. (He hated what he called the “chickenshit racism” of Jewish neo-cons like Norman Podhoretz.) “Bobby Hefka” ends with lines that limn the gift of whiteness shared by European immigrants upon arrival in America. Years after high school, Levine meets up with Bobby who dreams of medical school but is “driving a milk truck for Dairy Queen”:

...He listened
in sorrow to what had become of me. He handed
me an icy quart bottle of milk, a gift
we both held on to for a silent moment
while the great city roared around us, the trucks
honking and racing their engines to make him move.
His eyes were wide open. Bobby Hefka loved me.

Levine not only saw through white eyes, he refused to not-know the dailiness of black lives:

Detroit, Tomorrow

Newspaper says the boy killed by someone,
don’t say who. I know the mother, waking,
gets up as usual, washes her face
in cold water, and starts the coffee pot.

She stands by the window up there on floor
sixteen wondering why the street’s so calm
with no cars going or coming, and then
she looks at the wall clock and sees the time.

Now she’s too awake to go back to bed,
she’s too awake not to remember him,
her one son, or to forget exactly
how long yesterday was, each moment dragged

into the next by the force of her will
until she thought this simply cannot be.
She sits at the scarred, white kitchen table,
the two black windows staring back at her,

wondering how she’ll go back to work today.
The windows don’t see anything: they’re black,
eyeless, they give back only what’s given;
sometimes, like now, even less than what’s given,

yet she stares into their two black faces
moving her head from side to side, like this,
just like I’m doing now. Try it awhile,
go ahead, it’s not going to kill you.

Now say something, it doesn’t matter what
you say because all the words are useless:
“I’m sorry for your loss.” “This too will pass.”
“He was who he was.” She won’t hear you out

because she can only hear the torn words
she uses to pray to die. This afternoon
you and I will see her just before four
alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box

of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee,
a navel orange secured under her arm,
and we’ll look away. Under your breath make
her one promise and keep it forever:

in the little store-front church down the block,
the one with the front windows newspapered,
you won’t come on Saturday or Sunday
to kneel down and pray for life eternal.

Levine’s best-known poem rooted in the struggle of black Americans, “They Feed They Lion” (which might be re-titled, “Detroit, Yesterday”) is less despairing, though no less aggrieved. (You can hear him read it here.) In Levine’s archives, there’s a short graph about “Lion” titled: “My Favorite Poem By Me.” Levine reviews “Lion’s” literary and social sources, confessing its power lies beyond him: “I wrote this poem 30 years ago and it seems it is better than I can write.” He hears echoes of the Bible, Blake, and (“especially”) Christopher Smart. The poem, he notes, “brings together some of the feelings that obsessed me during the late 60s when our cities were burning and so many of our young men were burning or being burned in Asia.” His “Lion” was inspired, in particular, by an African American named Eugene Watkins whose way with black English gave Levine the poem’s title and refrain. I was familiar with Watkins’ role which Levine once discussed in an interview reprinted in Don’t Ask. (Levine recalled how he’d worked alongside Watkins sorting used auto parts that could be rebuilt from ones that were too badly damaged...

We had two sacks that we were putting them in—burlap sacks—and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words "Detroit Municipal Zoo." And he laughed, and said, "They feed they lion they meal in they sacks." That's exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy's a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn't speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit—I'd gone back to the city to see what had happened—somehow I thought of that line. "There's a poem there," I said. "But I don't know what it is. And I'm just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates.")

But I didn’t quite get what Levine meant when he mused Watkins was his first “mute, inglorious Milton.” That phrase, as many readers no doubt know, comes from Thomas Gray’s classic “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” which touched on the truth careers were not open to talent in 18th Century England (though, as a Marxist critic once noted, the poem naturalized hierarchy rather than protesting against it). Levine’s quote from the “Elegy” underscores Eugene Watkins was born into a social order that would dis him into the grave.


I found Gray’s poem in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics. I quickly came across another famous poem there, Wordsworth’s “Upon Westminster Bridge,” that opened up one of Levine’s. His “Sweet Will” recasts Wordsworth’s London sonnet for mid-Twentieth Century Hamtramck. Back in the USA, he leaves behind the bridge where Wordsworth gazed on a drowsing city and felt “a calm so deep” as “the river glideth at his own sweet will.” Levine’s city vision starts with him stepping carefully over a fellow worker sleeping off a bender on the “concrete, oily floor at Detroit Transmission.” That worker will wake “at his own sweet will,” go back to his punch press and rail against

...the oceanic roar of work,
addressing us by our names and nations--

"Nigger, Kike, Hunky, River Rat,"
but he gave it a tune, an old tune,
like "America The Beautiful"...

