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Parini: Poets Of The People

09/15/11 7:55AM By Jay Parini
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(HOST)  It isn't every day that a poet makes the headlines, but commentator Jay Parini says that was the case recently - and not just once, but twice.

(PARINI) I recently attended a reading by Philip Levine at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Ripton.  It was a standing-room-only event, what in the Sixties they would call "a happening" - Loudspeakers had to be set up outside on the lawn to accommodate the spillover crowd.  Levine, who was only this summer named the new Poet Laureate of the United States, found himself the recipient of a long standing ovation before he uttered a single word.

He said at the outset:  "This is going to be a terrible reading.  You see, I bite my tongue when I lie, and I've been lying to interviewers all week."

He is 83 years old - a skinny, working class man from Detroit who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994.  He looks and sounds like anybody's wry but tender Jewish grandfather, cracking jokes at every turn, full of stories, his eyes glinting with mischief.  His poetry - over twenty volumes to date -- is centered in Detroit, although he has also written a fair number of poems set in Californian or Spain (where his lifelong interest in the Spanish Civil War has informed a number of memorable poems).  Much of his life, however, has been spent in California, where he taught for decades at the gritty, unfashionable state university at Fresno.

Although I'd heard him read before, I was once again amazed by energy and generosity, by the fierce localness of his poems.  As Robert Frost himself once said, "Locality gives art." In Levine's case, it certainly does.  He can write about working in an automotive plant, swimming in a polluted river, or the weariness of factory labor.

His poems are often, not always, long and skinny, with a deceptively casual flow, more like prose at times than poetry, although he rarely fails to tighten the line to a tautness that is deeply lyrical.  The voice of Levine is distinct:  if you've read him closely, you could pick out a poem of his in a moment from countless imitators.  He is also a writer in the tradition of Whitman:  a kind of modern-day Transcendentalist, who somehow finds the spirit everywhere.

In his poem titled "Belief," for instance, he writes:

                 No one believes
That the lost breath of a man
Who died in 1821 is my breath
And that I will live until
I no longer want to, and then
I will write my name
In water, as he did.

Levine believes this.  He believes in everything.  His poetry takes in the world, breathes and savors it, then exhales the same difficult, beautiful, hard, delightful world - transmogrified by his language and imagination.

Levine is one of our best poets, and that he has at last been elevated to Poet Laureate makes me happy.

Another cause for celebration is the appointment of Sydney Lea as Vermont Poet Laureate.  Syd is a wonderful poet, passionately in touch with the nature  and people of Vermont.
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