Recently I discovered the poetry of Detroit, Michigan-born Philip Levine, who in 2013 was awarded the Wallace Stevens US Poet Laureate award, some 50 years into his career. I was so enamoured with the urban elegiac tone of the first volume of his I encountered, The Simple Truth, that I read up on his body of work and learnt he had written a memoir entitled The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography. I may not have bothered to seek it out if not for the fact it had a chapter dedicated to Levine's experience having John Berryman as a mentor. As a Berryman fan I had to read this chapter.
That chapter, which, not insignificantly, Levine chooses to open the book, did not disappoint. I found all the ruthless but hilarious hatchet jobs pulled by Berryman on the work of his students, when balanced out by his energy and passion for those students who gave their all and did not commit the cardinal sin of “bootlicking”, moving and inspiring.
Levine also writes with warmth and humility on his relationships with his mother and brother; his burgeoning working-class consciousness as a young man making a living in the Detroit motor parts industry; the sense of artistic liberation he felt when discovering Frederico Garcia Lorca's Poet in New York; his uncompromising loyalty, and self-acknowledged passive hypocrisy, to the roots of communist activism - all this and more.
One of my favourite chapters is The Bread of Time Redeemed. He writes of a young girl he meets in the apartment of a sort of surrogate family he has found himself living with. Upon finding out she has secret writerly ambitions he assumes he might be able to mentor her, but when he finally reads the only poem of hers he will ever see, he realises she has a natural genius that he could never lay claim to. It gives him pause for thought and he has a sudden, sobering epiphany: he will only be the poet he wants to be by virtue of boring old perseverance.
In the introduction Levine writes that in this final chapter, the chapter that moved me above all others, he has "taken great liberties with actual events." For some reason this doesn't bother me in the slightest.
Title: The Bread of Time: Toward An Autobiography
Author: Philip Levine
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
- Simon, Central City Library