Philip Levine

On Embarrassment

**Note after the fact: let me just preface this little bit by saying that while I’m confessing a feeling I get writing for a group internet blog, I am not confessing something deep and wrong about my own character. Please, don’t comment about my self-esteem. I’m pretty fucking okay. I meant for this post to be more concentrated on thinking about how internet culture, for me, demeans things deemed “more traditional” in art. That and my feelings about groupthink. Sorry if it comes across as something else.  I’m going to keep it as is anyway.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my favorite poems–most of the time that tiny flash of shame comes when I’m writing for HMTL. I feel like I have to be hip and cool, read things that are experimental and edgy (which, by the way, I do and also love). Like most HTML contributors I read widely and variously, and the cool thing about being a contributor here is that we do read variously, have different tastes, get excited by totally disparate things. Yet somehow I’m still embarrassed by my roots–the poems I can’t shake, obsess on, memorize–when I sit down to write posts. Those poets and poems that turned me into a poet from the outset somehow seem out of step with the 21st century (Dean Young being the exception?), or at least with the internet’s version of it. But they are my epiphany moments. For me, the brilliance of these poems comes not from experiment or postmodern aesthetic (we’re past that, right?), or political stance, though I think you could argue for those things. The brilliance of these poems derives from their depth of thinking about the human experience: the history of knowledge, the cold zero of perfection, the universal solvents and pilgrim souls, language’s redemptive power. I think, here, I’m supposed to be too cool for being in uncertainties, Mysteries, and doubts, that the simulation of being literati somehow precedes the ability to feel deeply. It’s as if I’m supposed to, but can’t, say everything with a wink and a nod. I’m probably wrong; likely, I’m being insecure, a wild child who has been invited into a gentleman’s club in which I feel sometimes validated and other times lost in the woods all over again. If you want to read a rant on “joining” at my blog, you can. It’ll maybe explain some of my feelings. Or you can just read some good poems from me to you.

Elizabeth Bishop, “At the Fishhouses”

Mark Strand, “Always”

Yusef Komunyakaa, “My Father’s Loveletters”

Philip Levine, “They Feed They Lion”

WB Yeats, “When You Are Old”

Dean Young, “Sunflower”



Random / 21 Comments
November 3rd, 2011 / 12:05 pm

Today in Class

Today class happened amidst the bumble and burst of plumbers and electricians, anxious dogs, and un-showered, tired, frenzied me. But it happened nonetheless. We workshopped a lot today. First, in whole-group fashion (there are 16 of us) to finish up where we left off last week with our reckless poetry. At the end of class, concentrating on sound and how sound moves through the air and into our ears and around in our noggins, students got into groups of three in which one person read while the other group members listened. After the poem, each group member wrote down what stuck the hardest in their memories, and then we talked about how the poems [we’ve been thinking about rhythm and chant] accomplished their sonic goals, or didn’t. That was fun. I bounced around the groups, interjected here and there, but mostly I let them do the talking. They’re all pretty smart readers, and I trust them.

Another of my favorite games is to annotate Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion together with a class. I’m trying to teach students about writing annotation papers as writers versus as academic critics. It involves a helluva lot more looking at how craft informs our understanding of a poem versus simply what the poem means. Students get super frustrated, usually, about the phrase, “they feed they lion,” and they want me to tell them what it means. I tell them I don’t know what it means, but maybe by looking at how the poem is written we’ll start to get our heads around it. Chaos ensues. I write things on the chalk board. People start seeing biblical allusions and apocalypse. It’s great. Then I say something teacherly like, “well, how does all this anaphora and accreted repetition inform the poem?” Today I got some really astute answers that I’m too exhausted to expound on.

I showed students this excerpt from a Levine interview in which he explains the nascence of the poem [here] [I like the stories Mr. Levine tells]:


Craft Notes / 18 Comments
September 29th, 2010 / 5:39 pm

One man’s trash…


Maybe this dude is old news, but I just found out about NYC Garbage by Justin Gignac via a newish blog called polis I’ve been reading. Here’s what the polis folks say about themselves:

polis is a collaborative blog on urbanism with a global focus. It is a space for our regular contributors and readers to share ideas and information about anything and everything urban from multiple lenses.

But back to the garbage: from the outset I wanted to hate the guy who figured out how to market crushed cans and mangled plastic spoons from the streets of NYC. But I don’t know. The collecting part, more than the academic arguments about the irony of preserving and profiting from the very stuff that’s creating environmental havoc, etc., is what I can’t shake. Here’s maybe why:


Random / 37 Comments
December 15th, 2009 / 12:22 am

Treating Poetry Like it Matters: A Hearty Cheers


I want to get this up here before MEAN WEEK kicks off tomorrow. It’s a rider-thought attached to the previous post where I mentioned in passing that a Knopf publicist sent me a few poetry books this week. I don’t want to leave our readers here with the mis-impression that I was merely gloating over having been gifted with free stuff. Indeed, all three books were sent to me because I requested them, on the promise of consideration for review–a promise I intend to honor in all cases. But the interesting thing is how I found out about the books in the first place. Lena, the publicist in question, may or may not be a regular reader of HTMLGiant–I don’t know. But I do know that she decided to get in touch after reading Michael Schaub’s “Any Wonder We Tried Gin” post, which mentioned the poet Philip Levine. She wrote to say hello, mentioned that Levine has a new book of poems out, News of the World, and invited me to an upcoming reading in Brooklyn. Presumably, she wrote to me and not Schaub because she’d done enough leg work to know that I live where the reading was happening, and he doesn’t. Point for her. In any case, I couldn’t go to the reading, but I offered to take a look at the book, and invited her to keep me posted on Knopf-related poetry stuff. Since that time, not quite 10 days ago, she’s suggested a few other books she’s working on that I might be interested in–didn’t get irritated or write me off when I said no to stuff–and invited me to at least one other event. As it stands today, I now have three books to look at- the Levine, Marie Ponsot’s new collection, Easy, plus an oral biography of Robert Altman that I absolutely cannot wait to dig into (The NYT loved it) and which you, gentle reader, should expect to hear about at some length in the days and weeks to come. Lena has done an amazing job of making me feel like I–as a blogger–and poetry–as an art form–matter, two things which are more or less unheard of for a major press in these sad times (except of course at HarperPerennial, the forward-thinkingest imprint at any outfit great or small, advertiser on this website, and happy home of yours truly). The result of her efforts, which in total couldn’t have taken up more than fifteen minutes of her working week, is that I’m now not only inclined to actually read and thoughtfully consider three books I didn’t know existed this time two weeks ago, but my interest in Knopf has been piqued, and where and what that will lead to, who can say? Lena the publicist, a hearty cheers! Here, here!

Behind the Scenes & Presses & Web Hype / 16 Comments
October 25th, 2009 / 10:13 am