Levine’s song is a continent—and a comic tone—away from “Westminster Bridge” but he’s still one of sweet Will’s American kin. Levine’s trip moved me to read more of Palgrave’s Treasury, which, in turn, led me to another American Wordsworthian. I’d thought “movement of mind”—my writer father’s go-to phrase (for at least a few years) came from Mathew Arnold but it’s out of Wordsworth. It seems fitting Levine would start a train of thought that would bring me nearer to my late father. After all, he was the one who first steered me to Levine’s poetry.

I once promised Levine I’d send him a copy of an essay my dad wrote in the early 70s that built toward a celebration of Levine’s “Lion.” But the piece wasn’t easy to locate (as it was published in a British anthology) and I didn’t get the goods to him until after my pop died. He responded quickly:

I was beginning to wonder if it actually existed, but here it is–written in ’73–among other things celebrating my poem as it’s probably never been celebrated before or since. I was very moved…

Levine and my dad shared more than their feeling for “Lion.” Both of them battled (what my pop termed) “the hard man” inside themselves. My dad worried he’d been numbed down as he aged by an impactful politics of culture, but the peak of Levine’s struggle to preserve his humanness came when he was young. At the age of sixteen, after receiving a bad beating, he decided to remold himself:

I joined a Jewish Athletic Center where I could lift weights and take boxing instruction. I look for work that was physically demanding so that my body could grew larger and more powerful. I resorted to the use of my fists when I was provoked. This was totally against my nature which was contemplative and retiring. In other words without knowing it, I had internalized the image of me that a hostile world projected, and I was doing everything in my power to deny it. I had joined the enemy...

Levine even considered a boxing career: “Good thing about boxing—unlike poetry—you find out fast if you’re no good. Nobody has to tell you.” (It was always a hoot to read him on “Levine as boxer”:

I had this great trainer, had been the amateur middleweight champion of the US, & prepared for the 1940 Olympics which were cancelled because of the war. He wouldn’t fight pro—said it was wrong to hit people for money, so he just hit them for fun. His brother was a pro heavyweight, & he could take him apart when the bully brother insisted on beating down his proteges. I was strong & had a great chin, which my man Nate told me wasn’t of much use when all I was doing was getting hit. First thing I discovered I lacked was great balance. Second thing was hand speed. Third discovery came after several solid beatings: commitment. As Nate said, This is no sport to be mediocre at.)

Levine wasn’t destined for a future of scar tissue, but he might have locked on other ways of being a hard guy. Heavy industrial work helped save him from a boss fate even as it stoked his class-based animus. Soul-to-soul transmissions on the job taught him about his own capacity for decency and delicacy:

I remember working at Cadillac with a young black guy from the South. Very young, maybe eighteen, a handsome, strong cheerful fellow. We did things in tandem...The place was so dirty that we changed our clothes in a locker room before and after each shift. I remember one night dawdling in the locker room after work…I heard this odd noise coming from a toilet stall, and when the door opened there was this young fellow, the cheerful one. I asked him if he was okay, and he wondered why I asked. I said I knew it was his first week on the job, he was far from home, maybe it was tough. Right out he said, “I was crying, I’m lonesome. I don’t know anyone, I hate this job.” I said. “We all hate it, it’s terrible work.” In my mind I was saying, “Hang on, young fella,” and he seemed to hear it. He put his hand on my shoulder. It was just a moment. I don’t think that would happen at IBM. I don’t think a man as big and handsome as he was, a man working in corporate America, would just unashamedly say, “I was crying.”

Levine’s tale sent me to look for the passage in Simone Weil’s “Factory Work” where she swears there’s more emotion compacted in moments of empathy on the shop floor (or the clean-up room) than in decades of friendship among the bourgeois. There’s no circulating copy of that essay in the NYPL so I found myself reading in Weil’s journal from her year “among the class of those who do not count...and who will not count (notwithstanding the line of the first verse of “The Internationale.” (“We have been naught, we shall be all.”) Much of Weil’s journal is given over to bare figures detailing her piece work and compensation, but when she sums up what she’ll take away from her time in the factories, she’s on the same page as Levine:

The feeling of self-respect, such as it had been built up by the society, is destroyed. It’s necessary to forge another one for oneself (though exhaustion wipes out consciousness of one’s ability to think). Try to hold on to that one...The ability to be morally self-sufficient, to live in a state of constant latent humiliation without feeling humiliated in my own eyes...

