Phiilip Levine and the Hands of Time

Among those poets who have been Philip Levine’s students at some point in their lives — and I am assuming that includes almost all of the poets in this collection – there is a clear consensus that there simply was not and is not any more passionate, wise, hilarious, useful, fearsome, brilliant, loyal, or inspiring teacher of poetry, as literature and craft, than Philip Levine.

As I’ve told many times, I was eighteen-years-old and a Freshman at Fresno State College when Larry Levis introduced me to Philip Levine. Over the semester break between Fall and Spring, Larry — who’d seen a few of my early inept poems — came up to me at a rock concert we both happened to be at and told me that Phil was teaching a beginning poetry writing class that next semester. It was something he didn’t always do, and Larry said that I had to take Levine’s class. Larry was rarely insistent about anything, so I immediately said, Of course. Larry later made sure that I met Phil, and with both Larry and Phil as my models, my life in poetry had begun.

It would be impossible to overstate Levine’s charisma at that moment in the spring of 1968. Phil looked like a cross between Woody Guthrie and Paul Newman in Hud — lean, muscular, intense. For someone of such an urban background, Levine seemed incredibly connected to the earth, the land. Phil had — and still has — an extraordinary sense of humor, and I’ve always loved watching some recognition of an absurdity crackle in his eyes just before the delivery of the exact, withering comment it would deserve. He was capable of being fall-down-funny and vulgar as well as capable of talking with exquisite complexity about Donne (or Herrick or Larkin or Dickinson) in a way that was at once practical and devotional.

Phil taught from an anthology that was historical, called Poetry In English, and his class was my real education in the tradition of poetry. We might be talking about one of the student poems in our beginning workshop, and Phil would find a phrase he admired (or pretended to admire) and he would say to us, “This reminds me of that moment in Emily Dickinson when…” or, “You know, in Whitman, when he …” and then he would read us these great passages as instruction and example.

This did something else as well. His method connected us (and our own pitiful poems) to the larger tradition of poetry. It made us believe that what we were writing was actually in conversation with the poems and poets who had come before us. It allowed us to understand that poems don’t come out of a vacuum and to recognize the necessity of knowing the poetry of one’s own language and poetic tradition. I think this may be one of the most important things I have ever learned.

Yet Levine’s knowledge of poetry in translation, especially poetry from Spanish and Polish, also completely transformed my understanding of what poetry could do and be. In my later years as Phil’s student at Fresno State, I began to understand that poetry existed not only in the context and conversation of the poetry of — and in — my own language, but in the context and traditions of poems from all around the world. This too felt like a stunning thing to discover, and the world of poetry opened up for me again.

Just a few years ago, for a profile she was writing on me for Ploughshares, the poet Susan Terris asked me to talk about first meeting Phil during those early years in Fresno. This is what I said:

Levine was the most charismatic adult I’d ever met–brilliant, wittier than anyone on the planet except Oscar Wilde, and just as vicious when he wanted to be, and a poet who was about to explode onto the landscape of American poetry. He introduced me to a Who’s Who of American poetry: Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, Charles Wright, Donald Justice–all poets who would become friends in later years, and Justice, of course, was my teacher at Iowa. Fresno was a quiet town then, and poets came to read and see Levine, so it was great fun. It was also the sixties, and nuts in its own special way, of course.

One of the things all of Phil’s students treasured was the extraordinarily detailed comments he would write on our poems. Always written in fountain pen, his precise line edits and more general comments in the margins served to focus our poems and to allow us to see our poems — and their possible revisions — in a completely new light. I have saved every one of those drafts with Phil’s comments on them from the very first, knowing their importance to me. Even when he was living abroad, in Spain (during the time when I was an undergraduate), and trying to escape his students, he would read and make line edits on the poems that I sent him with a care that was remarkable. He did this, of course, at the expense to his own time and writing, something that took me far too long to recognize and understand. Of course, Phil’s own poems are models of poetic instruction in both their vision and their craft.

Perhaps now is the place to say that Phil was also a model to us all, a living model, of how to be a writer in the world — an example of how to be an engaged and consistently humane presence in a culture that undervalued both poetry and, it has often seemed, its own citizens as well. His presence was fiercely political in the most human way; that is, he reminded us that poetry creates empathy for those marginalized by their societies, and that to live responsibly and to write with conscience were crucial elements of being a poet. Phil taught us that skepticism and a sense of humor were essential to any life, but especially to a poet’s life.

