News of the World ~ Philip Levine

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I started writing this post and realized it was one of those things where I like the subject matter so much, I can’t write about it without sounding like a complete idiot. So, please forgive me, but here goes. When I was a young adult, I enjoyed reading and writing poetry (very, horrible poetry) but poetry meant something different to me then. Most of it rhymed and was written by dead people. It wasn’t until I went to my first poetry reading that I realized that poetry was something alive. Philip Levine was one of the early poets that changed the way I looked at poetry – what it could be. I can’t say that I identified with his poems, but after reading them, I no longer felt I had to deny my working class background as a subject of poetry. The thing about Levine that I appreciate the most is that he never glorifies working class people. They are what they are – beautifully presented but their images always ring true. What Work Is still ranks in my top 10 favorite poetry collections.

Levine’s latest collection of poetry, News of the World, covers familiar territory – coming of age, urban life, Spain and the Spanish Revolution. He still captures the moments here and there that may seem unimportant, but carry a great deal of weight nonetheless. Two of my favorite poems from his collection include “Magic” and “Library Days.” Both poems focus on a younger Levine carrying the goods of other people all the while striving to become himself, to grow and learn. In “Magic” he works at an airport terminal shipping goods –  a world of items that come from far and wide – things he would never see otherwise, while in “Library Days” he lets the goods he is supposed to deliver wait while he enters the various worlds of literature:

…I knew then
that soon I would rise up and leave the book
to go back to the great black van waiting
patiently for its load of beer kegs, sea trunks
and leather suitcases bound for the voyages
I’d never take, but first there was War and Peace,
there were Cossacks riding their ponies
toward a horizon of pure blood, there was Anna,
her loves and her deaths, there was Turgenev
with his impossible histrionic squabbles,
Chekov coughing into his final tales. The trunks
with their childish stickers – could wait, the beer
could sit for ages in the boiling van slowly
morphing into shampoo. In the offices and shops,
out on the streets, men and women could curse
the vicious air, they could buy and sell
each other, they could beg for a cup of soup,
a sandwich and tea, some few could face life
with or without beer, they could embrace or die,
it mattered not at all to me, I had work to do. (p.33)

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