One of our finest poets recalls a life well lived in poetry.
A former American Poet Laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Levine (News of the World, 2009, etc.) was in the process of finishing this sparkling collection of essays and lectures when he died (1928-2015). His good friend and fellow poet Edward Hirsch helped to complete the project. In the title piece, which Hirsch calls “one of the great textured descriptions of a writer finding his vocation,” Levine describes in loving detail discovering a group of fellow aspiring poets at Detroit’s Wayne University, where he read and wrote poetry with a small group of enthusiastic, like-minded undergraduates. “Where would I have been without all of them”—the poets he discovered and the friends “who shared with me their faith in the power of the perfect words.” In a piece on the influence his “master,” Williams Carlos Williams, had on his early career, Levine acknowledges that Williams’ poems, written in the “spoken language of my country,” turned him away from his “English masters toward the effort to create a poetry original and audacious enough to be American.” Great poets don’t always make great teachers. Levine attended the University of Iowa in the fall of 1953 and took Robert Lowell’s class. Lowell taught “badly,” and students started dropping out. John Berryman, on the other hand, captivated the students: “Never again would I encounter so great a poem [by Dylan Thomas] so perfectly presented.” The book is full of scintillating remembrances of fellow poets. Berryman could be “both brilliant and candid,” but Thom Gunn had “an ‘aura,’ a sort of inner beauty that was manifest in all of his actions.” Levine also speaks lovingly of his “mentor and friend” George Hitchcock and his seminal literary magazine, kayak,” and his piece on little-known Roberta Spear, who died young, will have readers rushing to her work.
Like his poetry, Levine’s essays are generous, honest, and real.