He also taught us that poetry is often about time — about how the use of memory in poetry helps us to recuperate the past, those events and individuals we have lost to time. Poetry is able to help us to recover and bring back into the present of the poem what otherwise might seem gone from a life forever. For Levine, the acts of memory and reflection were, in his poetry, constant threads in an ongoing poetic reckoning with his own experiences and the details of his own past, including his sketches of those men and women who helped to make up that past, and who were themselves now gone. But one of Levine’s lessons about time was, for me, of a more profoundly immediate nature. There was nothing abstract about this lesson whatsoever and it came from fiction, not from poetry at all.

One spring, I was taking a class from Phil on contemporary fiction that was being held in one of the auxiliary classroom buildings — like a series of trailers really — called San Ramon. They were adequate classrooms, if not terrifically substantial, and they were no worse than any other classroom. They were both new and temporary. We sat in the usual half-desks that torture students everywhere, and Phil sat at a small table at the front of the room, facing the students. Above him on the front wall was the typical round black-rimmed/white-faced industrial clock typical of most classrooms.

Our class was held just after lunch, and on this particular day I remember that I was late and so was hurrying across campus. I tried to come in quietly so as not to disturb the discussion, then I noticed that Phil himself hadn’t yet arrived, which was unusual. I slid into a desk and waited along with the rest of the class.

That day we were discussing one of Phil’s favorite recent books, one I had already read at his suggestion, Frank Conroy’s remarkable memoir, Stop-Time. We were all looking forward to the discussion, having discovered during the semester that Levine was as brilliant talking about fiction as he was discussing poetry. Another few minutes passed after I sat down and Phil came in. He walked to the front of the room, and then sat at the small table. He looked at us in way that seemed both bemused and puzzled, as if he were thinking, Where did they all come from?

We all had our copies of the book on our desks in front us, alongside our notebooks, ready to be responsible students of creative writing. Then Phil began to lecture. He hadn’t taken out his own copy of Stop-Time and put it on the table in front of him, as he usually might. In fact, he clearly hadn’t brought his own copy of the book with him at all. Still, he began to lecture about time, about the nature of time and memory, about how Conroy played with these elements throughout the course of his memoir, and how he so brilliantly manipulated us, his readers, in those manipulations of narrative time.

While speaking, Phil had gotten up from the table and had begun to walk back and forth behind the table as he talked; then he’d walk over to one of those gray metal media carts (they seemed to be in every classroom awaiting some mysterious use) that stood at the front and side of the room.
He’d put his hand on the cart somewhat thoughtfully as he lectured, then he would walk back behind the table, still talking about time. Phil had now begun to talk about what time does to us, how time wants often to destroy us and take us with it. Basically, he said, time (Time) has only one message for us: It continues and we do not.

I had come to know Phil well enough during these years to realize that he was, well, not drunk exactly, but eloquently soused. He’d clearly had a great wine with his lunch. He was so calm and composed, however, that I don’t think anyone else in the room had a clue about this. That is, until he pulled the chair away from the small table and moved it directly beneath the clock on the wall above him, the clock students stared at day in and day out in their academic imprisonment in that San Ramon classroom.

Phil stepped up on the chair, reached above him and took the huge round clock in both of his hands. He gripped it so that his fingers slid slightly behind the black rim of the clock, then in one incredibly authoritative gesture, he pulled that clock right out of the wall and ripped it off of its wires. He stepped down off the chair and walked over to the gray steel media cart and deposited the clock on its top shelf, where the stopped clock stared up like an open eye at the classroom ceiling.

He never stopped speaking once. He continued to lecture fluidly and fluently throughout this whole spectacular event — he was lecturing about time, even as he defiantly stopped time in our ridiculous and completely artificial classroom. What I remember vividly was looking up to see that the hole in the wall in front of me — the place where the clock had been — was not, as I had expected it to be, round like the clock itself but, instead, square as to match and hold the square metal box of clock works on the back of the clock. I have always considered this to be the day’s second revelation.

For the entire remainder of that semester the torn naked red and black wires that had once been attached to the clock dangled down from the empty square in the wall up above Phil’s table. The clock itself also sat for the remainder of that semester on the top of the steel gray media cart. No one came to repair the clock. No one came to start time again in Phil’s classroom. Either no one cared, or no one dared. After all, if the man who taught in that classroom could stop time, then who knew what else he might be able to do.

Written for Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine [2013]