Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Rock Star on Campus

Once or twice a year, I get an email from the English Department of my Alma Mater.  These emails generally announce an alumni short story writing contest, or a change in the department, or something of that sort.  This past fall, however, I got an email that was so desperate that I could almost hear the begging.  Of course, it was well worded, and politically correct, but if I applied my "College Professor to Student Translator App" (which Apple has not yet offered to license from me) it would have said something like this:

"Are you f*cking kidding me?  We score Philip Levine to do a poetry reading, and you can't even postpone bar night to come see him?  Philip Levine is the biggest rock star to ever set foot on our campus, and if you want to pass your English classes this term, you had better get your *sses to Wilson Hall tonight at 7:00."

Hmmm.  From this I surmised that the English Department had gone to a lot of trouble to convince a world renowned poet to do a reading at the school, and that no one was going to attend.  At first, I was only happy that I already had my diploma and no longer had to worry about making appearances to please professors, but then I got a little embarrassed that I had never before heard of Philip Levine.

As it turns out, Philip Levine is quite a rock star.  He has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, both for poetry.  He was also the Poet Laureate for the United States from 2011-2012.   This means that he was likely still the reigning Poet Laureate at the time of the reading that no one planned to attend.  Despite the pleading email and my new found knowledge that Levine probably really was worth seeing, I skipped the reading, but put his Pulitzer winner, The Simple Truth on my TBR list.

The Simple Truth is just that.  It is straightforward, I suspect that it is highly autobiographical, and it is a really good book.  Most of the poems seem to be set in the 1960s, although the collection was published in 1994.  Many of the poems describe Levine's hometown, Detroit.

As long as I have been alive, optimists have been asserting that Detroit is set for a comeback, while the pessimists/realists have left the city and look back at it only from the other side of Eight Mile.  It was interesting to see the cracks in Detroit's surface that Levine saw forming in the early 1960s.  In "The Escape", Levine writes:

"To come to life in Detroit is to be manufactured
without the power of speech.  You clasp hands,
as I did, with a brother and step by step
begin the descent into hell or Hamtramck
and arrive, designed, numbered and tagged. . . "

My favorite line was in his poem, "My Mother with Purse the Summer They Murdered the Spanish Poet", where he is describing his mother looking into her purse instead of looking out the window:

"Had she looked up she would have seen the world she crossed
the world to find. . . . "

The Spanish poet he refers to in the title is Garcia Lorca, who was also referenced in Great House by Nicole Kraus, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano.  I'd love to read a good piece of historical fiction about Lorca, so if you know of one, please tell me where I can find it.

My favorite poem is Listen Carefully, where the speaker, who I assume is male, and may be Levine, describes his relationship with his sister, and scolds the reader for misinterpreting his meaning.

The Simple Truth deserved to win the Pulitzer.  It is the kind of book that could convince anyone that they like poetry.  It is understandable and easy to relate to.  I know that is not always the key to great poetry, but after reading more modern poets like Lisa Robertson, to me it was refreshing.  If you get a chance to see Philip Levine read, skip the bar night and go.  I have probably missed my last chance.  Levine is now 85 years old, and from what I can tell, he is living in California.  Maybe Detroit will still hold some allure, and call him home. 

By the way, I have also developed a "Father-in-law Translator App", which I use when my F-I-L comes to my house for Thanksgiving dinner and tells me how tired I look.  Using my app, I know that what he really means is  "The house looks great!  Wow!  You made a ton of food!  This was a lot of work!  You deserve to relax."  Or something like that.

Next Up:  Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Still Listening to:  The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

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