A little more than two weeks after his death on Valentine’s Day from pancreatic cancer, I am still acclimating to the reality of a world without Phil Levine. In my exchanges with some of Phil’s friends and former students, for the most part we seem to agree: Phil still feels very much alive among us. This is the strange and mysterious work of grief as it makes its way through us—tricks of the mind played by denial and disbelief. I’m not one for linear stages, for I believe grief has its own circuitous path and affects each of us in different ways. My own grief has arrived in waves since learning of Phil’s illness just two weeks before he died—a moment I’ll long remember. I turn to his poems, share them with others. I read his letters, in which I can still hear Phil’s clear, singular voice coming through his spidery handwriting, scrawled in fountain pen on lined sheets of a yellow legal pad. Online I listen to his interviews and readings, laugh out loud at his humor. There’s Phil on my computer screen at a reading just last summer—alert and vigorous, keenly intelligent, wisecracking for his audience, not missing a thing. Like the grease-stained factory worker in his poem “Coming Close,” I could reach out and touch him. And then I remember: Phil is gone.
As a teacher, Phil was warm, grounded, irascible, funny, opinionated, tender, confrontational… and deadly serious about the art and practice of poetry. He had little patience for foolishness or willful cleverness, in our poems and person. Phil’s no-nonsense approach to teaching, his passionate talk about poetry and his favorite poets, enlivened and inspired us, made us want to write better poems. He was tough on our work, but, in my experience, always spoke in service of the poem. Around the time he was awarded a Pulitzer for The Simple Truth, Phil said in a radio interview that in a poetry workshop there are a dozen people in a room and one of them is getting paid to tell the truth. His style didn’t endear him to everyone, but he wasn’t there to make friends. He was there to challenge us to be the best poets we could be.
In a poetry climate that can often seem driven by austerity, careerism, and self-interested striving, Phil’s generosity, his willingness to be available and responsive to poets and poetry lovers from all walks of life, was a rare and precious thing. He maintained regular correspondence not only with friends and former students, but with strangers as well. For many of us who studied with him, formally and informally, Phil’s teaching and friendship, his belief in us and our poems, made all the difference in our lives. I am still learning from him.
I’m grateful that Phil got to read Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine (2013 Prairie Lights Books), which I co-edited with Tomás Q. Morín, while he was well and could enjoy them, could let the collective love sink in. It’s a book we put together in a spirit of inclusivity, holding in mind the legions of poets Phil taught and mentored over the decades, some of them now passed on, too. "Franny has decreed that I read only one... essay each day," he wrote to us. "She has a point. I might come to believe what everyone has written & go through the roof." Of course, that was Phil’s way of letting us know how deeply touched he was—that he, too, had received and benefited from his relationships with poets across more than five decades of teaching.
How incredibly lucky we are to have had Phil in our lives for a while. Despite early losses, his was mostly a good life—a long, rich, and fully lived life. Up until cancer caught up with him, he was writing and publishing new poems, giving readings and talks, recording poems to jazz accompaniment, traveling with Franny. Phil and Franny (who, in essential ways, made possible Phil’s life in poetry) nourished and supported countless poets, helped us to feel that we and what we make deserve to be in the world. Now, as Tomas has said, it’s up to each of us to pay this generosity forward. From the bottom of our hearts: thank you, Phil. We love you. We remember you.
Mari L'Esperance 3.2.15