In anticipation of National Poetry Month, we caught up with U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine to check on the state of American poetry.
Last August, the celebrated 84-year-old poet who has won just about every major American literary award—the Pulitzer, the National Book Award (twice), the National Book Critics Circle Award for starters—was named the 18th poet laureate of the United States. We were eager to learn Levine’s thoughts on his most recent honor and poets that have caught his eye since assuming his post. Much like his famously plainspoken narrative verse, Levine proved both frank and generous in his assessments.
Read more new and notable books this April.
You have received an armful of accolades. How does being named poet laureate compare?
It gets more noise. Say you win the National Book Award and you get a little tipsy for a week, or the Pulitzer Prize and the phone rings off the hook, and then 10 days later the phone rings, and somebody wants to talk to my wife. Then I think, Well, today I’m Phil. I’m just Phil again.
I think this is somewhat similar. I would say that, in a way, it doesn’t have much more meaning, or it has the same amount because none of them has that much meaning. Look at the list of people who’ve won the Pulitzer, and there are a lot of them that you can’t read—I can’t read—and I have no great regard for. The same with the National Book Award. I don’t want to say the same with this, but there are some laureates who were marvelous poets, and some who were mediocrities.
For example, the one before me was W.S. Merwin, and he was 84 before he was appointed. I was 83. If we had to wait that long, then God knows this award doesn’t mean anything. And I could name some people whose work means very little to me, if anything, and they had it when they were 40. So…the best thing is that the people who loathe you really suffer—Why the hell did they give it to Phil?!—and I like that. My one regret about this thing is that my mom wasn’t still alive because she was absolutely thrilled when I got the Pulitzer, and she rubbed it in with all her neighbors. It was perfect.
That’s funny. I was wondering if laureate is the Miss America title of the poetry world.
That’s a pretty good analogy except—thank God—we don’t have to put on bathing suits when they photograph you. Yeah, but how much meaning does it have? It certainly doesn’t say anything about your character. Or maybe it’s like being cast in a movie as the starlet or a young hunk because to a certain degree you do have some power in having been chosen—that is, you manage to get a lot of attention.
The woman who got it before Merwin, Kay Ryan, was relatively unknown although she’s very good. But since she got it, she then got the Pulitzer Prize, and people now know her work, which is very good. I guess the best thing you could do with this distinction is highlight poets who aren’t as well known as they should be.
So does the president ever call you up and say, Phil, I have a dinner. Can you help me with a poem?
No. I recently read in Chicago with British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and asked her if that happened to her, and she said no. There’s no obligation. Of course, there’s no pay for her position either. Like mine, the pay is really incidental since it’s not that much money, but since being named laureate, my books have just taken off. I have an agent now who gets me all the readings I want—in fact, I’ve taken too many—and gets me more money than I’ve ever gotten for readings.
If I’d have gotten this 30 years ago, and I was every bit as good a poet then as I am now, maybe better, I would have had more fun with it. But I tell you, I just finished six days on the road, and I’m worn out, my dear. I am worn out.
Poetry turned 100 this year. What role do you think periodicals have played in keeping the genre alive?
A huge role. When I started publishing poetry, I must’ve been 26 or 27, and I was very isolated, but suddenly through the magazines, I made connections to people, to poets my own age, for example, like James Wright, who I wouldn’t meet for another 20 years. And I became aware of my contemporaries. I remember reading Galway Kinnell, now a dear friend. I found a poem of his in Poetry, and I wouldn’t meet him for decades. Those are two poets I really love.
Adrienne Rich is another one who I read in magazines and thought, boy, this woman can really write. Donald Justice is another poet I admire. He didn’t publish as much as I, which might be a good thing—there are a lot of poems I published that I shouldn’t have! I thought they were good at the time; I don’t now, but they’re out there and who gives a shit—they’re sitting in magazines that nobody reads anyway.
