Proximity to the Actual: Philip Levine’s Last Books and the Essential Bukowksi
Reviewed in this essay:
Philip Levine, My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry (edited by Edward Hirsch)
Alfred A. Knopf
November 8, 2016
$26.95; 224 pp.
Philip Levine, The Last Shift: Poems (edited by Edward Hirsch)
Alfred A. Knopf
November 8, 2016
$26.95; 96 pp.
Charles Bukowski, Essential Bukowski (edited by Abel Debritto)
October 25, 2016
$25.99; 240 pp.
It is usually sad to review someone’s last work. It is even worse when that person was a national treasure like Philip Levine, or when the material at hand—in this case, two books released simultaneously and posthumously—is so good. Still, like David Bowie, Levine was excellent until end of his days, and in a universe that kills so many of its artists young, that is no small victory. He lived to be eighty-seven, dying in 2015 after a life propelled by what he calls “faith in the power of perfect words.”
My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry is a slim compendium of lectures, addresses, interviews, and essays from late in Levine’s career. Sequenced deftly by their editor, the poet and critic Edward Hirsch, the texts exemplify a hybrid genre in which many poets excel, a blend of autobiography and criticism. Levine writes consciously as an older man, drawing deeply on memories of things he has seen, people he has spent time with, and the poetry that matters to him.
The book has two polestars: Detroit and John Keats. I do not just mean that the two are subjects here. Rather, the auto city and English poetry’s greatest “What if?” (Keats died younger than Kurt Cobain) shaped Levine’s basic framework for comprehending the world. They are not just content but form. He learned through them to prize something he finds in the poet John Cornford, who died fighting in the Spanish Civil War: “proximity to the actual.” This entails a leftist politics rooted in the experience of workers and an aesthetic of grateful attentiveness to the “the magical world of the ordinary.”
A child of Jewish Russian immigrants, Levine loved scruffy urban environments, especially places where nature had surged up through the industrial grid, with “untended undergrowth a boy could transform in his imagination into an untamed wilderness.” He also recalls human beings who didn’t stay where inherited structures told them to. There was Florence Hickock, a Dakota “hill woman” who helped his family keep house. He remembers her, in a striking essay about the political commitments of Spanish Civil War poets, as “one of those uncompromising, totally authentic Americans who believe in decency, a fair wage, and a never-ending battle against the excesses of capitalism that all worthy working people were obliged by God and common sense to carry on until their last breath.” Growing up blue-collar, Levine attended Detroit public schools all the way through what is now Wayne State, where he first befriended other poets. At the same time he got an education from factory jobs and jazz clubs. He recounts the latter in a mix of prose reminiscence and narrative poetry, underscoring the importance of music to memory and joy but refusing to divorce it from difficult questions about race, class, fame, and addiction. Art helps us bear our losses. It doesn’t erase them.
And plenty of loss came to Detroit. Behind the suburbanization, deindustrialization, and austerity budgets that wrecked the city lay “the old forces of pietism, reaction, racism, and the abuses of ownership and power.” Visiting his childhood home, he recognizes the shock of American capitalism (dead streets, cracked sidewalks, crumbling houses, a few neighbors scraping by) but not the geography of his own memories; “a mounting sense of change, and seldom change for the better,” infects the scene. Downtown has gentrified a bit; the city retains its professional-sports franchises; yet most of the place, built to serve modernity, has been ruined by it.
Not that Detroit was paradise in its heyday. After Wayne State, Levine, much like a contemporary Millennial, found himself without decent work: “At twenty-five I was a college graduate, and an employee of General Motors for eight hours a night in the forge room of Chevy Gear & Axle at difficult, dangerous, and often stupefying work that week after week robbed me of whatever self-respect hadn’t gone up in smoke.” His escape was writing. In the mid-1950s he left Michigan for the MFA program at Iowa, where he studied under John Berryman and Robert Lowell, the latter a comically bad teacher; soon he would find himself an expatriate of sorts in California’s Central Valley, where he taught for decades at Fresno State, even after he and his book awards could easily have decamped for Stanford or the Ivy League.
Much of Levine’s business in these texts is tracing the influence of other writers. Looking back over his career, he highlights some giants who mattered to him, like William Carlos Williams, whose search for a plain American voice clearly shaped Levine’s vernacular style. There are endearing recollections of days spent with Thom Gunn. But he gives special emphasis to poets he thinks should be better known. He finds in Roberta Spear, for instance, a catalyzing “sense of wonder in the presence of the physical world” in her native Central Valley, which stops her from lapsing into despair when she faces “the brutal forces that have turned the Valley into an ongoing catastrophe.”
