A Tribute to Philip Levine
by Bryan R. Monte
copyright © 2015 by Bryan R. Monte. All rights reserved.

Whilst searching through my 35+ years of journals for information on James Broughton for my planned memoir on him for the September 2015 issue of AQ14 on radio, television, and film, I stumbled upon entries about my creative writing classes with Philip Levine at Brown University. As Thom Gunn mentioned in my previous memoir, Philip Levine did shake them up at Brown. I thought perhaps these five, largely unedited observations might be a fitting tribute to one of the best poets, (bar Thom Gunn), with whom I studied. Philip, unfortunately, passed away last February 14th. I hope these entries capture some of the waves and tremors he created in class.

24 January 1985

Yesterday, (was the) first day of Philip Levine’s class. (He wore) Blue, Nike running shoes inside of black rubbers, a beige zip jacket under a tweed blazer. (and) An old, gold-brown shirt unbuttoned at the top with a brown tie that looked like it could have come from the Salvation Army. His head (is) much older than the picture on the (cover of his) Selected Poems. (His) Hair (is) bald at both temples, but with brown and grey curls and tufts in the centre. (His) Teeth (are) yellowed and spread apart.

He talked about the poets he liked—Rexroth, Patchen, (William Carlos) Williams—a lot of poets who had been undiscovered, whose names were completely unfamiliar to me so I can’t remember them. He talked about (T.S.) Eliot in the negative sense quoting Williams saying he’d created a regression in the poetic climate that would take America 30 years before they would read his (Williams’) poems again.

He talked about Charlie—a theoretical, but very real student who was an arrogant prick. Levine used the word “prick” a lot—a world full of “pricks.” Levine said Charlie would wear a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, smoke a pipe and write poems that were so learned they were incomprehensible. He said: “Charlie’s a good talker too—he can win any debate about his poems, especially since he’s the one who wrote them. Well, in this class, Charlie keeps his mouth shut.” I hope Student A and Student B were listening, or else he’s going to tear them to pieces.

Levine seemed fairly intrigued by the idea that the poetry students take the same (writing) classes together for two years. I think he likes the idea of the community of poets referring to former students visits and mentioning that we could ride the train up to Boston with him after class. He talked a little—tangentially—about the loneliness in his life—mentioning the superb quality of Rexroth’s love poems saying they were so good they reminded him what having sex was like.

He seems like everything I would want from a writing teacher—scorn for (the) academic/hermetic tradition in poetry, strong-willed, strong convictions, interested in the sensual in poetry, in the community of poets, or sitting on disruptive, pompous assholes, or bucking the GWP (Graduate Writing Program) and letting some of his own students in (our class)—and filled with a “flaming centre,” a burning love for poetry.

1 February 1985

Less than glorious things to say about Levine’s class after he trashed a poem by Student C. He seemed, however, to have his finger on the pulse of a lot of writers—(he) told Student D she had a good sense of line, but that her poem was like the travelogue poems that are very popular at the moment, he told Student A his poem about a fisherman wasn’t detailed enough and he told Student F, that she needed more tension in her poem. But he really savaged Student C’s poem about the elevation of suicidal women—Plath, Sexton—in American letters and how that’s used as a device of oppression.

I found myself arguing how woman are oppressed by a monolithic, (straight) male tradition—I remarked that it wasn’t until my senior Modernist lit. class at Berkeley that a studied a woman writer—Gertrude Stein. But I found myself arguing with no support in a class with a majority of women. Even Student G didn’t support Student C’s idea of the oppression/self-oppression of women even though that’s all she writes about.

Levine fell in my estimation (today) when he couldn’t even find anything salvageable in Student C’s poem. She had one line I especially liked: “We never strike in anger except at ourselves.” This is the language of the oppressed, the inward violence that gay men/lesbians, women do to each other/themselves because they’re powerless to lash out individually at the monolith of straight, male oppression. (This is) The self-laceration, (the) scars we don’t talk about or wear as merit badges.

12 February 1985

Last Wednesday I met with Philip Levine in Michael Harper’s office and he was very enthusiastic about my poetry. He especially liked “Wayne” (now entitled “The Boats” and published in Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets in 2013) and he showed it to me in a new light so that I became aware, for the first time, of its power and its deficiencies. I told him that I was very happy that he had been able to do a close reading of my poems. I told him that the previously I had had trouble getting accurate feedback because students and instructors were repelled and/or threatened by the homosexuality in my poems. Levine said he couldn’t understand why an instructor would do that. He also looked at another poem, “Brushstrokes,” which he felt had potential but was actually two separate poems. He thought the sound and sight imagery at the bottom of the poem was the raw material for another poem—he saw it as discontinuous, but not as leading away from the base of the poem inspirationally.

At any rate, he saw that I was able to take criticism of my work very objectively. I think that telling him a poem is “in progress” gives him more to say, what he thinks can be done with a piece. He suggested we go over “The Predators,” (published in Assaracus 15 in 2014), in class. He liked it very well and sort of guided it through a lot of negative criticism. He said, however, that my description of the attackers was too stereotypical. He liked the line breaks, however, saying they reminded him of Williams’ line in “The Desert Music.”

24 February 1985

Wednesday, met with Levine in Harper’s office before class. He was very happy to see me and we talked about three poems—two finished that I had turned in and one that is in process. Levine said that the images in “In Envy of Naturalism”  (published online by BMUG in Baaad Poetry in 1995) were too romantic and therefore, too distant from the perceptions of the modern reader. He also said that the lines seemed too awkward—too forced. He absolutely adored “Heterophobia,” (published in The James White Review as “The Visit” Volume 3, Issue 1, Fall 1985) which I wrote in practically one sitting. He said that the surrealism and the language flowed very swiftly and took them reader with them—that the tension created in the first line carried throughout the poem. He echoed these sentiments in class. He also looked at my first drafts of “The Bunker” which I told him would probably be typeset the same way as the lines in the “The Predators,” breaking every line every fourth or fifth word and distributing them over the page.

6 March 1985

Another hit today in Levine’s class. (I) Read my poem, “Mrs. m.” which the students and Levine praised. To me, it seems awkward, especially the rhythm of the lines—but they seemed to have liked it or at least respect the sentiment it expressed—Student A said that he thought the poem was very close to me so he didn’t think he should say anything about it. As much as I dislike Student A, that’s the kindest thing he’s ever said about my poetry. One of Levine’s guests (invited students) said that she like the poem because I respected the mother enough not to try to get into her head—I just described the physical things a child could see. Levine liked it even though he didn’t understand the image of the (broken off) chair leg next to my mother’s bed. He really seems to like my work and to be encouraging some kind of close communication. This is my chance—to really learn from someone who is really gifted.