English teacher Ron Bell took classes from poet Philip Levine at Fresno State in the 1970s. Levine, who won the Pulitzer Prize and was the U.S. poet laureate, was famous for his free verse poems about day-to-day life and the working class. He died in February.
Q: Were you familiar with Levine’s work before you took his class, and did the class live up to your expectations?
A: Yes, I was. As a high schooler I had heard him speak.
The class kind of lived up to my expectations.
As a high-school student, I didn’t know what a poetry writing class was going to be like. I read poetry; I played around at writing it.
When I got into his class, he was very serious about the idea that you were here because you meant it. You were here because of this craft of poetry, and you were going to write about adult subjects. It wasn’t a high-school level of subject matter anymore.
Q: How did other students like his class?
A: Well, it depended on whether he liked them and encouraged them or not. He did not like and encourage a lot of people.
A lot of people signed up for his class and dropped immediately. A lot of people were offended at being told that their poetry was no good. They thought, “This is about creative self-expression.”
Levine was also very opinionated. He liked a certain style of poetry which was a lot like his style of poetry. So if students wanted to write more traditional verse or use more flowery, high-diction vocabulary, he didn’t encourage that. I thought he was narrow-minded about what’s good poetry.
He was really determined to wean people away from their addiction to the past. Poe may be fine, but we’re not writing like Poe anymore. It’s not that he hated Edgar Allen Poe. He just thought modern people should write like modern people.
I wasn’t bothered by the criticism. Most people who were left.
He also had a large group of followers, students who really liked him. There were people who came to Fresno State (University) just because he was there.
There came to be a Fresno State School of Poetry that was clustered around his personality.
Q: What was your favorite thing about his class?
A: He was a great storyteller. There was one about John Berryman, who had been his teacher. He told this story right after Berryman died.
The night before Berryman left the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was teaching, Levine was supposed to drive him to the airport, but they got really drunk – by the way, that’s why Berryman got fired – and so they passed out in Berryman’s apartment.
There was a knock on the door in the morning, and Berryman said, “Come in.”
The guy came in and said, “I have a telegram for Mr. John Berryman.”
Berryman rolled over on the bed, opened one eye, looked at Levine and said, “Are you John Berryman?”
Levine said no, and Berryman said, “Then I must be John Berryman. Give me the telegram.”
Levine was capable of being very, very funny when he told stories. He was also capable of being very, very funny when he was ripping students to shreds.
Q: What was his grading system?
A: In poetry writing class, the best grade you could possibly get was “good.” Below that was “okay plus.” Next was “okay,” “okay minus,” “s—,” “s— minus” and, if it were really bad, he’d just write “no.” And that was all he would write.
Of course, you could discuss it in class. He would be happy to explain why he thought it was s—.
Q: Which of Levine’s poems is your favorite?
A: “Homecoming.” It’s about going back to Detroit and going into the house where he’d grown up and remembering his childhood.
There was also one he wrote about salami that I thought was pretty funny. It begins with these lines: “Stomach of goat, crushed / sheep balls, soft full / pearls of pig eyes, / snout gristle, fresh earth, / worn iron of trotter, slate / of Zaragoza, dried cat heart, / cock claws.”
I liked it because of the graphic imagery. He liked to keep things in the real world, things you can smell and touch and taste.
He wrote about food because he had a great empathy for farmers who worked the soil. Politically he was kind of a left-wing radical. He had pro-labor, left-wing sympathies. An old-fashioned leftist.
Q: How do you use Levine’s work in your classes?
A: I sometimes teach his poems. I don’t go out of my way to teach them, but if there’s one anthologized in the textbook, which there usually is, I’ll point it out.
If we’re talking about modern American poetry, the stuff that’s been written in the last few years, he had a big influence on that, so it’s relevant to bring him up. He had a big influence on modern, real-world-based poetry, a bigger influence than I would have thought in the early ‘70s when I was his student. He’s someone I want students to be aware of.