I have wanted to write this post for a while now, but I kept procrastinating, waiting for the right moment to write about the time I met Philip Levine. When I found out that he passed away last Saturday from pancreatic cancer, I knew it was the time to write this post.
Philip Levine was the United States Poet Laureate from 2011-2012. He visited Saint Leo University on April 9th, 2012, during National Poetry Month. He read some of his poetry in the campus library, but I have stronger memories of the after-event.
The Saint Leo University English department was invited to the library’s basement for a conversation with Philip Levine. I remember sitting in the second row, diagonally to his left. I listened to him speak about how he got by in blue-collar Detroit, and how those experiences shaped his poetry. He spoke about his classmates, Robert Lowell and John Berryman, also poets, and the effects they had on him and his writing. He talked about good poems, and how “most poems are bad.”
What struck me the most was when he spoke so nonchalantly about being a Poet Laureate, as if the title was just a simple happening of his life. Levine was a man who truly cared about the medium, not the fancy titles.
When he signed my 1981 copy of One for the Rose, I remember his astonishment that I had such an old copy. I don’t remember his exact words; they were to the effect of “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this.”
I will never forget what happened when the conversation concluded. After the two events, I was parched. I headed to the water cooler at the back of the room and grabbed a small paper cup. Just as it had filled up with water, I heard a voice behind me ask for a drink.
As I had not yet taken a sip from my cup, I turned around to hand it to the person behind me. Handing the cup of water to Philip Levine, I felt frozen in place. We shared greetings, and he went on his way. On the outside, I was calm, but on the inside, I was fan-girling. My hands were shaking as I filled my own cup.
Since then, Levine’s passion about his hometown, Detroit, has inspired my own passion in writing about my Massachusetts hometown of Southbridge.
America lost a great twentieth-century poet this weekend, but, like so many others before him, his words will live on.