“I’m not worth a thing” says the speaker in Levine’s “Sweet Will.” It’s a confession he doubles-down on, making it over into a Weily affirmation: “Not worth a thing!”


Not that he was dumb about money. In The Bread of Time, Levine recalls how he grew weary of nice bosses. He came to associate their affection “with not getting paid.”

Levine wasn’t sentimental about his fellow workers either—“you don’t leave your wallet in your pants when you hang them up because you shouldn’t tempt people who haven’t got anything.” And early on he’d learned other “hard things” about people up against it in urban situations. He once allowed growing up in the city had made him a “very defensive person.” By way of illustration he told this story about a losing fight (which became material for his poems “Silent in America” and “Thistles”):

What had happened was, a beloved big mouth friend of mine helped this fight to take place. It didn’t have to happen. I mean, there were these two guys, one of them was a university jock-wrestler, and the other was a football player. And they were immense by comparison to me and my dwarf friend. He talked to them in a way I never talk to people that size. You took one look at them and you knew they were ready to kill you for the slightest excuse. So if you’ve got wits, goddamit, use them. Well, he called one a motherfucker. Well, the guy knocked him down and began to kick him. I intervened at that point. People thought, my wife thought of me as being brave and foolhardy. I thought of myself as being an asshole. I said to her. “Not only did he ask for the beating, he needed it.” He needed it right then and there. He didn’t need to get killed…the guy wasn’t going to kill him…he might have knocked some teeth out or something. But the guy wound up breaking my jaw, kicking me in the mouth. But my friend needed it, not me. Because I would never say that to an ape…He went on to make other mistakes like that, to put other people in situations like that. He wised up finally, but it took another ten or twelve years. It cost him a lot. He’d have been better off to have gotten the shit beat out of him. I didn’t need it at all. I had already had the shit beat out of me …many many times.

Levine’s stance here (which he doesn’t “much like”) reminds me of stories shared by my old comrades in First of the Month’s original crew—Armond White and Charles O’Brien. They come from urban working class families and one (retrospective) time, they realized when they were children they’d both had the experience of getting a less than cuddly response upon arriving at home after being bullied by neighborhood kids. Both were told to get outside and fight back. Their parents assumed a boy in tough ‘hoods must learn to stand up for himself or he’d be marked for torment and become a permanent danger to his family. (In Levine’s words: “if you don’t defend yourself, either you are destroyed or you make other people defend you.”)

I think my comrades’ memories of toughing it out in the city figure in their hawkish politics in the post-9/11 era—politics that distanced them from many leftists with more genteel backgrounds/reflexes. Though I wouldn’t reduce Charlie’s or Armond’s post-9/11 positions on terror and patriotism to their past battles with schoolyard bullies. Levine’s example is on point here. I doubt he was ever convinced by First writers who made a case for the war in Iraq. That would have been a stretch for an elderly leftist who’d been a conscientious objector to the Korean War and a lifelong skeptic of America’s military-industrial complex. OTOH, Levine—unlike so many so-called radicals—didn’t presume anyone who disagreed with him about the Iraq war ought to be excommunicated from the left. As the occupation of Iraq was going to hell, he dashed off a light line in dark times: “Everyone on the left got what they wanted: Saddam’s gone and Bush failed.” Black humor, sure, but his joke hinted at his unsectarian side.

Maybe if there were more folks on the left with Levine’s instincts, Armond White wouldn’t be writing for The National Review now. In the aftermath of Levine’s death, it’s natural to wonder again about Armond’s conservative turn. He’s from Detroit and back in the late 80s, he used to cut his homey’s poems out of the New Yorker, saving them for me since I didn’t have a sub. I recall how much he liked Levine’s poem about the birth trauma (in school) of a lifelong learner: “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School (Detroit, 1942).” Armond probably found it easier to follow Levine’s lines from within. And not just because the poet was a model that rolled out of the Motor City’s working class. Struck by the anti-social ending of Eminen’s neo-biopic: Eight Mile, I once thought of writing an essay on Levine’s lessons for the Hip-hop nation, but who needed it after Armond spelled out how Eminen’s original “triumph’ was founded on “the privilege of being white in America—the prerogative to whine about petty shit while leaving one’s ‘brothers’ behind.” It’s surreal to think the Levine fan who nailed white privilege is now at ease with William F. Buckley’s heirs.


