He Tasted What He Said – Poet, Philip Levine (1928- 2015)

Philip Levine former U.S. Poet Laureate

Philip Levine former U.S. Poet Laureate












The Simple Truth

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In the middle of June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me the potatoes
was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat,” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
                                                      Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt-shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions and potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live in it.

Phillip Levine (1928 – 1015) from Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs by Charles DeNiord, Marick Press, 2011

Last Saturday we lost Philip Levine, an American poet of singular brilliance. Yes, we lost him to cancer at age 87, but his poems will continue to remind us of his unusual perspective. He spoke, not only, with the authentic voice of a man utterly soaked in the nitty-gritty of everyday working life but with a philosophical wisdom you might not expect from a man born into the mean streets of Detroit during the depression. For a wonderful recap of his life from National Public Radio click here.

Levine won all the big prizes in the U.S. – the Pulitzer, The National Book Award (twice) and the National Book Critics Circle Award – and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2011 -2012. But much more than any prizes, his importance can be measured by the countless poets who say he was one of their greatest influences. It’s how he first came to my attention. In particular, it was a poem by American poet Dorianne Laux that made me take a closer look at his poems. And rather than me trying to describe why he was important I will let Laux do that it her poem Mine Own Phil Levine from her book The Book of Men which she dedicated to Levine:


after W.S. Merwin

What he told me, I will tell you
There was a war on
It seemed we had lived through
Too many to name, to number

There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page

His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day
When I asked again, he said it again,
Pointing it out twice

His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things

Before I knew him, I was unknown
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water

He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed and the poems
Marched forth and they were his words
Only, no other words were needed

He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him

The greatest thing, he said, was presence
To be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius

I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
Start anywhere

He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours

Dorianne Laux from The Book of Men, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011

I take great comfort from this praise poem. Especially the words attributed to Levine:

He said if you don’t write, it won’t/Get written. No tricks. No magic/About it.


  1. Liz McNally
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    He said If you don’t write, it won’t
    Get written. No tricks. No magic
    About it.
    I had copied these words before seeing you had repeated them to complete this wonderful tribute to Levine.
    Words to be carried in a poets heart, along with the man himself.

  2. Richard
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    No tricks. No magic. Just write!

  3. Joanna Qureshi
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Philip Levine, one of my favourite poets because he did just ‘present’ things as he saw them. True and beautiful yet totally down to earth.
    Hope things are good with you and Somae.

  4. Richard
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Things are well here. Somae’s Dad died last November which has been hard. How are you? Thanks for responding!

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