Every poet is a kind of haphazard theorist, and the Keats of the Letters presides here. The great Romantic was “a creature of enormous curiosity and good fellowship,” Levine observes in “Getting and Spending,” the last essay in My Lost Poets. This made him a good companion and a great poet—his intense interest in particularities, especially those of nature and other people, meant that he was alive to poetry’s “highest purposes, to honor all that which is truly alive and ignored in a world like ours.” For Keats, writing was coextensive with experience, and in letters to friends and family he is constantly hashing out his theory of poetics, where a disabling sin is “irritable reaching after fact & reason,” as he warned his brothers George and Tom in 1817. His lyrical gifts, the greatest in the language outside of Shakespeare, shouldn’t obscure that he was also a first-rate critic: “Reading his letters, which are the finest we have by any poet, you come to see that like the best writing in any genre they are acts of discovery.”
Levine chafes at capitalism, as a sentient being will. “Getting and Spending” quietly appropriates the language of the Market and money, and formulates an alternative philosophy of artistic impulse and human love. The basic idea is that emotional austerity is a disaster. When Wordsworth, by then a great eminence, met Keats, he was cold to the young poet; no relationship between geniuses kindled; it was the older man’s loss, and poetry’s. “This failure on Wordsworth’s part,” Levine says, “has become for me an emblem of how we lose what is most precious in the act of saving oneself from the expenditure of feeling and the uncertainty involved in risking the self.” Our humanity consists in a great gamble; without continually risking everything a poet dries up.
But the material rewards are mostly nonexistent, because the Market is always at the door, and it is not bullish about literature—“poets spend themselves and America doesn’t buy.” This remains the actual to which we find ourselves proximate.
Levine is right that asking somebody who their favorite poet is constitutes “one of the great conversation enders.” But you could do a lot worse than answer with his name. His genius entails a continual effort to be honest (a labor formalized in his plainspoken, realist line) even when that is painful. He does what Whitman advises in Democratic Vistas: “I say we had better look our nation searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease.” And what a face. The same capitalist ravages that inform My Lost Poets are at their ghoulish work here.
The Last Shift is all recent material, but it was posthumously ordered by Edward Hirsch, who also chose the apt title, with its connotations of labor and mortality. Stylistically and ideologically, these poems are of a piece with Levine’s career—his voice has not changed. This is the same narrative-oriented, image-rich, realist writer, a relative of Raymond Carver whose work is likewise readily accessible. That said, his simplicity should not be mistaken for sentimentality. At the end of his poems you are more likely to encounter plain-faced irony than pronouncements, homilies, statements, messages, clear epiphanies, or tidy conclusions.
The titular poem exemplifies his method. It begins unpoetically, with a breakdown of urban infrastructure, a traffic jam at a train crossing: “I had been on my way to work as usual / when the traffic stalled a quarter mile / from the railroad crossing on Grand Blvd.” The diction is ordinary, the line breaks are shaped by phrase rather than meter, and the poem centers on the experience of an individual. A quasi-Romantic image follows—“Then I saw the moon rise above / the packing sheds of the old Packard plant”—but this is submerged again in urban realism, as the speaker notices “guys in greasy, dark wool jackets” huddled around an alley fire. The scene becomes a train of quotidian things: cops doze in their cruiser; a wrecked house with “all of its / rooms torn into view” confronts the drivers; kids are on their way to school with “their breath / pushing out into the morning air / in little trumpets of steam.” The poem ends ambiguously, with the speaker imagining something like both a death and an escape from youth:
these tiny glazed pictures—a car hood,
my own speedometer, the steering wheel,
the windshield fogging over—were the last
I’d ever see. These places where I had lived
all the days of my life were giving up
their hold on me and not a moment too soon.
Literature helped Levine get out of Detroit: he exchanged the hard labor of auto plants—“That world stamped into / separate but equal steel / leaves we called springs, / springs for the generations / of Chevy cars and trucks not / yet dreamed of”—for the equally difficult labor of writing well. “Immortal Birds” tracks the poet west to California, where his language of experience simultaneously recalls Keats’s nightingales and ironizes them in the form of a backyard bully, “a battered scrub jay [that] lives / in the lemon tree in my back yard.” Juxtaposing California dreams with its lesser realities, he admits,
I thought that when I left Detroit
to head west I would find groves
of orange trees, a vast land tilting
slowly toward the severe peaks
of the Sierra Nevada, I thought
I’d left the corrugated world
behind in Flint and Wyandotte.
