Recently, in Paris, in one of the apparently not-talking-to-each-other Bay-area-related second-hand English-language bookshops I found myself perusing a well-stocked poetry section with few books or poets not already on my shelves at home. I had a manic compulsion to depart the shop with a new acquisition come high or low Seine and eventually satisfied my compulsive bibliomania by purchasing an old Philip Levine New and Selected (1991). Levine was one of those prominent American poets who had slipped through my net which had already caught contemporaries such as Ashbury, Gunn, Hecht, Collins, Simic, Orr, Lux, Olds, Kleinzahler and Seidel among others. The reek from Levine was never quite right but not in a spotted, red mushroom – stay-the-hell-away-from-me way like Mary Oliver.
The reek from Levine centres around the question, are competent working class poets in America so rare that so much has to be repeatedly made of Philip Levine’s blue collar credentials? Especially considering he had the luck to become a member of a privileged middle class academic elite while still in the first half of his life. The taint of middle-class-sanctioned worthiness permeating from his reputation put me off reading him for years and indeed many of the poems written about his less well-off days, from the perspective of his secure maturity, do reek of a certain politically correct worthiness; lacking the fire and danger such material might have had had it been written by someone especially gifted and still poor. Perhaps the distance of the subject matter is something many middle class Americans find exotic in the same way the exoticism of the Orient fascinated Westerners before they discovered an Oriental was a carpet, not a person. (politically correct - moi?)
Poets of working-class extraction are not so exotic in Europe and elsewhere, where Social Democratic states have evolved to the stage where access to university education is more equable than it is in the land of Chicago School Economics and where poets with factory-working Dads have been coming off the conveyer belt since the mid-Seventies.
Levine is a brilliant poet, but his brilliance has nothing to do with being everybody’s favourite white trash. His best poems have nothing to do with having had to endure “a succession of stupid jobs” or about anything else really. Levine’s genius resides not in his subject matter (although often compelling) but in his own personal, consistent, unique idiom – an idiom distinguished by Levine’s tendency to read the world through metaphor as distinct from the many poets who try to devise metaphors after their reading of the world. The other thing that distinguishes Levine’s work is the way his language chimes without regular metre and rhyme. In his lines individual words slot sonicly together, harmonising in a subtle, seamless fashion - in the same way they do in the language of Derek Mahon; only apparently less showily because of Levine’s eschewing the scaffolding of rhyme which Mahon has convinced himself he needs. Thomas McCarthy also has this gift. Very few contemporary American poets can do this. The likes of Collins, Simic, Orr, Lux, Olds can’t do it. Kleinzahler has the sonic slotting thing happening but in an (not altogether displeasuring) ostentatious, fireworks way as in ‘Green Sees Things in Waves’ and anything taken from The Strange Hours Travellers Keep.
So I guess the point of this rant is to say: American poetry journalists please stop praising Philip Levine for all the wrong patronising reasons, making him out to be some sort of boring transatlantic Social Realist and putting off Europeans for whom working-class culture is not exotic and a Liberal is someone who sits on the right-hand side of the parliamentary chamber.
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