Philip Levine, the Jewish poet who died on February 14 at age 87, was a feisty writer inspired by working class roots and a family tradition of bubbe-meises (grandmother’s fables).
In “Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections” (2000) Levine analysed his poem “The Old Testament”:
“My twin brother swears that at age thirteen I’d take on anyone who called me kike no matter how old or how big he was. I only wish I’d been that tiny kid who fought back through his tears, swearing he would not go quietly… He insists, he names the drug store where I poured a milkshake over the head of an Episcopalian with quick fists as tight as croquet balls.”
This poem, from Levine’s collection “The Simple Truth,” describes his experiences as a boy in a Detroit suburb during World War II. He notes:
“The Detroit of my growing up was a viciously anti-Semitic city possessing such outstanding Jew-haters as Father Coughlin, who spouted his Nazi filth every Sunday from the Church of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, a few miles from where I lived, and Henry Ford, whose Dearborn newspaper published the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s little wonder I was in the eyes of many — schoolmates and others — first and foremost a Jew, and for some, nothing else.”
Levine approvingly cites Alfred Kazin in the latter critic’s “God and the American Writer”: “Freud as a Jew was enthralled by the survival of his people and, whether he admitted it or not, attributed the survival not to persistent loyalty to God but to anti-Semitism, which kept one fighting back. ‘Being a Jew I knew I would always be in the opposition.’” This scrappy ethic may also have helped Levine overcome the often-disastrous literary influence of Walt Whitman, whose domination of lesser poets could result in gassy, albeit sometimes prizewinning, logorrhea.
Levine’s “The Old Testament” was sparked by a meeting when he and his twin brother Edward, then in their fifties, discussed the past and the poet could not recall his pugnacious behaviour as recounted by his twin. Accepting the fallibility of family memories, Levine finds it unimportant whose recollection is strictly accurate. An indelible emotional memory, by contrast, was after Levine and his twin celebrated their bar mitzvah, both lost faith: “This all-powerful God whose name was unspeakable was allowing the slaughter of our people, his chosen people, in Europe and the raging anti-Semitism at home….if we were His chosen people, we were chosen for disaster.”
Another poem, “Growth” from the 1992 collection “What Work Is” recalls:
In the soap factory where I worked when I was fourteen, I spoke to no one and only one man spoke to me and then to command me to wheel the little cars of damp chips into the ovens… When I slid open the heavy doors my eyes started open, the pores of my skull shriveled, and sweat smelling of scared animal burst from me everywhere.”
This intense experience with ovens and soap at a time when European Jews were murdered in concentration camps left a lasting impression. Levine would learn to empathize with fellow workers, much as he did with anti-Fascists who gave their lives fighting the dictator Franco in the Spanish Civil War. And among the poets who stirred his imagination as a young man was another American Jewish factory worker who ardently defended the working classes, Naomi Replansky.
As Levine told “The Atlantic Monthly” in 1999,, family legend claimed that he had Spanish ancestry: “Why my parents, both born in a little shtetl in western Russia, would tell me this, I have no idea. But it may have had something to do with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I did notice when I lived in Barcelona that people would just walk up to me and start speaking Catalan, because I looked just like them. And then the Spanish Civil War was the war of my growing up, and a great many young men from my neighborhood went to it. About half of them came home. So this was my war, in a sense. I was growing up with the mythology of it.”
Perhaps for this reason, as he relates in “Jewish American Poetry,” Spanish anarchists who despised the church for siding with Fascism were “true Jewish heroes whether they knew it or not.” When the downtrodden were Franco’s victims or fellow factory workers, Levine ardently respected them: “I saw these men and women as the special children of my [Jewish] God because what my God demanded first and foremost was justice. This I learned from the history of my people. Even the most mighty could be punished for their transgression as King Saul and David were punished: in that in God’s eyes we were all equal. This was my Detroit Jewish heritage. If I betrayed my loyalty to the people I worked with, regardless of their race or position, I would be despised in God’s eyes.”
Drawing on the Bible for ethical as well as lyrical motivation, Levine “loved the fury of Amos, the wisdom and the language of Ecclesiastes, the beauty of the Psalms, and the astonishing characters who marched through the two books of Samuel. I read them over and over and grew to love my people, their devotion, their courage, their endurance, but their God felt no closer to me than He did at fourteen or than He does today… For me the Bible became a book, a book of wisdom, lamentation, prophecy, erotic poetry, sagas full of heroism and memorable characters, a great book and one I know has influenced both my life and my writing.” One of Levine’s most gripping poems, “They Feed They Lion,” titled after an African-American fellow worker’s way of speaking, was influenced by the 18th century British poet Christopher Smart, himself obsessed by the Bible.
In this cross-cultural way, Levine constructed his own individual myth. Although he left factories behind at age thirty, surviving on teaching jobs thereafter, working-class experience remained a key subject and identity, even if careless critics misread his work. One claimed that Levine “goes out of his way to tell us that he is essentially a peasant,” despite Levine’s being a quintessentially urban poet with no rural content. Even less on target was Harvard University poetry tastemaker, Helen Vendler, who likened Levine’s work to the kitschy lyrics of Rod McKuen. Ever-combative, Levine informed “The New York Times” in 1997: “Vendler is an elitist the likes of which we’ve never had before…Vendler doesn’t hear poetry. Even a blind pig gets a truffle now and then.” Fortunately approved of by other mavens, such as critic Harold Bloom and an early mentor, the poet John Berryman, Levine produced a vast body of work of which the best is surely of lasting merit.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward