Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine
edited by Mari L’Esperance and Tomás Q. Morín
Prairie Lights Books, 2013
Distributed by University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 978-0-9859325-2-7, 194 pages, paper
When I read Coming Close, a collection of essays written by students from Philip Levine’s poetry workshops, I felt like I had met Philip Levine forty different times. These are like love letters of appreciation.
Levine is a master poet who, during his fifty-year teaching career, won just about every literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth. More recently, he served as the country’s Poet Laureate from 2011-2012.
Many celebrated poets who have studied with him frequently associate the word “generosity” with his teaching. Whether meeting Levine as a young poet sitting in a room permeated by the smell of fertilizer from the fields outside California State University in Fresno, encountering him later in his life as the Distinguished Poet in Residence at New York University, or intersecting with him at points in between, all of the writers said his teaching changed them.
Many writers, such as Aaron Belz, maintained a correspondence with Levine long after he had left the classroom. Belz shares some of Levine’s advice that was helpful to his own career:
“You asked for detailed advice on how to deal with taking yourself seriously as a poet & yet not puffing yourself up & at the same time believing in yourself as a poet. I can tell you this: long before I believed in what I was writing I believed in myself as a poet, believed I had something to say but had not yet found out how to say it. I suppose I was saying to myself, Philip, you are a person of intelligence, feelings, wit, some charm, you have as much right to this poetry thing as anyone else, though it is obvious that some others are more gifted (Hart Crane, John Keats, Wilfred Owen, etc., I was not yet 25), so stick at this thing & see what happens. No harm will come from this doggedness…”
There are other glimpses into student letters and notes that provide a fuller picture of Levine, a man who set an example not only by his passionately lyrical poems, but by his devotion to his students. He was not all sweetness and light. Levine had a reputation for eviscerating his students’ poems (but not the poet), and once, on the first day of a class, felt obliged to disavow a story of tearing up a poem into scraps before its author’s eyes. On the other hand, that quality of “no bullshit” was why so many of his students held him in high esteem. Paula Bohince writes:
“…he wanted to see us develop, caring enough to push us as we would have to push ourselves when our program ended.”
Others acknowledge that his tough feedback was tempered with outrageous humor so that, as Shane Book says, “you could take it because he made you laugh; the alternative was to weep. Levine wanted us to know how tough it was to write well.” Another student shares how his grading system was based on the OK system – decent stuff merited an OK+, the mediocre, OK-, and the truly awful won a low growl of argh!
Levine encouraged his students to reconnect with their own fractured memories and to allow imagination, as Colin Cheney says, “to give new life to what can’t be restored.” By giving the Detroit working class a face and a life in poetry and later broadening his work to encompass the nature of democracy in the United States, Levine’s poems encourage others to be truthful to material from their own lives.
All of the writers share an admiration for Levine’s work. Blas Manuel De Luna says:
“He was a model. If you tried to be like him – if you took your craft as seriously as he did, if you took the work as seriously as he did, if you took your life as seriously as he did, if you believed in poetry in the way that he believed in poetry – then you had a chance to make work that could last.”
Each essayist shares a facet of Levine, a man who appeared to David St. John as a cross between “Woody Guthrie and Paul Newman.” Nick Flynn recalls a time when Levine explained, “If you had remained an electrician, you would know how to get the lights to come on, but you are now a poet, and each day you must invent the world. Not the world, but your place in it…”
All of these women and men knew that they were studying poetry with someone whose work mattered and, like Ishion Hutchinson, wanted to be “owners of his myth.” Mark Levine recounts the poet saying, “There’s only one reason to write poetry. To change the world.” Included here is an earlier essay written by Larry Levis, a beloved student and friend of Levine’s. When Levis died in 1996 of a heart attack, Philip Levine edited Levis’ last collection of poems, Elegy.
The editors of Coming Close have done a masterful job of pacing these essays to build a pathway toward discovering Levine and his influence on several generations of poets. L’Esperance and Morín both have essays included in this collection. Read the book to meet Philip Levine as a teacher, and the students who found what they needed in his classroom to become successful in their own work.
Written by Lenore Weiss
Her work has been widely published online, in journals, and anthologies. West End Press published her full collection of poetry, Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island. She serves as the copy editor for The Blue Lyra Review.