We often use the word wise to mean “insightful” or “graceful” or “shrewd,” or even “humble.” Philip Levine’s newest, just-published poetry collection, his 20th (not even counting chapbooks), is wise in a more fundamental, truer way: it is knowing, and what it knows is what only maturity imparts to us. It gives us “news of the world” that can be got only by living in the world for a length of time. Nevertheless, to live long is not by itself enough to acquire this news from the world. One must attend to the world, earn one’s place in it and take the measure of both self and other.
Nor does one have to be a poet to acquire it; but only a master will continue making art after unburdening himself of all youthful claims to specialness, for that unburdening is the last and largest step toward maturity. We may begin with a belief that we are as vital to art as art is to us—who would ever begin otherwise?—but maturity shows us we are not. We are small and alone, unsecured against loss and damage. The artist who, like Levine, takes the final step to maturity teaches readers how to be unafraid: of loss, of mortality, of lack of specialness. In other words, he teaches us how to live in the world with open hearts and calm minds. What can be more important than that?
To journey from delusions of grandeur to a relationship of amity and equality with the world as it is—that is the journey of maturity.
Levine, whose many prizes include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, two National Book Critics Circle awards, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, has served as chair of the literature panel of the National Endowment for the Arts and was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2000. After years of teaching at California State University in Fresno, he was appointed the Distinguished Poet in Residence at New York University. Honors in such abundance can be a hindrance to growth, promoting self-satisfaction, even self-congratulation, but Levine’s moral compass is intact and as steady as ever.
He has assembled News of the World forthrightly, in four parts. Part I comprises poems about family history. Part II collects poems about Michigan, where the poet was born and educated and where he earned a living as a laborer in industrial plants. Prose poems reflecting on various far-flung places and times make up Part III. The final section confronts mortality.
It is a simple organization, but it is rendered complex by the sense we have, reading, that the volume as a whole is something like an extended meditation on what is to be learned from a life in the world. Perhaps it is the speaker’s voice that accomplishes this, for though the poems are as much biographical (or fictionally biographical) as they are autobiographical, the voice is the same throughout—clear, direct, one might say collegial. He has written often, as he does here too, of childhood and youth in Michigan; he worked his way through Wayne State University as a blue-collar employee in automobile factories. In free-verse 14-liners he tells us about “Henry Ford/ the man who created/ the modern world” and the childhood world Ford destroyed:
...I loved that world
with its little woods that
their darkness and the still
“Wasn’t that the way it worked/ men sold themselves to redeem their lives?” he asks in “Arrival and Departure.” Time changes some things—though the current economy seems likely to bring only harder hardships to the men and women who depend on the assembly line for jobs; and though the working-class radicals of the thirties would be deeply perplexed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union—and in “Library Days” we see Levine discovering a different world, the world of books. He approaches the new world with the same determination that had fostered his earlier life. “I had work to do,” he writes, taking up his future.
The work includes narrative poems that segue swiftly into anecdotal memory or surprising comic stops, as in “The Language Problem,” “The Death of Mayakovsky” and the title poem. It includes poems about his father, his brother, his uncle Yakov, who before he moved to Detroit lived in Siberia, where “Even the wolves...moved/ through the trees without breathing” (“Yakov”).
Now the poet is in his ninth decade. We wish him many more years and many more books, even if he does rather look forward to the condition of no longer owning anything, not even his name. He will be “no longer inflated/ or bruised” by people’s opinions, “free at last” (from “Burial Rites”). But right now, he is alive and writing and has something to say, wisdom to impart:
...It took me years to learn
a way of walking under an
of indifferent stars, and to call
bodies,” to regard myself as no
of a great scheme that included
I had to put one foot in front of
hold both arms out for balance,
breathe like a beginner, and hope
These magnificently unadorned lines conclude the book’s final poem, “Magic,” wherein we observe how the human can triumph over the self. A kind of transcendence, I think.