Philip Levine: Beyond the Blue Collar

by Greg Emilio  ·  November 07, 2016
“Now I too am among the stars.”
                                                       Philip Levine, from “Starlight”


I came to Philip Levine, and subsequently to contemporary poetry, as a listless undergrad, a young man who chose to major in English simply because it was his strongest subject. By a stroke of good fortune, (probably because it was required), I enrolled in a survey of contemporary poetry and was introduced to the work of Philip Levine. The poem “Starlight,” a deft elegy for the poet’s father and for the way we see the world in childhood, would, in a way, change my life. It was one of the first poems that I could truly understand, both intellectually and emotionally. It made sense and it mattered, and yet, it was art. Of course, I would discover and love the working-class poetry for which Levine is most well-known, but I’m grateful that my first resonant encounter with his work was more spiritual in posture, more meditative—a mode of measured nostalgia.

About a decade later, in 2015, Levine passed away. I had just moved from Southern California to Atlanta, where I was starting a PhD in English at Georgia State, when I picked up the latest issue of Five Points Vol. 16, No. 3, and read the poem “Ascension” by Levine, along with a gracious, expansive essay on him by my former professor, Christopher Buckley. “Ascension” took me right back to “Starlight” within the first two lines: “Now I see the stars / are ready for me.” Though the narrator has travelled a long way from that night on the porch in which he felt cosmic upon his father’s shoulders, he now finds himself bathed in that selfsame astral light from all those years ago. Indeed, to read “Starlight” and “Ascension” in succession is to go from a child’s perspective to the sweeping gaze of a wise old man, one who realizes the necessity of death. “I see no going / and coming,” the narrator says, “none of the pain / I would have suffered had I / merely lived.” He understands that death makes life possible, allows life to stand in blazing contrast. This poem is also more complex than “Starlight,” navigating a meandering, metaphysical path through the memories of the poet’s life, before turning about two-thirds of the way through on the lines, “Then I / forget.” The rest of the poem is a fierce denial of death’s power, paradoxically, by accepting it. The narrator declares, “I forget the hunger / for food, for belief, for love, / I forget the fear of death, / the fear of living forever.” There is so much power and emphasis in these lines not only because Levine has earned them in the poem, but because he’s earned them over the course of his entire career.

Buckley’s essay, “Our Own Philip Levine,” which precedes this group of Levine’s “unselected poems,” is one of the most generous and poignant essays on the late Poet Laureate. Buckley wonders how Levine was able to dedicate so much time and effort to students and to the family of poets who were his closest friends, and still manage to produce the consummate body of work that he did, some of the finest American poetry ever. “It is clear,” Buckley states early on, “that no one in the last half century has given so much to so many in poetry as Philip Levine.” And the remainder of the essay proves that thesis with a wealth of examples, including Buckley’s own, of those helped along the path, professionally and poetically, by Levine.

Buckley also touches upon “Ascension,” and how it reflects the breadth of Levine’s work, how he wrote so much more than blue collar poetry. For Buckley, “Ascension” (and I’d argue “Starlight,” as well) is a “visionary poem whose metaphysical resolution rises far beyond the chronicles of work and the elegy for the individual.” And it’s in this act of rising that I’d like to remember Levine’s work. Whether it’s a child hoisted up onto his father’s shoulders, or a brother waking from too little sleep to work the graveyard shift, or an old man near the end of his life transcending the limitations of the flesh—Levine seems to always be optimistic about the capacity of art to redeem us. The final lines of “Ascension” triumphantly read, “I have risen. / Somewhere I am a god. / Somewhere I am a holy / object. Somewhere I am.”