But the bird “has a voice like tin snips dragged / across a steel file,” and if his song and feeding prompt any lyric reflections, they are inconclusive, rooted in the materiality of the moment rather than philosophical abstraction: “My jay jabs / his thick beak into a lemon, gargles, / and croaks out the anthems of Ecorse.” The Ecorse is a river in Wayne County, Michigan; the working-class Detroit suburb of Ecorse is named after it. To write poetry is to bring the force of memory into the vivid present, to see a California jay eat a California lemon and think about Detroit’s metals and waters. Levine magically articulates these overlaps in time and space.
He is a distinctly American poet. But the sequence “A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One” points up his rootedness in the full Anglophone tradition of irony. In one vignette, the language of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” enters a modern factory, where “Time’s winged chariot” becomes car parts: “and at my back I always / hear Chevy Gear & Axle / grinding the night-shift workers / into antiquity.” Meanwhile, the closing bit of “Dawn Songs,” which is only three lines long, takes Whitmanesque language and dips it in a sardonic coating, as an older man remembers himself: “Oh / to be young and strong and dumb / again in Michigan!”
The poem I found most moving, however, takes place in Spain. Decades after the civil war that engendered some of the poetry Levine admires most (brilliant art that didn’t halt the rise of fascism any more than the international brigades were able to), the travelling speaker adds his lament to the tradition of pain; specifically, to the tradition of how easily the world ignores pain. The location is rich in dark history—Franco’s Nationalist army won a decisive victory against the republicans in Catalonia in 1939, when Barcelona fell—and the poem’s tone is biblical, with a somber rhythm of repeated words and phrases:
The air, brilliant and calm, stays
to witness, the single cloud lost
between heaven and here stays,
the mountains look down and keep
their distance, somewhere far off
the sea goes on working for itself.
By the waters of the Llobregat
no one sits down to weep for the children
of the world, by the Ebro, the Tagus,
the Guadalquivir, by the waters
of the world no one sits down and weeps.
On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump, who won election on the day Levine’s last books were published, was sworn in as President of the United States. With a reactionary GOP holding both the House and Senate, the American public is set to experience a devastating round of austerity budgets, with even less money for everything from basic science to environmental protection to health care for poor children, yet plenty of funds for border walls and cops. Sitting down to weep, indeed.
I came to Levine’s work somewhat later in life, in my early thirties, and I regret that. Charles Bukowski, on the other hand, came early, as he does for a lot of readers, especially, I think, young men. He is certainly one of the most priapic of American poets, and he writes a lot about not having any money. Based in Los Angeles, he intentionally lived a low life full of drink and women, neither of which consistently agreed with him. The fiction and poetry that emerged from this experience is often realistic to the point of vulgarity—that’s the point—but it is not nihilistic or entirely cynical. Bukowski’s work is more than stuff for teenagers branching out from the Beats. He is a limited poet, but within those limits, the man can write.
Edited by Abel Debritto, the Essential Bukowski: Poetry, is a slimmer complement to The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993, which was published by Ecco in 2007; the difference is between a selected and a collected volume, essentially. The Essential is easier to carry on the bus. No doubt it will sell briskly, because Debritto has chosen judiciously from the poet’s enormous output, and because Bukowski is already famous. Few American poets—Whitman, Plath, Dickinson, Frost maybe—have the same level of name recognition, which is ironic, given that until the latter part of his life Bukowski was ignored by the literary establishment. Now you can get his likeness on T-shirts.
There are two immovable facts in his work: the constant decay of the body and the blunt-force trauma of capital, with the former bearing the marks of the latter. Life in Bukowski’s heavily autobiographical poems is a struggle for paychecks, rent, bottles, cigarettes, meals—one poem is titled “$$$$$$” (“I’ve always had trouble with / money”). His speakers are members of what has in this century come to be called the precariat; all that sets them apart from most other workers is their vocabulary, their capacity to observe closely and speak back against the moneyed universe. Bukowski is not a directly political poet—he was too solitary a creature—but his writing is obsessed by the concept of work, particularly the regimes under which it takes place. Poetry, which seizes the means of producing speculative worlds, is his form of emancipated labor.
