Sunday, February 15, 2015

Philip Levine: Influence from the Peripheral

"Let me give you a little piece of advice about publishing. If you can live without publishing—that is if you don't have a job that depends upon publishing—then just wait as long as you can. Wait as long as possible... until you're thirty,thirty-five. And don't publish all that crap, and don't get involved in that whole world of connections and ass-kissing, networking and all that shit. Stay away from it. Meet some people who care about poetry the way you do. You'll have that readership. Keep going until you know you're doing work that's worthy. And then see what happens. That's my advice." -- Philip Levine

Thanks to Sam Hamill for posting this quote and reminding me of this great advice.

My first chapbook came out when I was 35 years old, in 2005.  I am not saying it was great or wonderful, or that any of my poetry will ever be great or wonderful to anyone besides myself,but I do know this:  My poetry was better for taking longer to get out into the world. It was a lesson I had to learn the hard way, but when I came across this, I immediately knew Levine was telling the truth.  I am heading into what I feel to be the third phase of my writing life, not having written more than half a dozen poems I am willing to let other people read.  I am just fine with that because I know what Philip Levine said is true.  Waiting is the greatest thing we can do for our poems.  Wait to write them, wait to revise them, and wait until they are ready before sending them out into the world. 

In an interview with a poetry journal, I gave the following advice when asked about publishing:

Of course every poet’s advice to other poets has the universal caveat of what I know is based upon my own experiences, and as such should also be universally ignored. With that in mind, these are some of the things I have learned over the course of my very fortunate publishing life.

First, write because you love it, not because you want to get published.  As writers we all want to share our words with others,but if you allow yourself to become obsessed with getting a book published, you will expend a tremendous amount of energy worrying about something for which you have very little control.  It is best to expend that energy on making your manuscript the best it can be.  I am not saying you shouldn’t seek publication, just don’t be wasteful with your energy.

And it is work.  Never let anyone tell you what you do is notwork.  You have to believe in your manuscript.  You have to forgive and ignore the ignorance your friends and family might express,dismissing your work as a mere hobby.  They will not understand the very real emotional connection you have with not only the work you create, butt he process by which you create it.  The public acknowledgement a book represents is powerful, but it will mean nothing if the only reason you want a book is to show it off.  If you are a serious writer, the books will come in time.  Overnight success only takes ten years. 

I was never a conscious disciple of Philip Levine.  I enjoy his poetry and I have two of his books (one of my first serious attempts at writing poetry was an imitation of his poem, "You Can Have it") but it will probably be a long time before I can fully appreciate the impact his work has upon my own.  I have trouble identifying the fingerprints of poets on my life whom I do not know personally---I simply do not think in those terms.  I can say I was happy to learn when he was named Poet-Laureate, and knew it was a marvelous choice.  I was sad when I learned several years ago he actually had to make a public request that his students stop asking for letters of recommendation.  That sort of thing is not an embarrassment of riches, it is a sad commentary on what too many poets think what a life in poetry should be.

What's left?  The poems---those Philip Levine leaves behind for all of us and the poems we all have yet to write because of what he taught all of us.  A pretty great legacy.

You Can Have It
by Philip Levine

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labors, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors' appointments, bonds,
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.