You know, at that time, you could read practically all the poetry being published because there were so few magazines. Today there must be 500 magazines in America that publish poetry. Whereas, back then, there probably weren’t more than 20 or 25 magazines you would want to appear in and that contained other worthy poets.
How has the publishing landscape for poets changed since you started putting your work out there in the ’50s?
Just as dramatically as the periodicals. I remember when the first good university press series began—aside from Yale because Yale used to print the Yale Younger Poets—and let’s see, who else…the University of Chicago occasionally brought out a book of poems. But Wesleyan University started a poetry series and published some amazing poets—James Dickey early on, Don Justice’s first book, James Wright’s first book, my second book—they were wonderful, and that was a new thing, and then other universities began to pick it up.
Today there are just so many presses that I think it’d be easier to publish a book but much harder to be noticed. I think it’s better the way it is now. Many more people are happy to publish first books.
So what new poets have crossed your desk that we should look out for?
There are many terrific poets out there. Here are the American poets I’ve been reading with pleasure and inspiration since I became laureate last August. There are quite a few because I was judging three awards.
Philip Levine’s Poets to Watch Out For
L.S. Asekoff—Asekoff has been around for some years, but in the last decade he’s absolutely caught fire—his last two books are stunning. The poems are by turns personal, cultural, political and always smart. They portray this country as it is, not cruelly nor outrageously, but calmly and devastatingly. The last book, Freedom Hill (2011), is a single masterful poem.
Sheila Black—Largely unknown and certainly unacknowledged, this woman has for years been creating a body of work that refuses to look away from the private and public hells so many Americans live in. She writes her poems with both passion and control and manages to always avoid melodrama.
Tomás Morín—One of the new, rising stars of the poetry world. His first book, A Larger Country, has been chosen by the American Poetry Review for publication this fall.
Malena Mörling—Originally from Sweden, Mörling brings a sensibility that heretofore has been missing in American poetry. She is a poet of relationships, those between people and things, between people and animals, between people and time, between people and the stars, between people and people, between life and death. Concentrated spiritual poems that are utterly lucid.
Peter Everwine—This poet is a too little known national treasure. He has been writing his pure lyrics for more than 50 years, and it’s time the country celebrated him. For such beauty of line and purity of image, you would have to go to Louise Bogan or Antonio Machado to find his equal.
Ishion Hutchinson—A young Jamaican now living and working in the States, he is the living embodiment of a rich poetic Caribbean tradition—think [Derek] Walcott and Merle Collins—as well as the great lyricists of the last century—Dylan Thomas and G.M. Hopkins.
Charles Hanzlicek—Although he doesn’t write sonnets to women, Hanzlicek is basically a love poet. He loves trees and the birds who nest in them, he loves water and the places water gathers—rivers and lakes and even oceans—he loves women and children, he loves truth tellers, and in his writing he celebrates all his loves.
Michael Palmer—I don’t know why Palmer has not been the poet laureate twice—for more than 30 years he has been writing astonishing poetry, work that’s as good as anyone else’s in our language. Thread (2011), Palmer’s most recent book, is essential reading.
Spencer Reece—His first book, The Clerk’s Tale (2004) (this one’s not by Chaucer), was last year’s wonderful discovery. He can make poetry out of haberdashery and faith in God. Precise, economical, resourceful and utterly improbable.
John Murillo—A young West Coast urban poet with fantastic energy, imagination and élan. His first book, Up Jump the Boogie (2010), is by turns philosophical and wildly unpredictable but always charged and authentic.
Kate Daniels—A superb narrative poet, Daniels is able to spin her tales with a wonderfully rich and inclusive texture. Her intelligence is everywhere but it in no way restricts her emotional power. Forgive the title of her newest book, A Walk in Victoria’s Secret (2010)—the poems are bold and wonderfully edgy.
Erika Rohrbach spends her days helping international students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and her nights and weekends in northern New Jersey.
Photo of Philip Levine by Michael Lionstar.