An engaging and intimate collection by an American original
About the Author
Date of Birth:January 10, 1928
Place of Birth:Detroit, Michigan
Education:B.A., Wayne State University; M.F.A., Iowa Writers Workshop, University of Iowa
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So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews
By Philip Levine
University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2002 Philip Levine
All right reserved.
On First Looking into John Keats's Letters
I found the work of John Keats in my twenty-first year, and it has guided and inspired me ever since. I count as the work not only the poems and the amazing letters but the life as well, which I encountered in the biographies of Sidney Colvin and Amy Lowell and later in those of Aileen Ward, Robert Gittings, and Walter Jackson Bate. I also found suggestions of the work of the living man in hundreds of relevant pages of the writings of those who made up "The Keats Circle," pages I pored over in the stacks of the Wayne University library in Detroit in my hunger to devour this early hero.
My formal education, such as it was, was bequeathed to me by the Detroit public schools, and I believed then and still believe they did well by me. Math, history, French, chemistry, physics, English composition, literature, and physical education were all taught with rigor and skill. It was not, however, until my junior year in high school that I encountered a poem that seemed relevant to the life I'd experienced or the one I believed was waiting for me. My literature teacher, Mrs. Paperno, a small, dark-haired, intense woman, read to the class one day a short poem by Wilfred Owen. "Did you all hear that?" she asked in her most severe voice, and even the football players in the class nodded their assent, for Mrs. Paperno commanded respect from all of us. The poem was "Arms and the Boy":
Let the boy try along this bayonet bladeHow Mrs. Paperno divined the power this poem had over me I do not know, but as the class broke up at the end of the hour she offered to loan me the little collection of Owens's poetry if I promised to bring it back on Monday. I promised, and the book was mine for an entire weekend. World War II was still raging in Europe and the Pacific, and seventeen-year-olds expected to complete high school and enter the military. What we were supposed to feel about this I gathered from the talk of my elders, my classmates, and the movies I saw was some sort of profound inner swelling of the organs of patriotism. Of course, that was not what I felt at all; I was simply horrified at the thought of being maimed or killed or being forced to maim and kill others. In poem after poem Owen authenticated my own response to the carnage I might have to participate in. He had been there, he had seen it and finally died from it. His poems, which seethed with his disgust for the "Great War," as it was then known, went a long way toward assuring me that my response to the thought of battle was not insane.
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads,
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges whose fine zinc teeth
Are sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.
Like many young people, I had been writing something I hesitated then and would hesitate now to call poetry, though what else it might have been I don't know. Perhaps I should just call it bad poetry. These compositions were relatively short--I could recite any one in less than ten minutes (they were never written down)--they were unrhymed, and not in any fixed metrical pattern. Their rhetorical structures were based largely on the more adventurous sermons I heard on the radio on Sunday mornings. Their most common subjects were simple and present: rain, wind, earth (dirt, that is), snow, the night sky, the thickly clustered trees in the undeveloped, wooded blocks near our house, and the birds that thrived there. No doubt part of the intensity of pleasure I derived from composing these first poems during my nightly sojourns came from the fact that I avoided what bothered me most in my daily life: family life, anti-Semitism (which flourished in the Detroit of that--Father Coughlin's--era), sex, and the waiting war. I leaped immediately to a "higher" level and was conscious even then that every poem flung out at the night sky was an effort to use, perhaps luxuriate in, my separateness and possibly to bridge the great moat between me and all other living creatures. Of course, like many beginning poets my age then and perhaps now, I avoided the beneficial influence of the poetry of others, at least until my encounter with the work of Wilfred Owen, but even his stylistic influence on me was minimal, for I found his rhythmic structures and his experiments with rhyme daunting. What I grasped for and fumbled with was his richly textured phrasing. His "The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells" became something like my "The night wind's wail dies daily into prayer." Bad as these early efforts were, at least now they had the model of true poetry.
