Thursday Poet: Philip Levine

This week, the poetry world suffered a great loss: Philip Levine passed away.

I’ve been chewing over that line for the past hour or so, writing a dozen different paragraphs and deleting them. Leaving only it. It’s a problematic line, in so many ways, but I think my major issue with it is the specification of world – the poetry world suffered. I think every world suffered this loss, his family’s especially and most obviously, the physical world, but my first instinct was to say poetry, which was his world. My world. Our world. Does that justify its placement there? I’m not sure. I’m not thinking right now, only writing, discovering each thought as it emerges from beneath my fingers.

The next issue is this one: is this truly a loss for poetry? I’m not so certain anymore. Let me explain. Last year, I wrote about his extraordinary poem ‘What Work Is’, and how I discovered him and his work at a live reading hosted by the New Yorker Festival. Afterward, I emailed my old poetry professor, Australian poet Judith Beveridge, to rave about the event and this man who had opened my eyes with such ease. I did so not just because I wanted to share my joy, as I do each week here, but because during the Q&A which followed the reading, Levine talked about letter writing and how he had maintained a 15-year correspondence with a random individual who had written to him once. In short, he talked about the importance of mentorship, and how much could be gained from communication.

So I wrote to her, and it turns out she’s been a fan of his work since her 20s, and she’d met him at a poetry festival over a decade ago. We talked about him for a while, and she promised when I got back to Sydney (I was abroad at the time), we’d catch up and she could loan me some of his books (which I couldn’t afford). Fast forward to this month, I’ve been back in Sydney for two months, and I finally arrange to see Judith in a week and get these books. Two days later, I hear the news that Mr. Levine has passed away, news which entirely recasts the tenor of the catch up, the poetry exchange I was to have. Now it was to be less an excited sharing of a voice still booming in the air, and more an exchange of echoes. A memoriam. Or so I thought.

Judith gave me several of his books and now I have weeks worth of his words to read, to live in, and in reading them I have discovered I can still hear his rough voice as if he were standing next to me. I am glad of that, so very glad, but that is not why I am saying he is not lost — I’m not going quite so Amazing Grace as that — it just strikes me that the loss we have suffered is a future one. It is the future which is robbed of any new work of his. Any new love. The past is full of it, so very full, and I thought it would be easy, so easy to pick a poem of his to celebrate this week, but I’ve spent the past two days swimming in his work, online and in these books, and I can’t pick a single one. There’s simply too much excellence.

Now I see that ‘loss’ is the wrong term to use, at least for me personally. It’s less of an absence and more a cessation, as of rain or a river or both that over the course of a lifetime filled a great basin, and at the end, left behind a lake. A huge, shimmering lake, the kind brimming with wildlife, bordered by trees – spears of green pointed at the sky, and drooping paint brushes both, the faded fraying brush tops leaking emerald into the rippling blue – which we can row across at will. Or admire from a distance, or dive into. Each time I choose to dip my toe into it, I find the waters are a different hue, a different temperature: sometimes he sends chills racing across my skin, up and down my spine, and other times it is a warm rapture.

So, yes, Philip Levine has sadly passed on, but there is so much left behind, so much yet to discover, that for me at least, it would be far too premature to say I have lost anything, when there are yet worlds of him to gain. On that note, I will link you now not to a single poem but to the extended catalogue of his poems available on the wonderful Poetry Foundation website. Whether you take a lunch break, a half day, evening or weekend, you cannot go awry with time spent on this man’s lake.

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I can never say no to love.

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