I took Greg along to Phil Levine’s 80th Birthday Tribute at The Great Hall at Cooper Union last night (and he took me to a great sushi bar afterward! Double win!). Another packed house, just like at the Galway Kinnell tribute earlier this year.
The proceedings were filled with the usual humor that surrounds a Levine reading. I remember when he read back at Michigan there was an incident with the volume suddenly going too loud on his microphone. When they adjusted it, it was too low, to which he called out: “That’s a bit overdoing it, don’t you think? You say you’re going to read a religious poem and Boom! your voice comes out of the ceiling.” Many moments like that, in particular with his wife who he claimed “writes all his best lines and titles” such as “They Feed They Lion” which used to be “They Feed the Chickens”.
Levine started with a prose piece “The Language Problem” and then moved into a nice selection of poems including “The Glove and Other Disasters.” He joked that at an event like this all the other poets paying tribute read all your good poems and you’re left with nothing. One phrase that keeps kicking around my head is “an oracle in drag”.
Here was the line-up: Kate Daniels read “The Fox”; E. L. Doctorow read “The Cafe”; Edward Hirsch read “To Cipriano in the Wind”; Galway Kinnell read “They Feed They Lion”; Yusef Komunyakaa read “Not This Pig”; Malena Morling read “The Mercy”; Sharon Olds read “The Old Testament”; Tom Sleigh read “The Two”; Gerry Stern read “The Simple Truth”; Jean Valentine read “Breakfast with Joaquin”; and Charles Wright read “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives.”
One of the best tributes of the evening came from Malena Morling, a former student of Levine’s, who had this to say: “because we mattered so much to him, we began to matter to ourselves.” The best praise I think a teacher can get.
As for my tribute: Phil Levine was one of the first poets I met. He book-ended my undergrad experience at Muhlenberg College as I was invited to attend a dinner with him my first-year and then again my senior year (the English faculty there were obsessed with his book What Work Is). On his first visit he read a new poem at that time, “The Mercy”. By the time he came back my senior year the collection The Mercy had been released and I asked if he would read the title poem again, which he did. It felt like something had come full circle for me. I still remember his comments about Derek Walcott during dinner my senior year (my honors thesis was on Walcott, so I had to ask what his take was), how disgusted he was with Walcott for basically “campaigning” for the Nobel prize as a politician would for office.
I have so far had one more encounter with Levine, during grad school. He was the visiting poet-in-residence my first year at Michigan (I still remember the fabulous confrontation my friend and fellow poet Suzanne Hancock got into with him at the Hopwood Tea when he off-handedly claimed Anne Carson was “not a poet”–don’t mess with those Canadians!) and he did a group workshop for all the poets interested. We all submitted a poem ahead of time and he chose three to workshop. I was lucky enough to be one of the three, and we workshopped my poem “Restoration” which is about me restoring this old trunk my cousin Judy gave me, and the help my dad gave me in the process, the restoring of the trunk also an attempt at “restoration” between a father and son. He really helped me break-through with the poem (he praised the whole last section!) and so yes, I concur that he really is an amazing teacher because he not only cares deeply about poetry and making good poems, but he also cares about the maker of those poems (not that he’d admit it; knowing his humor, that sentiment would be undercut…)
Now be good and go read some of his work.