Then quite suddenly the following summer the war ended, and I was allowed to consider alternatives to the military. I enrolled in Wayne, the city university of Detroit, and it was there I quickly encountered the poets who would have the most significant influence on my writing and thinking. For almost two weeks Stephen Crane became my model:
I Saw a Man Pursuing the Horizon
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;It took me a day to do a passable imitation of that and the other little gnomic poems and ten more days to tire of them; it was just too easy. Then T. S. Eliot became my lord and master until in my second semester I encountered his jew (with a small j ) in the poem "Gerontion," squatting on a window sill, "spawned," if you will, in some Belgian whorehouse. Then it was the leftist, pre-Munich poetry of Auden and Spender, and later Hart Crane, whose impenetrability convinced me not only of his greatness but the wisdom of my own aesthetic, which might have been described as "make it obscure," which comes quite naturally when so little of your world is clear to you.
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said.
"You can never--"
"You lie," he cried,
And ran on.
Then came one of the crucial decisions of my life in poetry: the choice between Dr. Gene Sax and Professor A. D. Wooly, that is the choice between the fashionable poets of that hour-- Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and Stevens--taught brilliantly by Dr. Sax, the most elegant and seductive tenured member of the English Department, and the all but forgotten stars of a previous era, the Romantic poets, taught with fading fervor by old Professor Wooly, whose life work in scholarship was a small portion of the editing of the complete letters of Horace Walpole.
Tall, lean, costumed like a banker, Dr. Sax taught with a subdued theatricality. He used no notes but employed the blackboard ceaselessly as he paced back and forth before the front of the class, stopping every few moments to add lines or arrows to his diagram of the day's poem, or if the poem were as dense as Yeats's "Byzantium" an entire class period could be consumed with the explication of a single passage. (In 1947 the New Criticism was not all that new, but it had only recently made its way to Detroit.) I sat watching my classmates scribbling into their textbooks as the poem itself disappeared beneath a maze of notes and connecting vertical and horizontal lines. I think we all went away from these breathtaking performances convinced that a poem worthy of the name was at least as inscrutable as the Rosetta stone. What would we find in our anthologies when we got home? Certainly not the poem, for that had been replaced by a complex and brilliant tapestry woven by Dr. Sax. I never figured out why Sax could draw fifty to seventy-five students, including a scattering of the most elegant and depressed women on campus, long-haired lionesses who sat glumly in their tailored suits seemingly mesmerized by Sax's articularity. The assignments were small, rarely as many as a half-dozen poems, and Dr. Sax was far too occupied with his explications to find out if any of the poems had been read by the students.
Professor Wooley, on the other hand, thought nothing of assigning sixty pages of poetry for a single meeting. The class was expected to digest all of The Lyrical Ballads between Monday and Wednesday and to pay special attention to the famous preface. Whereas Sax chain-smoked Camels as he paced the classroom, Wooly sat, head down, drawing on an unlighted pipe and read aloud key passages from the assigned pages. His commentaries scarcely needed to be noted; they went something like, "This goes to the heart of the matter" or "Here is the poet at the height of his powers." He once stated that Coleridge never wrote a bad line and then seemed so stunned by the boldness of his assertion that he sat in silence for a long minute before the dozen of us who had survived the three-week rampage through Wordsworth. A large rumpled man with a great head of gray hair going white, he would sit silently at his desk when the hour ended, as though lost in thought or exhausted by our presence as we took leave of the room in silence.
Even now it seems unlikely that I would have dropped Dr. Sax's class and stuck with Professor Wooly's. As unsophisticated as I was in my second year of college, I knew this was not superior classroom teaching, for I had encountered that in high school. It may have had something to do with Wooly's patience; he seemed willing to wait for as long as it took for us to realize the majesty and power of the poetry he was bustling us through. Perhaps I felt I couldn't desert the other eleven students or perhaps it was Professor Wooly I could not desert, for there was something genuine and dear about his befuddled manner. I'm sure I appreciated the lack of a performance, for already I had discovered how common performers were in the university. I sensed an unstated faith on Wooly's part that if we welcomed these poems into our hearts and minds they would achieve themselves without an insistence on his part. The case was sealed when, after a quiet reading of "Frost at Midnight," Wooly looked up at the class and said, "There is something here for each of us." I believe it was in the "for each of us," the acknowledgment that in the face of Coleridge's genius we were all merely humble workers in the fields of poetry.
