On Philip Levine (1928 - 2015) / by Janine Joseph

(This essay first appeared in First Light: A Festschrift for Philip Levine on His 85th Birthday.)

The Exemplary Poem and the Exemplary Life

I thought the conversation was at an end, but when we sat down to dinner an hour later, [Fran] turned to me and said, “I want someone who writes that well to be exemplary.” from “Beauty and/or Truth”

In a lost draft of a poem still clear in my memory, there is a line I wrote containing a homeless woman sleeping on a bench.  The poem, called “First Winter,” was about what I had experienced after my first snowfall in New York City.  I, the speaker, was in Washington Square Park and I use the word “containing” because the poem contained the idea—metaphor, image, symbol—of a homeless woman in the middle of a poem avalanched with every foreign-seeming word for snow, snowflake, snowfall, and ice.  During workshop, after the other students finished saying what they had to say, Philip Levine finally asked, “What is this homeless person doing in this poem?”

Perhaps it was because I was in my first semester of the MFA program (and right out of college) that I answered his question without understanding what he was really asking.  Perhaps, too, it was because I was a recent transplant and was simply absorbing the city and incorporating the new surroundings as a way of “writing about what I know.”  I was born in the Philippines and lived in southern California, so snow was a relatively new phenomenon.  I had remembered weekend family trips up to Big Bear to play in the snow with whatever items in our house that could be converted into a makeshift sled, but to see and walk through real snow falling was something else I had no name for.  The speaker was discovering all of this about herself and about the world in the moment of the single-page poem.  It was the speaker’s moment.  So, what was a homeless person, doing in the poem? 

It is also possible that no one had ever asked me to deeply consider such a question.  In my few years of having studied creative writing as a “serious writer” I learned how to render images and how to draw comparisons, make metaphors.  How to write an ode.  Etcetera.  How to try, fail, and try again to write a fresh simile.  I learned to use the world as my oyster to shuck it.  The homeless woman was in my poem because the speaker felt as if she was not home either.  The homeless woman was in my poem because the speaker felt that she, too, was without a home.  The homeless woman was in my poem because she was homeless and the speaker was feeling home less.  I tried to explain all of this in one clumsily succinct sentence, feeling strange about being asked to speak while my own poem was on the workshop floor. 

“I know that,” he answered, which meant that I had not answered his question.

What was a homeless person doing in the middle of a poem about my speaker’s experience—about my experience?  This “homeless person” was, he put it, placed in my poem like a piece of furniture.  I could move the “homeless person” from line to line until it was in the right place, I could revise the image as if I were reupholstering the fabric on a chair, or I could exchange it for something else that would better fit what I had in mind for the poem’s design.  Or, I could put it out on the curb.  Either way, it did not matter that the “homeless person” was a she or a he, as nothing I wrote in that draft breathed life into the word to make it anything but a way for me to get my point across.  Like any beginning writer resorting to the exercises and prompts learned in the creative writing classroom, I needed a way to say how I felt without actually saying it.  In my effort to avoid abstraction, I made an abstraction of a person and of an experience.  Worse, I used another’s experience for my own benefit with a gross lack of empathy.  In that workshop, Phil simultaneously forgave me for my poor choice of metaphoric language (I was not that kind of “homeless,” after all) and assured that I would go back home to the rest of my poetic life and scrutinize every choice I make as a poet.

Undoubtedly, it was a beginner’s mistake, one he probably forgot I had ever made (I am sure I was not the first to be so careless), but that night in workshop called my attention to more than just an error I could go home and delete from a draft.  I had more to think deeply about and it had nothing to do with the snow.  As I took the subway home and walked back to my apartment in Brooklyn, I decided what kind of a poet I wanted to be.  For the first time, what it meant to be a poet became a very complicated thing.  I was no longer just a person going to “poetry school,” and I was not a person who just happened to write poems, who happened to have some burgeoning talent at stringing “the best words in their best order,” as Coleridge described it.  I was expected to be accountable for the words I put and would put down.  The world and its people were not a space to plunder, and my speaker was not at its center.  It was a strange notion—one that I was suddenly both grateful and ashamed to have considered, it seemed, so late in my life.  I was, after all, a young poet who was writing about undocumented immigration.  I was aware of and had experienced first-hand the damage that language could do in the hands of those who thought of people as things you could rearrange or put out on the curb.  Where was this insight in my poetry?

It was the fall of 2005 and NYC was a few months shy of one of the biggest snowfalls in its history, and the life of poetry I would strive to lead had, overnight, materialized.