When poet Philip Levine received an honorary doctorate from Utah State University last week, he was praised for having won the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and for being one of six American artists selected for an exchange with Great Britain. He was congratulated for having produced 14 books of poetry.
But within the writers community itself, appreciation for Levine and his work gets even more specific and enthusiastic. Over the years he's produced a body of work that takes the skills and craft from university training and weds them with earthy topics - often the hard-boiled, blue-collar life of Detroit. Perhaps more than any American writing, his work shows popular appeal and sophistication at the same time.Levine's also had a vast influence as a teacher. At times it seems half the poets in America name him as a mentor.
During his stay in Utah, he took a few moments to talk to the Deseret News about life, literature and the pursuit of poetry.
Here are some of his comments:
ON POETS AND SANITY:
Young poets have a romance with a certain type of self-destructive poet - Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, poets like that. At Fresno, where I teach, there was a young poet everyone talked about as being brilliant. The evidence was he was drunk a good deal of the time and kept smashing up his motorcycle.
When poets turn 30 and start having children they usually give that myth up.
There have been a few times in my life when I turned my headlights out, but I haven't done it recently. And I was usually in someone else's car when I did.
ON PASTERNAK'S COMMENT "BAD PEOPLE NEVER WROTE GREAT POETRY":
Generalizations bore me, they seem to be there just to be violated. Saying bad people never wrote great poetry is like saying "Nobody ever wrote great poetry in the back seat of a Rolls Royce." Which, by the way, is why I'm buying a Rolls. Some very vain, racist people wrote great poems.
On the other hand, when you're writing good poetry you're usually at your best. A person can't be plotting the murder of his mother-in-law and be at his best.
ON CURRENT NOTIONS THAT FREE VERSE IS A FAILED EXPERIMENT, HAS RUN ITS COURSE, AND IT'S TIME TO RETURN TO RHYME AND METER:
I think it's silly. I get bored with that, too. I think unquestionably the greatest poetry of the 20th century is in free verse. I do think, however, that free verse and rhymed poetry can exist side by side and feed off each other.
Rhymed poetry may be easier to memorize, but that doesn't mean it's always more memorable.
ON HIS OWN CAREER AS A POET:
When I turned 26 and realized I'd outlived John Keats, I knew it was going to be different for me - none of that "boy wonder" stuff.
When you come out of a small school - as I did - you can count on taking an extra five years to make it.
I've always regarded myself as the Jersey Joe Walcott of poetry. If I ever become champ, I'll be the oldest champ of all time.