On poetry and Pulitzers


It was nothing but a man and his words, but it visibly moved the audience.  

The world-renowned poet Philip Levine is 85 years old, with a bristling mustache and a gravelly voice.  He trembled, one hand gripping the podium as he delivered the last lines of his poem, “Gospel.”  

“How weightless words are when nothing will do,” he said.

The Bill Bordy Theater, filled to the brim with students and faculty, erupted into applause.

Levine came to visit Emerson  Monday, Nov. 4 to answer students’ questions and perform some of his poems.  He read an eclectic selection of his poetry, including classics like “Gospel” and “Our Valley,” plus a new poem titled “Urban Myths,” which juxtaposed his home city of Detroit and his current home in Brooklyn.  Some of his poems were inspired by historical events, such as the Spanish Civil War, while two others referenced Spanish poet Garcia Lorca.

Levine, a Pulitzer Prize winner and poet laureate of the United States from 2011-2012, was the first writer to be featured in this year’s writing, literature, and publishing reading series.  Steve Yarbrough, a professor of writing, literature, and publishing, and the director of the reading series, said he wanted to bring in the best writers out there, and that there will be more famous writers to come.

Yarbrough said he and Levine are old friends who worked across the hall from one another at California State University, Fresno in 1998.

“I kept my door open whenever he was in the building, in hopes I could hear him speaking,” Yarbrough said of his time working with Levine at Fresno.

Yarbrough said his wife, Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, who translates Levine’s work into Polish, got Levine to consider visiting Emerson.  Yarbrough said he was honored to have his friend come and speak, and felt students would benefit from Levine’s experience.

“I got him, not just because I think he’s the greatest, but because that’s the kind of person I want to bring in,” Yarbrough said.

Students were eager to get Levine’s signature on a copy of his latest book News of the World, once the reading concluded.

James O’Connell, a freshman writing, literature, and publishing major, said he thought Levine’s performance was very powerful.

“I never thought I’d get to see such a renowned poet here at Emerson,” he said. 

Levine has had a successful career, with 20 anthologies published across the world and a laundry list of honors and awards.  But in a phone interview, he said that his journey from a working-class kid in Detroit to an accomplished poet was not the result of some mystical turning point in his life.

“I didn’t get suddenly struck by lightning,” Levine said.  “All the important things in life don’t start like thunder.”

Levine said John Berryman, another Pulitzer Prize winner who taught him at the University of Iowa, was his greatest mentor.  Levine said that having some sort of guidance is crucial to the growth of a young poet.

Levine also said he has been able to keep producing poetry because he’s been patient.

“I had the good sense not to destroy myself,” he said, listing half a dozen famous poets who died drunk or committed suicide.

Levine said he has lived all over the country as a writer-in-residence at schools like Princeton University and Brown University.  He is well known for his terse, gritty poems about mid-20th-century Detroit, and said he still writes about his birthplace.

“I do go back,” he told the audience.  “But it’s heartbreaking.”

Yarbrough said “Call It Music,” a poem Levine wrote only a few years ago, was one of Levine’s best.  The poem follows Levine’s friendship with the late bebop jazz trumpet player Howard McGhee, and Levine’s reflections on life’s purpose.

Levine said he often does not seek to write a poem, but simply waits for an idea to strike him.  He said he has honed his craft to the point where he knows how to technically execute something he comes up with, but said the formation of an idea matters more.

“You shouldn’t interrupt the meaningful wait just because you feel you have to write,” he said. “Something arrives because you’ve had the patience to wait, and after 60 or 70 years, you know what to do with it.”

Levine made it clear in his interview that, despite his success, living off poetry was not easy for him, and it isn’t easy for anyone.  His encouragement of young poets came with a caveat.

“Go for it, if you read great poems and it does something to you nothing has ever done before,” he said.  “But if you don’t get that, sell Buicks or do something else.  It’s a long haul, so you’d better be ready.”