My Dinners with Philip Levine

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden famously claimed—famously and perhaps disingenuously, for if nothing else poetry makes people poets.

In the fall of 1991, in my junior year at Stanford, I happened to see a flyer on campus for a reading by Philip Levine. My only brush with poetry before college had been the ill-fated impetus to answer an essay question on my application for early acceptance to Harvard with rhyming couplets.

“Needless to say, that hopeless bard / never walked to class through Harvard Yard.”

Fortunately, my vain experiment in verse hadn’t stopped me from taking a workshop my sophomore year at Stanford, which left me with just enough of a bite from the poetry bug to want to continue.

But then a permanent infection set in thanks to Philip Levine. Having never heard of him before that night in Kresge Auditorium, I was riveted by the voice in his National Book Award-winning What Work Is, his New Selected Poems sharing the stage for having been published that same year.

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Letter to Stephen Dunn

Dear Steve,

I’ve had to look away for most of three decades now—away from your work.

“Why.” That’s the title of a poem, a poem in your book Here and Now, I read this morning.

“Because you can be sure a part of yourself is always missing,” the poem begins.

When I read your poems now, like when I read them regularly decades ago, when, for a brief time, I was your student, your friend, I discover a part of myself that, if not exactly missing, had been nagging to be recognized, acknowledged, expressed.

“If the imagined woman makes the real woman / seem bare-boned, hardly existent…” you write in “The Imagined,” and I nod, no, not nod, exactly, but soften, warmed by the companionship of a poem that knows me better than most people do, a poem that says what I’ve experienced but would never, could never say aloud.

At thirty-six, Steve, I married. You know this. I visited you once before the wedding. I said, she doesn’t read poetry. We won’t have that to talk about. You can find plenty of people, you said, to talk poetry with.

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Scott Cairns and his Idiot Psalms

Guest Post

By Angela Doll Carlson

W.H. Auden has said, “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of Scott Cairns. Whether they are the words from his poem, “Loves”:

I have kissed
his feet. I have looked long
into the trouble of his face

Or those he’s translated and adapted from the writings of the early saints in Endless Life:

The soul that looks
finally to God, conceives
a new mouth-watering
desire for His eternal beauty

Cairns’s work is at once embodied and ethereal, finding its roots in the ancient soil of rich language and reaching its branches into the lives of the common man. His poems greet the reader with a familiarity that allows the poet to draw us ever nearer so that at any moment he might whisper one great truth into the ear.

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In the Kingdom of the Ditch

I used to find “nature poetry” boring. Descriptions of wind through the trees, hilltop vistas, butterflies alighting on flowers all left me unmoved. Then I started reading Todd Davis’s poems.

Choosing to live in the Pennsylvania mountains, Davis has immersed himself in the natural world—as a painter immerses himself in color, as a composer immerses herself in sound.

Nature is Davis’s language.

The poems of his newest volume, In the Kingdom of the Ditch, speak not so much of nature as by means of it.

Here, for instance, is “Atrial Fibrilation”:

 

Yesterday was the dull gray of a river stone. This morning
snow covers our neighbor’s roof, the sky the color of an indigo

bunting’s cap. Fresh from sleep we reach back for last summer’s
green, listen to a blue jay at the feeder as it cracks open a seed

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Pleasure Milker

Guest post by Jen Hinst-White

The mind is always elsewhere, won’t stay put.

Whose merciful hands, then,

Could bind us to our longing?

—Katy Didden, “The Penitentes’ Morada”

In my early twenties I used to daydream of the perfect job to complement writing. The criteria were these:

It had to be part-time; I wanted hours leftover to write at my desk.

It need not be high-paying; I was a budgeter, lived simply.

And then this: It should require the use of my body—offer some light physical labor to complement the labors of the mind. Potter’s assistant, garden nursery worker, sign-maker. I imagined spending several hours in pleasant, undemanding tedium, savoring the useful work of my hands. Then I would go home, shower, and pour stories onto the page, as if from a bottomless pot of coffee that had been percolating while I worked.

When I think back on this daydreamed job, it’s not my own romantic notions that I rue, but my failure to try them. Instead I took the good jobs that came along: fulltime or nearly so, my hands not tending saplings or wedging clay but tapping keyboards.

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