“Go all the way,” urges “roll the dice,” which exemplifies his preference for abrupt enjambments and varied line lengths as well as his grueling version of the poéte maudit tradition, whereby an artist rejects the straitjacket of bourgeois society. The refusal to capitalize anything, as though the speaker were jotting down notes, evokes the contingency of his life, which nonetheless contains little stoic victories:
it could mean not eating for 3 or
it could mean freezing on a
it could mean jail, alcoholism,
it could mean derision,
isolation is the gift,
all the other is a test of your
of how much you really want to
Women do not have much place in this macho program, and as feminist critics have observed, Bukowski’s gender politics are problematic. He’s no misogynist, but he is wary of sustained relationships; his love poetry tends to be about failed love. More troublingly, he frequently conflates women with capital, in the form of angry landladies, uncomprehending wives, and greedy girlfriends who just don’t understand how special male artists are. (It is often unclear how ironic Bukowski intends such scenarios to be.) “The next time you listen to Borodin,” one poem implores, “remember his wife used his compositions / to line the cat boxes with / or to cover jars of sour milk.” Another speaker, thrown out of his lover’s house, seethes that “all they want / is a wooden Indian / to say yes and no / and stand over the fire and / not raise too much hell.” “The tragedy of the leaves” ends with a grotesque woman who embodies the demands of money:
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
screaming for rent[.]
He can also be downright creepy, as in “girl in a miniskirt reading the Bible outside my window,” which casts the poet as a sleazy voyeur and ends with a real howler: “she is dark, she is dark / she is reading about God. / / I am God.”
Yet in witnessing how capitalism devours everything in its path, warping human relations according to market pressures, Bukowski numbers women among the victims. Sneering at the managerial elite, he also mounts a quasi-feminist critique of
the bosses, yellow men
with bad breath and big feet, men
who look like frogs, hyenas, men who walk
as if melody had never been invented, men
who think it is intelligent to hire and fire and
profit, men with expensive wives they possess
like 60 acres of ground to be drilled
or shown-off or to be walled away from
Discarding standard punctuation, these texts operate through parataxis, piling up objects, people, and phenomena; and the underlying theme is capital versus labor, the rich versus everyone else. In “sparks,” employees reclaim their workspace by balancing their own pleasures with a genuine pride in labor. Not surprisingly, they are organized. They work a “ten hour day / four on Saturday,” the speaker notes, but
the pay was union
pretty good for unskilled labor
and if you didn’t come in
you got them soon enough
most of us in
white t-shirts and jeans
the other way.
Because the speaker’s workspace contains the possibility of play and humor, he enjoys his physical exertion; “I was a good worker / just for the rhythm of it / just for the hell of it,” he remembers. The workers’ ability to exist within the structures of industrial capitalism while remaining more than just laboring bodies means that management never really owns them. They are free, even heroic:
we were magnificent
we gave them
better than they asked
we gave them
What would life be like in a world beyond private ownership? In “a poem is a city,” Bukowski imagines this, channeling Whitman to declare that “a poem is a city, a poem is a nation, / a poem is the world.” A true text contains ugliness, “is a city filled with streets and sewers,” but all lives and things exist equally there.
For all his grime and grumpiness, Bukowski is a poet of the democratic commons, as we see in the wonderful late poem “the burning of the dream.” An elegy for the Los Angeles Central Library, which was badly burned in 1986, it depicts the place as a young artist’s seedbed, where “I was a bibliophile, albeit a / disenchanted / one.” It was where Bukowski began to write. It was a physical comfort, too, because at the time “I lived in a plywood hut / behind a roominghouse / for $3.50 a week.” The library was open to everyone; you didn’t need money or status to be there; it was an oasis for broke intellectuals and artists. This jewel of the public sphere didn’t save him from economic precarity, but it kept that precarity from deadening him:
the old L.A. Public
most probably kept me from
a butcher or a
Then it was taken away. An investigation of the fire, which destroyed 200,000 books, determined the cause was arson. “YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN,” bellows the last line.
If, as Marianne Moore has it, the mind “walks along with its eyes on the ground,” then Charles Bukowski had an uncommonly keen one. He was nothing if not continually proximate to his actual. Whether one enjoys the results of these explorations is largely a matter of taste, but returning to him after many years, I liked it all more than I thought I would.