Rich shits, twits and their jock-sniffers will always be with us, per Levine:

I can’t imagine what human experience would suggest to them there was a need to change. In their own eyes they are upper class, and they love it up there; they find it delicious, and one of the things that make it delicious is to have us down here but close at hand, where we can observe all the differences between our stations.

That dates back to 1993. But the wealth gap in America between the rich and the rest of us has only widened since then. My own son will grow up closer to have-nots than I ever was as the child of an increasingly prosperous prof. (Though perhaps I shouldn’t make a Picketty excuse for my downward mobility.) My guy is destined to be a scholarship boy, living a life between stations. He already knows what it’s like to be savored from above by little horrors who enjoy bringing home all the things he doesn’t have. When my son was born, Levine put up a prayer that’s taken on more resonance as years go passing by: “May Benjamin,” he wrote, “be a child at peace with himself. That’s the best life can give you. (Ask your father.)” A sentiment that reminds me just now of Uncle Armond’s gifts of the spirit to my son in Christmas Past: The World of Apu, a beautifully illustrated version of Hiawatha—presents suffused with a sense my mixed race boy wasn’t growing up “white in America” but might have a shot at becoming a citizen of an impure, better world.

Levine allowed his own sense of social possibility diminished in recent decades. For years he thought of himself as an anarchist but then (as he said) he bought a house. It was more complicated than that of course. But he mourned his loss of faith in a Someday World. His poem “To Cipriano, in the Wind” memorializes the anarchist immigrant who once taught him: “Dignidad...without is no riches.” He included “Cipriano” in his inaugural reading at the Library of Congress after he was named America’s Poet Laureate. I’m sure he dug the irony of invoking Spanish Anarchism on that D.C. stage.

When I listened again (after Levine’s death) to his call to his anarchist mentor “to come back out of the wind,” I realized there was no moral equivalent in my son’s life to the immigrant worker who gave the fourteen year old Levine his horizon. No disrespect to our President, who’s done more than anyone lately to help American children like my boy feel at peace with themselves, but his historic instantiation of Dignity is marked by large concessions to the given. Take his (fine) speech this month commemorating the anniversary of the Selma march. When Obama averred the Movement was committed to “equality of opportunity” not “equality of outcome,” his presentism traduced the Beloved Community that sparked the social revolution in the South. They were natural-born egalitarians, not wannabe meritocrats.

I’ve laid a lot of Civil Rights docs and Movement history on my kid. And he’s read (and re-read) the chapter in The Bread of Time, “Class With No Class,” about Levine’s boyhood job with a family of American Venerings who personified cupidity. But I thought I’d try to get him into Cipriano’s wind too by pressing Orwell's Homage to Catalonia on him. I probably blew it, though, by nosing around to see if he’d noticed Orwell’s summative reflections on the “mental atmosphere” of Anarchist militias during the Spanish Civil war:

Many of the normal motives of civilized life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. –had simply ceased to exist...However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word “comrade” stood for comradeship not, as in most countries, humbug. One had breathed the air of equality...In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps a crude foretaste of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.

Maybe no book in the end can truly radicalize anyone. It takes an actual community or a soulful individual. Which is, on the real side, one lesson of Orwell’s Homage and Levine’s “Cipriano.”

There’s another Levine-Orwell connection, by the way. A riff in Lionel Trilling’s foreword to the 1952 edition of Homage may have influenced Levine’s self-conception. Trilling wasn’t much moved by Orwell’s “foretaste” of socialism. It was Orwell himself that made him a “figure’ for Trilling. Orwell had the great “virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do.”

I suspect Levine read those words—and took them to heart. He often reflected on what it meant to be a “humble worker” in the field of poetry rather than a genius. When he was coming into poetry as a young man he found out there were even younger poets who had much more talent than him. But not all of them would remain “faithful to poetry.” And Levine learned early what work is.


Levine may have lacked genius and class privilege, but he married well (the second time around). I never got to know his wife, though she fobbed me off sweetly on the phone once or twice when the “warrior for justice” was threatening to become a pain in the ass to her husband. Levine has written about how much she loved poetry. He got into the habit of joking she didn’t write all his poems, only the best ones. I’m sure Franny (if I may) will miss being the reader over his shoulder. But she’ll probably miss his humor even more.

