philip levine

I composed my first poems in the dark. In fact in the “double dark”: that is, at night in a small woods that only the moon lit and also totally without the guidance or knowledge or light, if you will, that great or good or even mediocre poetry might have given me. In truth I never thought of these early compositions as poems; I never thought of them as anything but what they were: secret little speeches addressed to the moon when the moon was visible and when the moon was not visible to all those parts of creation that crowded around and above me as well as those parts that eluded me, the parts I had no name for, no notion of except for the fact they were listening.
—  Philip Levine, My Lost Poets
What Work Is | Philip Levine

“What Work Is”
Philip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
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.

When you sit down to write a poem, you really don’t know where you’re going. If you know where you’re going, the poem stinks, you probably already wrote it, and you’re imitating yourself. You have to follow where the poem leads. And it will surprise you. It will say things you didn’t expect to say. And you look at the poem and you realize, ‘That is truly what I felt.’ That is truly what I saw.
Don’t scorn your life just because it’s not dramatic, or it’s impoverished, or it looks dull, or it’s workaday. Don’t scorn it. It is where poetry is taking place if you’ve got the sensitivity to see it, if your eyes are open.
—  Philip Levine, describing what he had learned from William Carlos Williams, “Philip Levine, Who Found Poetry on Detroit’s Assembly Lines, Dies at 87,” npr online (15 February 2015)
You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.
—  Philip Levine, from “Our Valley”
"Let Me Begin Again", by Philip Levine

Let me begin again as a speck 
of dust caught in the night winds 
sweeping out to sea. Let me begin 
this time knowing the world is 
salt water and dark clouds, the world 
is grinding and sighing all night, and dawn 
comes slowly and changes nothing. Let 
me go back to land after a lifetime 
of going nowhere. This time lodged 
in the feathers of some scavenging gull 
white above the black ship that docks 
and broods upon the oily waters of 
your harbor. This leaking freighter 
has brought a hold full of hayforks 
from Spain, great jeroboams of dark 
Algerian wine, and quill pens that can’t 
write English. The sailors have stumbled 
off toward the bars of the bright houses. 
The captain closes his log and falls asleep. 
1/10’28. Tonight I shall enter my life 
after being at sea for ages, quietly, 
in a hospital named for an automobile. 
The one child of millions of children 
who has flown alone by the stars 
above the black wastes of moonless waters 
that stretched forever, who has turned 
golden in the full sun of a new day. 
A tiny wise child who this time will love 
his life because it is like no other.

There is a song, bird song or wind song,
or the song old rooms sing when no one
is awake to hear. For a moment I
almost catch the melody we make
with bare walls, old iron sagging beds,
and scarred floors. There is one
deep full note for each of us.
This is the first night of my life
I know we are music.
—  Philip Levine, from “A Poem With No Ending”

Any Night

Look, the eucalyptus, the Atlas pine,
the yellowing ash, all the trees
are gone, and I was older than
all of them. I am older than the moon,
than the stars that fill my plate,
than the unseen planets that huddle
together here at the end of a year
no one wanted. A year more than a year,
in which the sparrows learned
to fly backwards into eternity.
Their brothers and sisters saw this
and refuse to build nests. Before
the week is over they will all
have gone, and the chorus of love
that filled my yard and spilled
into my kitchen each evening
will be gone. I will have to learn
to sing in the voices of pure joy
and pure pain. I will have to forget
my name, my childhood, the years
under the cold dominion of the clock
so that this voice, torn and cracked,
can reach the low hills that shielded
the orange trees once. I will stand
on the back porch as the cold
drifts in, and sing, not for joy,
not for love, not even to be heard.
I will sing so that the darkness
can take hold and whatever
is left, the fallen fruit, the last
leaf, the puzzled squirrel, the child
far from home, lost, will believe
this could be any night. That boy,
walking alone, thinking of nothing
or reciting his favorite names
to the moon and stars, let him
find the home he left this morning,
let him hear a prayer out
of the raging mouth of the wind.
Let him repeat that prayer,
the prayer that night follows day,
that life follows death, that in time
we find our lives. Don’t let him see
all that has gone. Let him love
the darkness. Look, he’s running
and singing too. He could be happy.

Philip Levine