Reading Matters

Me and Philip Levine

Philip Levine at the San Joaquin River Center in Fresno, Calif., where he recited many of his poems, in 2006.
Philip Levine at the San Joaquin River Center in Fresno, Calif., where he recited many of his poems, in 2006. AP

I didn’t know the poet Philip Levine. I never met him, and I never heard him read, except on the Bill Moyers show in 2013 on TV.

But I loved him from afar.

Called the working man’s poet, Levine died on Feb. 14 of pancreatic and liver cancer in Fresno, Calif. He was 87.

Born in 1928 in Detroit to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine grew up in the midst of the Great Depression. His heroes were the ordinary folks who worked at hopeless jobs simply to stave off poverty. Noted for his interest in the grim reality of the blue-collar worker, Levine resolved “to find a voice for the voiceless” while working from age 13 in the auto plants of Detroit. A former U.S. Poet Laureate, Levine won the Pulitzer Prize, twice the National Book Award, and in 2014, the $100,000 Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement.

Here’s one of my favorite of his poems.

SWEETNESS

Sixteen years ago, in the high meadows

on the French side of the mountains, a clear

April morning, a warm wind slowing

through the young grains and grasses, the sun

touching everything with yellow light, I called

to my son Teddy, then fifteen, to come see,

and he left the car to stand beside me. He spoke

first, in a voice the wind half-swallowed, to say

something about the sweetness and the air

at this height. I had been asking a farmer

if he knew was the pass to Adorra open. Yes,

of course, on a day like this, and he laughed

his great laugh, a thickly built man

sweating in the open wool shirt high above

me on the tractor seat. I felt my wife’s hand

in mine, squeezing, and turned in time to see

her holding back the tears for a moment before

they overflowed. Just the three of us, home and far

from home, a tiny family on so vast a plain,

with forty miles to go, yet were there.

Dannye’s blog: http://readinglifeobs.blogspot.com

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