At 14, Philip Levine didn’t know what poetry was. “I simply had no name for what I was doing,” he said May 3 at the Library of Congress. “I composed my first poems in the dark . . . secret little speeches to the moon when the moon was visible.”
Before a packed auditorium of fans, the 84-year-old poet delivered his final lecture as the U.S. poet laureate with the same humility and quiet passion that have marked his work for decades. His 40-minute address, entitled “My Forgotten Poets,” recalled the fellow students at Wayne University who first introduced him to writers beyond Chaucer and Shakespeare, whom he’d studied at his Detroit high school.
It was a moving speech of reminiscence, literary criticism and poetic reclamation that paid tribute to his first literary friends. There was Bernard, an impossibly brilliant young student who read one of his own poems in a strange, strained voice at a small gathering. “I was struck by the boy’s willingness to openly acknowledge his narcissism,” Levine said. But he was also struck by Bernard’s knowledge of modern verse, and he profited from his advice about what to read.
“So much of what I read was inspiring and left me lost and found,” Levine said. “I learned to love the mystery of it, and I still love the mystery of it.” Lines from “Abel,” by the Greek poet Demetrios Capetanakis have stayed with him for 60 years. He fell in love with a poem by New York writer Naomi Replansky four years before she published her first book.
Coming of age during WWII, he lived in dread — “shameful dread” — of going into battle, and so war poets such as Keith Douglas spoke to him powerfully. Wilfred Owen, he said, was “the first great poet who mattered to me.” And one day in the library, he discovered a cheap little volume called “Ha Ha Among the Trumpets,” by a Welshman named Alun Lewis, who survived the war just long enough to regret enlisting. The book had never been checked out. “It’s now in my study,” Levine said to startled laughter. “I admit this in a library: I’m nuts!”
One of the great pleasures of his speech was hearing him read short sections of these poems, many of them fallen out of currency, in a voice filled with great feeling and sensitivity.
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.
“What might Lewis have written,” Levine asked, “if war had not devoured him?”
One by one, his fellow students disappeared, too. Bernard died in a car crash in his 30s, before his literary potential was realized. Another dear friend gave up poetry and vanished into Latin America to help the poor.
“I didn’t realize back then how much I needed them and how much they had given me,” he said. “They shared with me their faith in the perfect words, the words we knew as children and then forgot.”