Rediscovering Levine: A Reissue of Sweet Will

John Gibbs

Recently, someone recommended I read W.S. Merwin's The Lice, a collection previously released more than forty years ago in 1967 from Atheneum. As most consumers do nowadays, I did a quick search on my laptop to see if I could order a copy online, only to discover, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it had indeed gone out of print. For better or worse, Merwin's second four books of poems have been gathered into a single volume, so the collections have been preserved in some format. Buying all four books of poems in one, however, seemed something like sensory overload. So I headed to the library, where luckily I found The Lice sandwiched in among the other Merwin collections. As I leafed through the old pages I wondered how many other copies were still out there in the world. How many were left? How many would be left in twenty or forty years?

Philip Levine’s Sweet Will was published in 1985, nearly twenty years after The Lice, but it too went through an out-of-print phase. Fortunately, it has now been thoughtfully reissued by Prairie Lights Books, distributed by the University of Iowa Press. Admittedly, before Sweet Will fell into my lap, I had not had the privilege of reading a single collection of Levine's poetry in full. Sure, I'd encountered him in nearly every poetry anthology I happened to pick up, and heard many poets rattle off their favorite bits and pieces of "They Feed They Lion," but I had never sat down and completed a single book of his. I had been missing out.

From the start of Sweet Will it's very clear that Levine's poetry possesses a rare power. The book's opening poem, "Voyages," introduces a speaker capable of both observation and remembrance:

Pond snipe, bleached pine, rue weed, wart—
I walk by sedge and brown river rot
to where the old lake boats went daily out.
All the ships are gone, the gray wharf fallen
in upon itself. Even the channel's
grown over. Once we set sail here
for Bob-Lo, the Brewery Isles, Cleveland. (3)

It takes a special kind of boldness to begin a collection of poems so strangely. The poem would be good, great even, if it had opened with that second line instead, "I walk by sedge and brown river rot." However, it's the opening line, that unusual list, which creates a poetic world order and challenges us to make sense of the poem. The line has so many contrasting sounds thrown next to one another that it takes an oddly long time to speak the line aloud. Levine peppers it with commas and punctuates it with a dash—we're not sure if we're being invited in or kicked out, but we read on and soon enter a world both reverential and intensely personal.

Much of Levine's poetry confronts ordinary America. Those who know what it feels like to be trapped within a dying city, working a dead end job. Those who are forced to work in unrewarding places because life has offered no other choices. Those are the ones Levine places front and center in Sweet Will. The speaker of the title poem remembers a night in a Detroit Transmission plant when an older co-worker fell down after drinking too much

It was Friday night, and the others
told me that every Friday he drank
more than he could hold and fell
and he wasn't any dumber for it
so just let him get up at his
own sweet will or he'll hit you. (17).

Later on, the speaker switches gears and adopts a slightly more accusatory tone that places the poem within a cultural, iconic context: "so it was Saturday in the year of '48 / in the very heart of the city of man / where your Cadillac cars get manufactured" (18). Of course we all know this is how America works, this is how our country has always been, yet somehow we manage to make new reasons for ourselves to ignore the great divide between our social classes. And while Levine turns our eye toward that, he does so in a way that is beautiful and extremely tender, "and the Cadillacs have all gone back / to earth, and nothing that we made / that night is worth more than me" (18).

The second section of the collection is comprised completely of one poem, entitled "A Poem With No Ending." Contrary to the poem's actual title, the poem does indeed come to a halt, but not until after the speaker has explored every possible venue in which to relive a childhood full of strong familial ties and lasting images. The poem's beginning is too good not to reproduce here:

So many poems begin where they
should end, and never end.
Mine never end, they run on
book after book, complaining
to the moon that heaven is wrong
or dull, no place at all to be.
I believe all this. (21)

The language is so unashamed, so confessional; it acknowledges the absurdity and indulgence of writing poems. But as the poem unfurls, Levine proves the necessity in learning how to construct a poem and demonstrates what can be gained, either as a reader or writer, in burying oneself in poetry. There's a willingness to encase every human experience within this poem, "I feel my arms spread wide to enclose / everyone within these walls whitewashed / over and over, my own sons, my woman" (28). Later, we arrive at the sound of "the unsteady tapping of an old man / going home and the young starting / out for work (35). The depth of Levine's verse could satisfy the most jaded of literary professors as well as the most naive of incoming freshmen.

Time and time again, Levine has demonstrated his unique mastery. When we read Levine's poetry, we are reading Levine himself. He wears no mask when he composes. He hides behind no abstractions. He simply tells things how they are. That said, craft never takes a back seat in any of Levine's poems, it drives them. His lines are tightly woven together and exist strongly as individual lines, but also add to the accumulated weight of the poem as a whole. Still, strong feelings of nostalgia and boyish delight ride along in the passenger seat, ready to take the wheel suddenly and steer the work in surprising, new directions. If, like me, you have not sat down with one of Levine's collections, I'd recommend Sweet Will. Nearly thirty years after its initial publication, it's still just as relevant, and just as powerful.


Sweet Will
by Philip Levine
Prairie Lights Books, 2013
ISBN 978-0-9859325-0-3

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