What poetry is
As he took the podium to introduce Philip Levine, English Professor David Baker carried with him a well-worn copy of Levine’s They Feed They Lion, purchased in 1978 — one of the first books of poetry Baker remembers buying.
“Philip Levine is one of the great poets in American history,” he said. “Levine has won everything there is to win in American poetry.” Those awards include the Pulitzer Prize, the position of U.S. Poet Laureate, and, most recently, the Wallace Stevens Award.
Looking out over the crowd that had gathered for the first Beck Lecture of the year — a group that included not just Denison students and faculty, but visitors from Kenyon, Purdue, and beyond — Baker remarked that the audience might have chosen to do any number of things that evening, but they decided to attend a poetry reading. “I think that’s a very encouraging act,” he said. “I know it’s a very necessary one.”
Funny and engaging, Levine quickly developed a rapport with the audience. He shared a range of his work, from well-known pieces like “The Mercy” and “What Work Is,” to more recent work, such as “Black Wine.” In between reading his poems, he told stories — of his youth in Detroit, his years in Spain, his deep appreciation for jazz. Relatable and down-to-earth, Levine acknowledged that poetry can be very difficult work but advised the audience, “Be patient. Wait 10 or 20 years, and maybe you’ll understand it. And if not, what have you lost?”
“I thought he was very humorous and interesting as a person,” said Alex Woroncow ’16. “It was pleasing to see that not all writers have to fit the solemn, serious type.”
On Thursday morning, Levine joined Professor Ann Townsend ’85 and eight students from her advanced poetry-writing workshop to share thoughts on creativity and craft. After asking some of the students which poets they’d been enjoying recently, Levine talked about the writers who influenced him in his youth: T.S. Eliot, whose “vignettes of city life” inspired him to find the poetic in his native Detroit; William Butler Yeats, who possessed “a speaking voice that’s also a singing voice”; and Wilfred Owen, whose thoughts on war resonated deeply with Levine as a young man coming of age during World War II.
One student asked Levine when he first began to write poetry. “It began as a verbal exercise, a kind of communion with the universe,” he replied. At 13, he would go outside after dinner and make up poems — although, he recalls, “I did not call them poems, because they had no resemblance to the poems I was reading in school.” For years, he never wrote them down — largely for fear that his brothers might discover them and have a lifetime of ammunition for mocking him. “I spoke them aloud,” he explained, “And as I spoke them, I heard a me that I’d never heard before.”
As the class drew to a close, Townsend asked Levine what parting advice he would like to give to the room of aspiring poets. He quipped that the one thing he most wished he’d done differently as a young poet was take better care of his teeth, then turned to more serious guidance.
“Don’t be in a hurry to find a voice,” he said. “Be patient — especially with yourself.” Although he acknowledged the challenges of writing poetry, he encouraged the students, “If you really love doing it, give it a hell of a try. Let me tell you, it’s a life worth leading.”