Speechless the Magazine

 To render. Be rendered. Awestruck. Awesome.
A magazine of poetry and related arts straight from L.A.


Great Salutations

Philip Levine

Philip Levine photoIf "living legend" weren't a cliché, and if it were possible to say this of a poet without plunging into absurd hyperbole (after all, it's Earth we're on, not some other better-read planet), I'd apply that term to this poet, who gave a rare reading in Los Angeles on February 4th at Beyond Baroque. However: it is, and it's not, so I won't.

Philip Levine's books and awards include The Simple Truth (The Pulitzer Prize), What Work Is (The National Book Award) and Ashes: Poems New and Old (The National Book Critics Circle Award and the first American Book Award for Poetry). He is widely regarded as one of the great living American poets and one of the most influential, not only as a poet but as a teacher, for his students included Larry Levis, David St. John and Gary Soto.

Philip Levine wrote the letter below to the poets of Los Angeles, and this is its first reappearance since we read it at the 1992 Los Angeles Poetry Festival. The affectionate recollection recounts his first meeting with Thomas McGrath, a Los Angeles area poet who fell victim to the House of UnAmerican Activities in the McCarthy era.

Levine read with Naomi Riplansky, of whom he wrote, “No other North American poet I've read has been able to incorporate the fire and brilliance of Latin American surrealism in original work of such startling authority.”

The night after the Levine/Riplansky reading, liz gonzález and I joined Levine and several poets of the anthology Poets of the Non-Existent City: Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era at Beyond Baroque for a tribute to Thomas McGrath, who figures prominently in Levine's letter. It was the perfect occasion to share the letter once more with the poets of Los Angeles.

Suzanne Lummis

Philip Levine

(Solicited by The Los Angeles Poetry Festival for the festival of 1992)

Below: McGrath with his son, Tomasito,
in 1974. Photograph by Dennis Sorensen

Thomas McGrath photo with sonLet me recount a conversation I had the first night I was in your city and also its aftermath, which proved invaluable to me.  August ’57 at the home of Tom McGrath, a hill top place I had thought existed only in Joan Crawford movies, but here was McGrath living there on what he made carving wood sculpture and what his wife earned as a therapist.  I had been brought there by my friend Henri Coulette, a poet and protégé of McGrath’s at L.A. State (now California State University, Los Angeles) where Tom had been fired for refusing to cooperate with the House UnAmerican Committee, then the most un-American committee ever assembled.  (That was before this year’s Republican convention.)  Coulette and I had just arrived. McGrath opened beers for all three of us, and they gave me the seat of honor so I could take in the view – the lights sparkling in the canyons below – and I thought, What a place!  McGrath turned suddenly to Henri and said, “Why didn’t you warn him?”  Henri’s blue eyes twinkled.  “I didn’t think it mattered,” he said.  “Mattered,” said Tom, “you call yourself his friend and you let him come unwarned.”  Warned about what?” I said, taking the bait.  “L.A.” said Tom, “How did you get here?” he asked.  I told him I’d driven down that day from Palo Alto.  “You’re supposed to stop in Santa Barbara,” Tom said,“ the continent tips downward just there, and all the garbage flows here and then out to sea.”  They both laughed uproariously.  By garbage Tom meant me.  Henri said, “He likes the place, he says it reminds him of home.”  McGrath looked at me.  “My God, Levine, where are you from?” “Detroit,” I said. “Oh, no problem, you’ll love it here.”

As it turned out I did love it.  I tried to get a job there, but the only thing I could come up with was teaching technical writing at L.A. State, so I went to Fresno.  And wrote about Detroit.  Tom soon left L.A. to return to the Midwest and kept writing brilliantly about Los Angeles.  The next year Henri settled in at L.A. State for the rest of his life and wrote savagely and truthfully about finding loneliness, love, injustice, despair, and the courage to face them in your city. Neither poet ever got the recognition he deserved because that is the fate of poets of your city. 

Some years later McGrath gave me the best advice a poet has ever given me.  It came in two parts, and I want to pass it on to you because he was your poet and he saved my writing life.  I was 37 years old and had published one book in a tiny edition almost no one had read.  Tom said, after reading the book, “You’ve got the craft to say what you want to say, and you’re old enough to know something.  Now for the next fifteen years you have to buy time any way you can and write your poems.  Live badly if you have to.”  Tom was homeless at the time; he looked shabby and beaten, but in fact his emotions burned as intensely as ever.  He was working on his great epic poem “Letter to an Imaginary Friend”.   Then he added his second piece of truth.  “Do it the hard way.  No one will read you for years because you come from nowhere and you don’t know anyone, so do it the hard way and you’ll always feel good about your poetry.”

McGrath and Coulette, your Whitman and your Baudelaire.  What a rich tradition you inherit, and still there remains so much great poetry to be written about your city.  Only you can do it. As our mentor said.  “The hard way.”

Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach