My Dinners with Philip Levine

My Dinners with Philip Levine April 1, 2014

“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.

From the relentlessly powerful poems to the wonderful anecdotes woven in between, I left the reading changed, charged, and in full disproof of Auden’s notorious claim. Something happened, alright: from that point forward, I wanted to be a poet.

Several months later, I took the bold step of writing Levine a letter. Make that a doubly bold step, since it began with my claiming that I was his biggest fan, and ended with my asking if I could make the drive from Palo Alto sometime to visit him in Fresno.

To my great surprise, he wrote me back. He wrote me back? I wondered upon seeing his delightful handwriting for the first time in my P.O. box.

He wrote me back!

“Dear Brad,” it began, “I don’t know if you’re my biggest fan. Some people have been reading my work for 25 years; but maybe they’re sick of it by now.” He went on to discourage worship of the kind I exhibited, but encouraged a visit to Fresno come spring.

So imagine my gobsmacked condition when I found myself sitting in his living room that May of 1992. He had just retired from teaching after thirty years at Fresno State, an occasion not to be celebrated by the fact that before leaving I would hand him an envelope of my poems for his critique.

Halfway through the visit, his wife, Fran, breezed through the front door. I was familiar with her as the dedicatee of several books, the subject and referent in various poems—most notably, “For Fran,” with its rending central question: “What do we do to those we need, / To those whose need of us endures / Even the knowledge of what we are?”

Back then, I thought the key to Levine’s success was his “literary capital,” that is, his biographical stock as a blue-collar child of post-Depression America who, against the many odds, managed to find his way to poetry, or perhaps be found by it instead.

The same way that Zbigniew Herbert—the great Polish poet Levine introduced me to that day in his living room—had the literary capital of both the Holocaust and the Iron Curtain, respective wings to his phoenix born from the ashes of post-World War II Poland.

Me? What capital did I have, as a middle-class child of the Connecticut suburbs who punched in at the Episcopal Church and punched out at the high school Key Club, whose socially integrated taste for Polish jokes was not brought to justice by Miami Vice?

But the beauty of Levine is how he undermines his own capital with the ending of the title poem of What Work Is, perhaps the capstone lyric of his Detroit-based oeuvre:

How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Now, twenty years later, I recently had the chance to make a second trip to his Fresno home. I had kept in touch with him on and off over the years, mostly during his autumn teaching stints at NYU. And after a few previous attempts to get to Fresno while in L.A. for work, this time I got lucky.

There was the house in 2014, just as it had looked in 1992. And there was Philip Levine at the door, the same in spirit now as he had been back then. Needless to say, I wasn’t sure what to expect, given he had just turned eighty-six and I hadn’t seen him in several years.

And there was Fran, breezing about the kitchen making dinner as if twenty minutes had passed rather than twenty years since my first sight of her.

For the next two hours, over Jameson and Rioja and beef stew and chocolate cake, one thing stood out for me above all the news, anecdotes and jokes that we shared: these two sprightly octogenarians were still madly in love. Levine told me during dinner that they would celebrate their sixtieth anniversary this summer, but it seemed as if they had just met last week.

Twenty years ago I went to that house wanting a life in poetry that Philip Levine has had. I’d be a liar to say that I don’t still covet his wreath of laurels, despite what a long way off I am from ever having a career that even remotely resembles his.

But being with him and Fran that night, and seeing up close the secret to his success, which is the love that they have clearly worked so hard to sustain, the rock that she has been to him for sixty years, I found myself in possession of all the capital that I need.

As long as I remember what work is.

Bradford Winters is a screenwriter/producer in television whose work has included such series as OzKings, Boss, and The Americans. His poems have appeared in Sewanee Theological Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Georgetown Review, among other journals. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.

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  • Maureen

    Wonderful post! And how fitting a marker for the start of National Poetry Month.

    • Brad Winters

      Sorry, Maureen — that comment above was meant to be a reply to you.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    What a lovely tribute, Brad, to this very special poet. The poet who showed us how to honor hard factory work (alas, the kind of work mostly being shipped out of the country today). I think of Levine as our era’s Whitman, in his celebration of real people at real work. Thank you.

    • Brad Winters

      Amen to that, Peggy.

    • V. Bocassi

      I think of him as the Motor City’s Larry David, though I acknowledge that the resemblance is rather superficial.

  • Brad Winters

    And a wonderful reminder on your part! The timing was entirely unintentional on mine — either the serendipitous result of shuffling in the editorial schedule, or a mindful decision by our great editor, Cathy Warner. I get no credit.

  • Guest

    Serendipitous shuffling it is.