After a sideways glance at Southey lasting only a single meeting, we raced first through Byron and then Shelley and with four weeks left in the semester arrived at young John Keats and his first tentative efforts at poetry, the imitations of Spenser. It suddenly appeared as though Professor Wooly had tired of his own method; perhaps he had a special fondness for Keats, or as an experienced teacher he may have been responding to the unstated urgings of the class. At any rate the pace of our reading slowed drastically. It is possible he recognized the special place Keats could occupy in the spiritual lives we were in the process of creating. We were twelve young and not so young men and women from the city of Detroit, from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds. The class met in the late afternoon, and some members hurried to it after finishing the day shift at one of the local factories. Even our costumes revealed that. With Keats there was an immediate affinity we had not felt before. Wordsworth and Coleridge seemed to have stepped as poets directly into their maturity--in Wordsworth's case even middle age--at the beginning of their careers. Shelley and Byron were nothing if not exotic aristocrats, and they rode far above us, above even the clouds of industrial garbage that hovered over our university. In important ways Keats was one of us: young, uncertain, determined, decently educated at mediocre schools, and struggling both to survive and to believe in the necessity of his art. He was what one of us might have been had one of us been phenomenal John Keats.
From the moment I first read "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" I was hooked. The poem expressed perfectly my own response to the great Romantic poetry I was reading for the first time and--to use Keats's expression--feeling on my pulse as I had felt no poetry before.
Much I have travell'd in the realms of gold,I was dazzled by the fullness of expression, the daring of the figures, the sheer audacity of the conception, and the sonnet form fulfilled to perfection. The truth was, half of me never believed it at all: I was a skeptical big-city boy. But another part of me cared not at all about belief, for the language itself was so delicious I read and reread the poem until without trying I'd memorized it. How could poetry be better than this? I asked myself, and as I read deeper into his work the answer came to me.
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
I do not know if Professor Wooly knew that my ambition was to become a poet; I'd shared this hope with very few people. Detroit was not Greenwich Village, Cambridge, or even Berkeley; it taught you not to advertise all of your ambitions. Its stance was ferociously masculine, and most of its citizens seemed to have little interest in or tolerance for the arts or for what might be described as "artistic behavior." Even half the women I went to Wayne with carried themselves as though they yearned to become professional bowlers. My guess is that Wooly, like Mrs. Paperno before him, divined certain needs in me and did his best to meet them, for like her he proved to have an extraordinarily generous nature.
It must have been concern for my spiritual nature that prompted Professor Wooly one late afternoon as the last of daylight faded across his desk to hand me a volume of the letters of Keats opened to the page concerned with what the poet called "The vale of Soul-making." Keats distinguishes between the "sparks of divinity in millions" that are not yet souls and the souls they become when they "acquire identities" and "each one is personally itself." He goes on to ask how the sparks become individual identities and answers with a question: "How, but by the medium of a world like this?" While I read on in a state bordering on amazement, the professor cut an apple into eight nearly equal segments, which he laid out on his desk between us. In what I read, a man barely older than I was attempting to account for the function of human pain and suffering in the creation of the human spirit. For a brief moment I had a vision of the whole person I might become in "a world like ours," and in that moment I found, to use his words, "the use of the world" for probably the first time in my life. "I will call the world a School," Keats had written, "instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read--I will call the Human heart the horn Book used in that School--and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that School and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?" For a moment I saw. Nothing I had read before had so potently lifted the gloom that hovered over my small portion of Detroit. In my excitement I reached for a slice of Wooly's apple and popped it into my mouth. A silence. Wooly sighed almost imperceptibly and, being the gentleman he was, offered me a second perfect eighth, which I had the good sense to decline. Again like Mrs. Paperno before him, Professor Wooly loaned me the volume for the weekend. I remember with what care I held the book under my arm on the long bus ride back to my apartment and how I hoped that in the days to follow some of its wisdom might pass into me. Perhaps it did.
Excerpted from So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews by Philip Levine Copyright © 2002 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission.
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