Philip Levine and the Honest Need

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Vivas for those who have failed.”

-Walt Whitman

Reading Philip Levine’s New Selected Poems isn’t easy when you’re already down. He writes about the same thing in every poem: the loneliness of the universe — conveyed through down-and-out Detroit, which sometimes makes guest appearances in California, Spain or Italy. It is always, however, the same droning voice of failure, with occasional sparkles of hope — dying, naturally, like cigarette embers and machine-shop sparks.

The thing most worth admiring about Levine, and what sets his poems apart as something more than just a recast of a Hemingway brand of existential depression done in verse — is his daring, almost desperate honesty. In a poem like “Baby Villon” I found myself trying to squirm out of the idea of this auto worker author kissing a male fabrication of all the beautiful suffering in his own life on the lips. At the moment you think the poem is going to turn away it becomes even more intimate, desperate, strange and sad. This, to me, is the mark of someone who — to put it bluntly — is not bullshitting. It is the desperation with which Levine writes that convinces me more than anything.
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