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reading about philip levine and the role of place in poetry

February 1, 2011

One of the required texts for the graduate poetry workshop I am taking is Poetry In Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets. As someone who loves reading and discussing process, I am really enjoying reading each poet’s words, which are excerpted from transcripts of their appearances in the classroom of Pearl London at the New School in Greenwich Village in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

As I confessed when I was reading (and writing from) The Poets Laureate Anthology (an effort I am committed to continuing throughout 2011), there are many, many important poets I have failed to study. And so I am making my introduction to the poets featured in Poetry In Person, as well. This includes Philip Levine, whose words about process are captured in the fourth chapter.

We are required to write six response papers during the semester, and I am thinking about writing my first on the influence of place as described by Levine. These papers don’t have to be extensive; in fact, they should be brief. I think they are designed to show that we are absorbing the readings enough so that we can discuss them and, perhaps, find tools for our own writing.

The subject of place in poetry is, of course, very broad, and obviously place is important to hundreds of poets, not just Philip Levine. And so the response paper has to be just that: my quick response to what Levine has to say about it (and only as it is quoted in this text). That narrows the scope considerably, and I’m going to play with it a bit here.

Want to play along? How does place appear in your own work? Do you have “go-to” settings? Do you locate your poems geographically? Do you concentrate on the place of your birth? the place you live? the places you visit?

I have lived in three places: Lincoln, Maine (birth to age 18); Buckhannon, West Virginia (college years); and Albany, New York (a few years in the city; more than 10 years in the country). I have two favorite places: Ogunquit, Maine, and Portland, Oregon.

Sometimes, I write specifically about place. I have one or two poems about Lincoln, two or three about Ogunquit and probably six about Portland. Interestingly, I haven’t written any poems about West Virginia or upstate NY (though I have some micro-poems about the rural and farm setting around my house).

However, all of those places (except WV, again interestingly) figure into my poems as settings, characters or metaphors. I have dozens of poems (as do most of us, I am sure) that reference specific physical locations (not “café” but “Caffé Lena,” for example; not “street,” but “SW Alder Street”) not simply to set the scene but to contribute to the context of the poem.

Am I in that place as a visitor? Is this where I started? Is it urban or rural? How do I relate to the people there? How am I connected to the place — culturally? economically? politically? What does the place represent — escape? entrapment? Is the place “famous” (what type-casting already exists around it) or is the place anonymous? Those kinds of things represent opportunities for using place in a poem, and they present certain challenges, as well: how do you convey the personal meaning of a place to the reader?

In Poetry in Person, London quotes Levine from a prior published interview. He said, “By the end of the year the landscape [in Spain] seemed to me like a projection of my own inner being. I felt that when I looked at the Spanish landscape I was looking at part of myself.” He tells London at first, “I couldn’t write [in Spain] because everything felt foreign to me. …and once becoming comfortable I found I could write.” The limitation of Poetry in Person is that it doesn’t then show us a poem Levine wrote about Spain so we can see how he handles the place in his writing. We have to trust his spoken words on it. (Of course, for my own curiosity, I am digging up some of those poems.)

The poem included in Levine’s chapter in Poetry in Person is “You Can Have It,” which gives us a glimpse of Detroit, where he was born, along with a glimpse of Levine’s identical twin brother (the poem depicts them working opposite manual labor shifts as though they are one person — “each man/ has one brother who dies when he sleeps/ and sleeps when he rises to face this life,/ and that together they are only one man/ sharing a heart that always labors”).

In the intro to the chapter, the book’s editor, Alexander Neubauer, writes, “While the Detroit poems would become his signature, two long stays in Spain in the 1960s evoked the anti-Fascist poems about the Spanish Civil War that would find their way into much of his work.” Levine seemed to reject being classified by any particular sensibility, telling London, “Some people think I’m much better when I’m in my work clothes breaking roads or other things of that nature. They don’t like to see me … crying or yearning for lost love.”

Later in the interview, Levine talks about “the factory” as place (and metaphor). He says, “A factory’s a place where you take the earth … and you apply … pressure and you transform it into bumpers and fenders. But you also bring people in there and you apply … pressures to them and you transform them.” Once again, however, Levine insists on his own sensibility about the factory and Detroit. In response to someone equating Detroit with “the whole nightmare landscape of the self,” he says, “I don’t see a nightmare. I don’t find Detroit’s people ugly. I find them precious and gorgeous. … It’s an act of great pleasure to be able to have developed enough distance, emotional distance and poetic technique, to go back and memorialize those people. … Detroit is not a nightmare landscape to me.”

So there’s that challenge — how does your own interpretation of a place compete with existing perceptions and stereotypes? Maybe it shouldn’t try to compete. Maybe it’s enough that the poet brings place into a poem because of its personal meaning. The reader is going to what he/she does with the poem, all of it, not just the stuff related to place. Once it is out in the world, it is either a point of convergence or divergence, and in a successful poem both versions work (aha! there’s that twinning, that “they are only one man”).

This is far from an academic analysis. I’m just chewing on bits of the reading.

These are the things I continue to think about: I am also from a factory town of sorts (paper mill), and yet it has appeared very little in my writing. I don’t know why that is. Conversationally, I will tell you that the blue collar upbringing influenced me greatly. I will also probably tell you I write very little about my childhood, so maybe that overrides the place influence. Levine tells London, “I was something like forty-three or forty-four the first time I was able to write about [my childhood].” Maybe I am not “of age” yet. 🙂

I am interested most in the following: how I love to consider these questions of things like place and how they influence my writing but when I’m actually writing, I am not conscious of them at all.

  1. February 1, 2011 10:21 pm

    i like thinking carolee. which is not to say you don’t think much. omg, i’m talking and i can’t shut up! what i mean to say is, i enjoyed your take on this subject and reading about your reading. phewy. time for this snowbound mom to go to bed!

    we have talked about the paper mills not appearing in our work before. i have just now begun writing about the lake. you see, i am “of age.”

    • February 2, 2011 12:39 am

      you’ve met thinking carolee? tell me the truth: she’s frumpy, isn’t she? and she has bad hair, doesn’t she?

  2. February 2, 2011 12:38 am

    so this is what i focused on in the short response paper: “Once it is out in the world, it is either a point of convergence or divergence, and in a successful poem both versions work.” without fiddling with this blog post, i wouldn’t have stumbled upon it. three cheers for procrastination through blogging! hip hip hooray!

  3. February 2, 2011 8:20 am

    I love that you are allowing us into the class, while “chewing” over what you are thinking. I hope you continue to do so.

    The place I find hardest to write about is my hometown: Hong Kong, and therefore, my childhood. I have always wanted to write about it, but know it almost too well to isolate bits. I have written one poem about sensory Hong Kong, one about a weekend on our junk, and just wrote one that I placed on one of the outlying islands. But I would like to do more. It should be a goldmine, but how to place the dynamite?

  4. February 2, 2011 12:10 pm

    Place is almost always tragic and lost, to me — the old growth forests, Mt St Helens, the sidewalks of my childhood home, things that were supposed to be permanent and weren’t: I guess maybe the reason I revert so often to the sky is that it’s the one “place” that bids fair to outlive me.

  5. February 3, 2011 9:47 am

    Thanks for this! I have that book–gift from a friend!–and have read some of the conversations. I will read Levine with your collected thoughts in mind!

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