Three years ago, I covered Philip Levine being honored by Fresno State. It was a memorable night. I don’t have any audio on this appearance any longer, but here is my final draft–before my editor got ahold of it–for a piece that appeared on page 1 of The Collegian. He was a good man. I witty man. A poet. An artist:
Once a year, the Librarian of Congress picks an American poet who will spend October through May raising awareness and appreciation of poetry. This year’s United States Poet Laureate is Freno State’s own Philip Levine, who returned to campus Saturday night to be honored and to honor those who had supported him uring his long tenure at Fresno State.
Hosted by University President John Welty and Dr. Vida Samiian, the dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, there were readings and remarks by seven distinguished poets and closing remarks by Provost Covino. When Levine took the stage, he had the 200-plus audience, by turns, laughing, then applauding throughout his 40-minute talk, recital and acceptance speech.
The longest laugh and applause Levine received was when he recounted his retirement from NYU in 2008 at age 80.
“They gave me a big reading, and at that reading, I did the formulary thing,” Levine said. “I thanked my wife, Fran, and I revealed something that almost no one knew: that in fact, she had written my poems.”
After it got quiet again, he then lauded her for “being with me all the years I was writing bad poems,” and went on to highlight his modest beginnings and thank the many that had supported him over the years.
Levine has accumulated a long list of achievements over a lifetime–Professor at Fresno State from 1958 to 1992, chosen as Outstanding Professor of the Year (1970) at Fresno State and then for the entire CSU system in 1971, author of 20 collections of poetry, 1995 Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Awards and two National Book Critic Circle Awards.
Levine went on to recite two of his works, saying “I wanted to read you the first poem I wrote. But I couldn’t find it,” which elicited laughter from those in attendance.
He then gave an involved introduction to a poem he wrote in 1968 against capital punishment, “L’homme et la bête” (The Man and the Animal). Even at 84, Levine’s reading of his poem held the Music Building Concert Hall audience in thrall and elicited sustained applause.
Then, switching to “something more cheerful,” Levine finished his presentation with his poem, “Gospel,” a poem replete with images from the outdoors.
When Levine finished reading, there was a sustained 60-second standing ovation.
Provost Covino then took the stage and began by crediting Levine.
“We have an MFA Program here at Fresno State that rivals the best program anywhere, that produces poets and novelists and essayists with rich and compelling voices and visions whose work has resonated throughout the world,” said Covino.
Looking out at the crowd, Covino added: “This would not have been possible were we not all standing on the sturdy shoulders of Philip Levine, who is now our country’s Poet Laureate and who is indeed emblematic of an American experience that calls to us, that makes us see life and lives in ways that transform our own.”
Covino related the story about his first experience of reading a Levine poem in 1975 when he was a Masters student in English, during a break while playing a party with his cover band.
He had read Levine’s “Animals are Passing from our Lives,” saying he immediately understood that the pig in Levine’s poem, who is being driven to slaughter by a farm boy, “becomes an example for anyone who has ever been objectified, and swallowed up.”
He said it became very difficult to concentrate on singing Elton John and Captain & Tenille songs after reading Levine’s poem. The incident led him to what he called the “Encino Epiphany.”
“Peace of mind had never taught me anything, never moved me to action, or passion. The disturbing and ironic and lyrical force of ordinary life and human failings and the courage and grace to say ‘no, not this pig,’ resonated…I realized that it was this disturbing tension between conventional and comfortable ways of being and poetic ways of seeing that had brought me to literature, that had brought me to teach, that keeps bringing me back to poetry, and has made Philip Levine’s poetry a force in my life and the lives of so many others.”
Covino finished by reciting the stock answer he gave people from then on who asked his plans for using his English degree.
“I am going to remain disturbed — the kind of disturbance that ignites the imagination. Thank you, professor, for disturbing us.
Dr. Vida Samiian then spoke on behalf of Mayor Ashley Sweringen and read a City of Fresno proclamation that made January 20, 2012, Philip Levine Day in Fresno.
Samiian also announced that there will be a special exhibit on Levine’s life and books on the second floor of the Madden Library and encouraged people to come by and take a look.
Levine then took the stage and quipped, “and they tell me this when the day is past,” then ended with a hearty “Thank you, Fresno.”
Fresno State presents the Levine Prize annually through its Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program and the Fresno State Winery has just announced a limited edition blend honoring Levine. Pre-release orders for the red blend were taken at the event.
In February, Levine will meet with enology students to select his favorite of several red blends crafted by the student-run winery, which will be released this fall. The proceeds from all sales will benefit the Department of Enology and the Philip Levine Scholarship in Poetry.