Friday, August 19, 2011

Our New Poet Laureate

Each year, the U.S. Library of Congress appoints a national poet laureate to serve from October to May. I like the position's description as "the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans."

The latest U.S. Poet Laureate is Philip Levine, who is 83 years old. He is well known for being a "working man's poet." Some excerpts of his work:

The Mercy
by Philip Levine

The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
eighty-three years ago was named "The Mercy."
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
"orange," saying it patiently over and over.
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on,
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners...

Read the rest


Last week, Amy LV shared a bit of On My Own. It's a gem of a poem, one that the Writer's Almanac has returned to three times:

On My Own
by Philip Levine

Yes, I only got here on my own.
Nothing miraculous. An old woman
opened her door expecting the milk,
and there I was, seven years old, with
a bulging suitcase of wet cardboard
and my hair plastered down and stiff
in the cold. She didn't say, "Come in,"
she didn't say anything. Her luck
has always been bad, so she stood
to one side and let me pass, trailing ...

Read the rest


Excerpts from Clouds
by Philip Levine:


When the night comes small fires go out.
Blood runs to the heart and finds it locked.

Morning is exhaustion, tranquilizers, gasoline,
the screaming of frozen bearings,
the failures of will, the TV talking to itself

The clouds go on eating oil, cigars,
housewives, sighing letters,
the breath of lies. In their great silent pockets
they carry off all our dead.


The clouds collect until there's no sky.
A boat slips its moorings and drifts
toward the open sea, turning and turning.

The moon bends to the canal and bathes
her torn lips, and the earth goes on
giving off her angers and sighs

and who knows or cares except these
breathing the first rains,
the last rivers running over iron.


* Library of Congress' Online Resources on Philip Levine

*More poems by Philip Levine, New York Times

* A non-Philip Levine-related side-track: a bonus editorial about the benefits of poetry for the U.S. Congress. "Poetry is no substitute for courage or competence, but properly applied, it is a challenge to self-certainty, which we currently have in excess. Poetry serves as a spur to creative thinking, a rebuke to dogma and habit, an antidote to the current fashion for pledge signing."

Visit Dori Reads for today's Poetry Friday round-up.


Majid Ali said...

Please for Christ sake help this poor boy from Haiti

Robyn Hood Black said...

Thank you, Tabatha, for sharing these poems. I enjoyed the link to the NYT piece, and the comments there as well.

Myra Garces-Bacsal from GatheringBooks said...

The third poem "Clouds" resonate with me for some reason - I love the imagery. I've heard of Philip Levine but I have not explored much of his work as yet, I have a special leaning towards female poets (as I'm sure you may be able to tell by now) - but this one is nice. ;-)

Diane Mayr said...

"The Mercy" made me cry, I love a poet who can do that to me. Thanks.

jama said...

Wonderful to read these, Tabatha. I know very little of Levine's work. "On My Own" is glorious. Wow.

Doraine Bennett said...

I love "Mercy," the directness and ease with which he tells this story. Like a singer whose full range is double octaves and hits every note without the slightest strain. I wonder how long it took to make it look so effortless.

Mary Lee said...

I'm looking forward to getting to know Levine's poetry. Thanks for the sampler!

Ruth said...

Thanks for sharing some of Levine's work.