"Bitter is better" said someone once about Levine’s oeuvre. Levine might’ve agreed his angry poems were his hottest, but he didn’t apologize for being a “very merry” guy. I didn’t know how funny he could be until he performed at an Amherst College tribute to my late father a few years ago. I had to press him to do the gig. He didn’t know my pop’s work all that well and I hadn’t yet got him a copy of that ‘70s essay with the bow to “They Feed They Lion.” When we mulled over what he might talk about at Amherst, I suggested he address teaching/learning in different class contexts and/or read “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School.” I added my mom could probably use a laugh or two. That seemed doable to him: “OK, I’ll be funny.” But he didn’t end up settling for easy laughs. His wit had pith and bite too. I remember one tale that challenged gentry in the room who assumed elite academic institutions (like Amherst) were citadels of the best that had been thought and said. Levine told how he found himself one time toweling off in a gym listening to a pair of students at a toney college discuss a cultural event that had exalted one of them. The unlucky other guy was near despair at having missed...The Three Stooges Marathon.

Levine was nobody’s stooge. (“He knows who he is,” said my mother.) Listen to his reading at the Library of Congress and you’ll hear how Levine’s deep self-assurance—bred during night shifts and nine-to-fives when he was naught—enables him to mock himself and our honors-mongering culture: “I want to thank my agent who plans to make me rich...but will fail...I’m deeply honored to be the Poet Laureate of America.—You notice how easily I say that? I say it when I’m on the subway... I say it all the time.”

Right before he ended his reading with a favorite poem of his wife’s about his own family history, he read a poem that invoked losers from Detroit (and Hiroshima) who enabled him to find his voice: “Because we were Midwestern, somebody always had to pay.”

The poem is called “Escape” and it’s one more reminder Levine never forgot those who didn’t get out. That’s why he earned the fun parts of his reading at the Library of Congress. You can feel the crowd smiling along with him then at the oddity of championing a poetic champion of Americans who were least likely to succeed. Together they make a beautifully human music—the sound of the last laugh going down.


1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUSLazUseno

2 I should allow, though, that my late friend Douglas’s favorite poet named Levine wasn’t Phil. Douglas liked lyrics New York poet David Levine wrote with singer-songwriter David Forman back in the 70s. Both Davids were in tune with the demotic City: “I just got back from Viet Nam/I’ve been checking with my old friends just to find out who I am/And the reason I’m calling you Rosalie/is that Shortie says you told him you like me.” That’s from “Rosalie” on David Forman (1976)—the well-reviewed but low-selling solo album that turned out to be Forman’s one shot at pop stardom. I don’t know what happened to David Levine but Forman made a life for himself as a jingle writer and singer before conceiving a new doo-woppy persona in the 90s when he fronted a band called Little Isidore and the Inquisitors. You can find good tracks from David Forman on YouTube along with Mink Deville’s cover of Forman and Levine’s “A-Train Lady” (“I saw you in the window /Checkin' out my mohair /I follow far as you go /I believe I'll find a song there”). But the most tantalizing Forman songs may be tracks from the 1998 collection Largo, which hint at how much he might have given us if more Americans had noticed his gift in the 70s.

3 Back when Douglas was hanging tight with our West End gang, I assumed he was the only poet among us. In the last few years, though, my older brother has been writing poetry and songs—singing ‘em too. The week before Levine died I sent him a poem Tom had written out of his love for the Dominican Republic—the country of his wife and son (whose life has been shaped by his family’s un-royal idylls on the island). I should’ve acted sooner but, for my sins, I worried Levine’s heart might not rise at the prospect of looking into work by another aspiring poet. He’d had thousands of students—forty(!) of them recently contributed to a book of tributes to him. Still, Tom shared a Latin thing with Levine and my brother was writing for the right reasons. On that score, I probably should’ve sent Levine a dub of Tom’s graceful version of “I Surrender Dear.” He ain’t in it to win it and that’s why he lives up to a standard.

Levine himself joked about singing standards. “My Funny Valentine” and “Body and Soul” show up in his poem “Magpiety.” Now that Levine’s gone, maybe that one will serve as his response to Tom and any maker worried they got started late...

are thirty-two
only once in your life, and though
July comes
too quickly, you pray for
the overbearing
heat to pass. It does, and
the year turns
before it holds still for
even a moment.
Beyond the last carob
or Joshua tree
the magpie flashes his sudden
wings; a second
flames and vanishes into the pale
blue air.
July 23, 1960.
I lean down
closer to hear the burned grasses
whisper all I
need to know. The words rise
around me, separate
and finite. A yellow dust
rises and stops
caught in the noon's driving light.
Three ants pass
across the back of my reddened
right hand.
Everything is speaking or singing.
We're still here.

From March, 2015

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