‘The Great Truth’: i.m. Philip Levine (1928-2015) | Matthew CleggPosted: March 22, 2015
Philip Levine died on 14 February this year. Born in Detroit in 1928, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he has been described by Neil Astley as ‘the authentic voice of America’s urban poor’[i]. He began writing poetry as a teenager before the end of the Second World War, and published his most recent collection in 2010 at the age of 82. He had lived through important chapters of American history, notably the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the assassination of J.F. Kennedy, the Ronald Reagan administration and 9/11. One recurring theme in his work is the idea of knowledge, or the sense of truth. This is born out in poems with titles like: ‘What Work Is’, ‘Facts’, ‘The Simple Truth’ and ‘The Great Truth’[ii]. A resonant tension in his later poetry is that between experience and hope – if experience is often a synonym for disappointment, especially in the arena of politics. Levine was a master of showing us how much in life is political – from the hazardous world of factory work to the potatoes on his table.
One of my favourite Levine poems is ‘The Great Truth’ (2004), which seems to consolidate many of Levine’s themes and techniques. It inhabits past, present and future in ways that recall ‘The Escape’ – his personal myth of Midwestern love and suffering. Like ‘What Work Is’, it is preoccupied with masculinity and what a life of hard labour can do to a man. Like ‘The Mercy’, a poem about his mother’s arrival in America, it offers a journey from innocence to experience that builds towards revelation. Its title makes it an obvious partner to ‘The Simple Truth’, a poem that famously links the ordinary and the ineffable.
I’d like to focus on linked but contrasting moments in ‘The Great Truth’. They reveal the structural symmetry of the poem – moment 1 taking place at the end of stanza 1, and moment 2 at the close of the second and final stanza. In stanza 1 the 11-year-old Levine accompanies the household lodger on a walk in a public park. This man is ‘back from prison, penniless / and working murderous night job in the forge room / at Cadillac.’ At this age Levine believes there are ‘answers’: that one day this man will communicate to him something about manhood; that he (Levine) will experience a revelation that will raise and transform his understanding and experience of the world. We are to infer he was disappointed.
Stanza 2 shifts time. The adult Levine encounters this man in a bar ‘on Linwood / with a woman anxious to leave.’ The man is unable to recognise Levine, and after being prompted is only able to ‘put his head down on the bar, [close] his eyes, and [say], ‘oh my God, oh my God’, and nothing more.’ Ironically, this man’s failure to find language expresses more about life and time than words can easily convey.
Moment 2 shifts time again. Levine is revisiting the park. It is raining. He walks on alone and stands under some trees:
Up ahead what little I could see of sky
lightened as though urging me towards something
waiting for me more than half a century, some
great truth to live by now that it was too late
to live in the world other than I do.
The power of these lines depends on their relationship to the boy’s first inkling of revelation under the sky. What failed to materialise then, now threatens to materialise ‘too late’. The sense that there is a greater truth to live by remains, but whatever Levine has experienced in the half century between moments has created the man he must resign himself to be. This grounds revelation in a sobering relationship to the passage of time. Whilst we wait for our vision of truth, quotidian experience shapes us beyond our capacity to change.
This makes ‘The Great Truth’ something of an anti-revelation: an old man’s re-evaluation of romantic vision. Levine’s sense of history, of narrative, refuses to let him privilege the so-called timeless lyric moment. Could there be a political subtext here too? Lines 38-40 relate Levine’s old house sitting ‘waiting for JFK / to come back from Dallas and declare a new / New Frontier…’ Arguably, America has not recovered from the loss of innocence that was Kennedy’s assassination. ‘The Great Truth’ was published in 2004, in Breath; Levine’s first collection after 9/11, and 3 years into the Bush administration. Could Levine be implying that America, too, might have passed beyond the capacity for change, and into a destructive cycle of repetition? It leaves us haunted by the doubt that history and disappointment might teach us, whilst affirming our appetite and need for hope. Perhaps we are really always poised between the two.
‘The Great Truth’ is a visionary poem that scrutinises the epiphany and the visionary paradigm. Levine revealed himself to be one of America’s most retrospective poets: obsessively winding and unwinding the threads of time. He validates experience, transforms it, re-evaluates and interrogates it, and he reminds us how long it can take us to come to emotional terms with our own lives. As a poet reaching the height of his powers in later life, he showed us how, with age, we come to inhabit past, present and future differently – how the layering of years and memories create the ‘knowledge’ we live by. That is a vision I feel grateful for, and one I have tried to absorb into my own work. Philip Levine was a poet I navigated by.
[i] From In Person: 30 Poets, Bloodaxe Books, 2008
[ii] All the poems referred to here can be found in Stranger to Nothing: Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2006
This blog post reworks passages from an essay originally published on the Bank Street Poetry Café website. Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press: click here for more information about the book. His new collection The Navigators will appear from Longbarrow Press in late May 2015; further details will be posted on the Longbarrow Press website in the next few weeks.