Today’s guest blog, by Dylan Cecchini, is about the recent Philip Levine symposium at Drew University. I was happy to meet him this January in a poetry writing workshop led by Jane Hirshfield in Key West.
Dylan Cecchini is a student in the School of Arts and Sciences undergraduate program at Rutgers University. A lover of bad Classic Rock and the Jersey Shore he calls home, Dylan maintains a love for the worlds within literature, especially poetry, in the words of Jane Hirshfield, his "one love devoid of hands, feet, and head."
Last Saturday night poet Edward Hirsch read with his long-time friend, Philip Levine in the chapel at Drew University. Before Hirsch read, in a moving introduction to his own work, he shared with the crowded devotees of Levine's work his desire to return to a sort of innocence towards poetry, his first-love. Indeed, the first poem Hirsch read from in his most recent collection, The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, was, in his own words, a prayer to poetry itself. In the poem, while Hirsch described his own inevitable clumsiness in his "life in poetry," (a life, which, Hirsch chiefly credits friends Philip Levine and Gerald Stern for helping to create) towards the end of the poem Hirsch returned to a familiar memory of being an adolescent boy engrossed in his stacks of poems, moving between two tables to write or read.
I couldn't help smiling throughout Hirsch's reading. I felt a kinship with the great poet and poetry critic, a kinship based solely on my own feelings associated with my accidental discovery of poetry; more than any other emotion, the liberation I felt in finding what seemed to be a fundamentally human way of expression I had somehow passed over through childhood and adolescence.
I was first introduced to Philip Levine's work in an introductory creative writing class at Rutgers University with Marcus Jackson, a forthcoming young poet who had been Levine's student at the NYU M.F.A. program. Jackson was also a nearly sold-out evangelist of everything Levine. In the first weeks of class, as we poured over Levine's narrative poems, breaking down literally every line, I regret to admit while I understood the value of reading Levine's poetry— a meticulously crafted, controlled free verse with damn near perfect line breaks— beyond our close-knit of the aspiring I never bought one book by the Elder, great Shaman. (Coleman Barks, from his poem, "Winter Skies")
In a symposium dedicated to Levine's life and work, Drew University's M.F.A. director and poet-in-residence Anne Marie Macari read briefly from "The Simple Truth," a Levine poem and the title of the collection, which won the 1995 Pulitzer. Up until this point, the talk had been good, centering on Levine's ability to take concepts like the imagination down to terrifying depths which are usually not associated with the elevation most poets will give to this uniquely human faculty. Then Macari read. One line. One line, and the inexplicable turned my right ear, and I heard. "I bought a dollar and half's worth of small red potatoes…" Macari continued, with Levine's gentle, but definitive invitation, "Can you taste/what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch/of simple salt, /the wealth of melting butter…"
Yes. I had known these lines. I had known the wealth of melting butter, the simple graces, which in my own life were becoming powerful truths to hold fast unto. Levine had me now. Then Macari lowered the axe.
"It is obvious, /it stays in the back of your throat like a truth/you never uttered because the time was always wrong, /it stays there for the rest of your life, /unspoken, /made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt, /in a form we have words for, and you live on it."
I walked away from the symposium with a cache of notes on Levine's relation to the Filipino-American poetic tradition in the 20th century, Levine's creation of a voice for his truth, and Levine's move from rage in his early career into celebration. I haven't looked back on these notes. I'm wondering, instead, about the obvious truth at the back of my throat, formless— about how I, too, will live on it.
Click for a complete listing of the MFA readings at Drew University.