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Philip Levine talks poetry with students

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine visited Emerson on November 4 as part of the Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department’s Reading Series.

Professor Steve Yarbrough moderated the question-and-answer session in the Beard Room of the Little Building. Yarbrough opened the session by asking Levine if English Romantic poet John Keats could be an influence for young, present-day poets.



Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine (right) with Professor Steve Yarbrough at the Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department's Reading Series event on November 4. (Photo by Lauren Feeney '15)

“Is there something in Keats for young people today? Well, there’s everything,” Levine said. “Not only a great poet, he was a great man. His letters, for me, are the greatest documents we’ve ever had about what it’s like to dedicate your life to poetry; the complexity, the difficulty, the beauty, the marvelous moments that arise, and the frustrations.”

When asked about his opinion of American poetry today, Levine said, “I don’t think the rest of the world takes American poetry that seriously.”

He shared a story about a couple he met in the Netherlands who did not recognize the names of American poets Hart Crane and Robert Frost.

“Then I asked them about Philip Levine. No, they never heard of him,” said Levine, eliciting laughs from the audience. “I said, well, you’re talking to him.“



Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine (center) with WLP Professor Steve Yarbrough (left) and WLP Associate Professor Jonathan Aaron. (Photo by Lauren Feeney '15)

One audience member asked Levine about his experience writing novels.

“The temptation was there and I was foolish enough to succumb,” Levine said. “As Oscar Wilde said, ‘I can resist everything but temptation.’”

A professor in the English department at California State University Fresno for more than 30 years, Levine shared his advice for aspiring poets.

“I was very careful about encouraging people to pursue it as a life. I would make it clear that it’s not easy.”

However, Levine was amazed at the talent he witnessed in his classroom.

“It was incredible. You knew they wanted to be poets. There were a lot of classes where once you saw their work, it was kind of thrilling… to be able to spend a semester or more with someone with real talent. I wasn’t trying to convert people, I was trying to help them.”

Levine gives credit to the best poets of his generation for his work, citing prolific poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Gary Soto, and Sylvia Plath.

“American poetry seems kind of wonderful in a way,” said Levine. “Because no matter what you’ll write, you’ll find friends that love what you do.”

A reading of Levine’s work followed in the Bordy Theater.

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