Philip Levine: What Will Survive of Us is Love

The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography by Philip Levine. Reviewed by Dana Gioia.

The last few years have witnessed a changing of the guard in American poetry. The influential generation of writers born in the 1920’s has reached retirement. It’s hard to imagine this vigorous bunch, which includes Adrienne Rich, Donald Justice, Robert Bly, Richard Wilbur, and Louis Simpson, as senior citizens. It seemed like yesterday they were barnstorming the nation to oppose Viet Nam, redefine feminism, or champion surrealism. But the evidence is indisputable—they have begun publishing their memoirs. The last twelve months have seen the appearance of James Merrill’s A Different Person and Donald Hall’s Life Work as well as Adrienne Rich’s autobiographical literary essays, What is Found There. To those personal testimonies, one can now add Philip Levine’s The Bread of Time.

Born in Detroit in 1928, Levine has assiduously cultivated the image of a tough working-class poet. His fifteen volumes of feisty, chip-on-the-shoulder verse alternately celebrate and elegize a gritty world of lonely highways, aging factories, and dead-end jobs. Although Levine’s rebellious proletarian persona has always made lively reading, it has also occasionally seemed studied and self-conscious. Something important was missing from his story. The Bread of Time explains the special circumstances that created this unusual writer.

The way genuine artists do, Levine took bad luck and made it inspiration.“Although I was born into the middle class,” Levine confides, “my father died before I was old enough to enjoy my station.” After the poet’s businessman father passed on without adequate insurance, the family began a slow economic descent into “a series of ever-shrinking apartments.” Money became the nagging topic of mealtime conversation. The crummy jobs that young Levine agonizingly endured would have seemed natural to most working-class kids. To him, they opened up the nightmare of downward mobility—the middle class terror of becoming poor. His outsider’s perspective on working-class existence became his defining imaginative vision. The way genuine artists do, Levine took bad luck and made it inspiration.

The Bread of Time collects nine overlapping but independent personal essays, each of which focuses on a particular person or place important in the author’s life. Levine’s subtitle, “Towards an Autobiography,” however, suggests the problem inherent in the volume’s subjective and unchronological organization. Although it contains many compelling episodes, The Bread of Time never quite coheres. It lacks the narrative unity of an autobiography but seems too repetitious and self-regarding to be a satisfactory book of essays.

Levine’s natural medium is lyric poetry—the vivid and subjective expression of a particular moment. The Bread of Time sometimes reveals the strain of an artist working in an unfamiliar form. (Levine’s only previous prose collection, Don’t Ask, consisted entirely of interviews.) A lyric poem need not present a balanced view of experience; it must only be true to the moment’s insight. A memoir, however, raises a different set of imaginative challenges. There needs to be a cogent overall design that credibly connects past action and present reflection. Since the author is both the observer and the observed, the narrator’s motives are always open to question. If a memoir seems too self-serving, the reader loses confidence in its veracity. Although every author is entitled to be the hero of his own story, an autobiographer must earn a reader’s trust with at least a modicum of embarrassing candor and self-criticism.

While Levine’s lyric prose usually captures the emotional intensity of past experience, his inspired subjectivity aggravates the problems inherent in the book’s episodic structure. For all its energy, The Bread of Time never develops much narrative momentum. What Levine offers instead is personal myth-making—the working-class anarchist from Depression-era Detroit who struggles to the top of American poetry. There are moments when Levine’s self-dramatization brings the book uncomfortably close to a celebrity autobiography. Levine is savvy enough to recognize his temptation to self-mythologizing, but he doesn’t control it—probably because the strategy has worked so well in his poetry. Equally troubling is Levine’s obsession with settling old scores. One essay, “Class with No Class,” seems to exists for no other reason than to smear a well-to-do family that briefly employed the eighteen-year-old Levine to tutor their “exceedingly rat-faced” son. Perhaps this nasty clan was really as dreadful as Levine claims, but what the story mostly conveys is stereotypical class hatred.

In an introductory note Levine admits that his “original intent was not to write an autobiography” but to celebrate the memory of people who had helped shape his life. The Bread of Time works best when it sticks closest to the author’s original vision. The high points of the volume are portraits of his poetic mentors, John Berryman and Yvor Winters. These two brilliant but difficult men touched a sympathetic nerve in the young Levine. Levine’s portrait of Berryman is particularly fine. As the author recounts his arrival at the University of Iowa’s graduate Writing Workshop, he captures the passionate intensity of a young writer struggling to define his own identity in the intellectual and artistic ferment that followed Word War II. If there ever was a time to enlist in a graduate writing program, it was Iowa in 1953, when Berryman and Robert Lowell were instructors and the entering class included Levine, Justice, W.D. Snodgrass, Henri Coulette, Jane Cooper, and several other notables. In Berryman, Levine found the demanding but democratic teacher he needed to challenge his imagination. Levine’s memoir makes no pretense of fairness, it is an overt celebration of a man he loves and reveres. It may be prose, but it displays the irresistible force of poetry.

The finest moments in The Bread of Time mostly share the emotional quality of the Berryman episode. Love is the passionate and enduring attentiveness that incites Levine’s imagination most vividly. Whether his subject is famous like the eccentric, domineering, and penetrating Prof. Winters or forgotten like Cipriano the Detroit anarchist who worked in the neighborhood dry cleaners, the people Levine admires come alive on the page while the objects of his derision lie inert. “What will survive of us is love,” Philip Larkin once wrote. He could have been reviewing The Bread of Time.