Portrait of a Poet: Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine

John Gibbs

Coming Close CoverLet's consider that Philip Levine has instructed, in or out of the classroom, the lives of forty talented, successful poets and writers. Now imagine those forty-some-odd poets and writers graduate and go off to teach a classroom of their own for twenty or thirty years, relating to their students how Philip Levine once said 'X' about one of their poems or encouraged them never to do 'Y' in the final stanza of this poem. And each one of those teachers' students' eyes light up for a brief moment as they are told the old, familiar anecdote once more, because they realize just how close they actually come to Levine in that one instant. And that by extension they are also nearer to the poetic spirits of John Berryman and Yvor Winters (both teachers of Levine), and the line reaches further and further back into America's literary past.

Such is the effect of reading Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine. Here is the amalgamated effort of forty writers, who all speak of the generosity, brutality, and honesty of Philip Levine. Among the many contributors of this book are a number of accomplished poets, such as Edward Hirsch, Robert Wrigley, David St. John, and Sharon Olds. Each and every essay included within this book paints its own portrait of Levine as writer, teacher, laborer, friend, colleague, poet, you-name-it. Most of the essays come from Levine's one-time students, but some contributors relate how Levine instructed them in ways outside the classroom as well, whether it be through his life-changing, award-winning poetry or through his willingness to correspond with almost anyone and everyone via postal service. Letters are reproduced and experiences retold with blatant nostalgia in the nearly two hundred pages that comprise this reverential compendium that honors Levine.

The one portrait most of these present contributors admit to having knowledge of and can all agree on, prior to actually meeting Levine for the first time, is his reputation as a hard-ass, as a "no bullshit" kind of teacher. According to Shane Book, "Levine had to be tough. The lesson was we had to be tough, too" (16). And there are numerous outlandish stories (both rumored and true, though somehow those separate distinctions seem to blend together into his legend) of Levine's toughness. How he lit students poems on fire and stomped them out with his motorcycle boots. How he turned down a student's thesis because it just "wasn't good enough" (163). How once, while lecturing on Frank Conroy's memoir Stop-Time, Levine had stepped up onto a chair and yanked the clock right off the wall, leaving the exposed wires dangling, all the while speaking as if nothing extraordinary were happening at that moment.

Perhaps Jane Mead says it best, when in her introduction she states, "These essays are love letters—thank-you notes for some of the great gifts. These former students understand what Larry Levis calls 'the invisible great good luck' of having had Phil as a teacher" (xvii). Levis in particular relates his great good luck at receiving a D in his high school photography class, which prevented him from attending any University of California campus. Lucky for him, he spent the next four years taking poetry workshop classes with Philip Levine at the seemingly lackluster Fresno State. I sense not one ounce of exaggeration when Levis says, "I do know that it was Philip Levine who saved my life." (103). And maybe Levis, who died at the age of fifty in 1996, might not have published five collections of poetry in his lifetime (two posthumously) were it not for the formative experience he had with Levine. There is something extremely encouraging in knowing one of America's best and most lauded poets is also one of its best and most respected teachers.

Coming Close begins, perhaps appropriately, with a poem. "Mine Own Phil Levine" by Dorianne Laux appears even before the table of contents and seems to sum up the emotion captured and conveyed in every essay. The poem ends with a pair of stanzas; the speaker and Levine are having a conversation. The lines are as brilliant and uplifting as they are terrifying and intimidating to any poet starting out, yet there's a strange excitement in their fusion:

I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
Start anywhere

He said If you don't write, it won't
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What's mine is yours

There is a large division in the writing community as to whether or not creative writing should (or can) be taught at all. Should so many people be spending their time, money, and resources to go back to school? And how can you teach people to write? Isn't it something you either have or you don't? What many students of Levine realize and admit to at some point during their course of study with him, is what Laux imagines in those last two lines: the metaphoric "gold pen" and the generosity that comes with the act of giving to one's students the mental acuity to trust in themselves and their own voices.

Yes, when you have a teacher like Levine at the head of a classroom, writing can be taught, but a teacher must be able to adapt to his or her students. I believe this book is a testament to Levine's adaptability and willingness to be present for his students. This book is a must-have for all Philip Levine lovers and anyone who knows the reality of what it feels like to be in a writing workshop. It will have you laughing, crying, and wondering how a man so generous and talented is not more celebrated. It will instill within you, or reawaken, an urge to write better because you must hold yourself and your writing accountable, as Nick Flynn discovered one day when Levine turned to him after reading one of his poems and said, "You've got more light in you than this" (65). Let us not be too content with what we've written, but discover new ways to challenge our writing and, in doing so, challenge ourselves. We have more light than this, and now we know it.


Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine
Edited by Mari L'Esperance & Tomás Q. Morín
Prairie Lights Books, 2013
ISBN 978-0-9859325-2-7

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