Philip Levine and Mqr: A Brief History

By Goldstein, Laurence | Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Philip Levine and Mqr: A Brief History


Goldstein, Laurence, Michigan Quarterly Review


When news of the nomination of Philip Levine to the post of Poet Laureate was released in early August of this year, one could sense a heartfelt satisfaction sweep over the community of readers in the United States, and perhaps abroad as well. All the selections for Poet Laureate by the longtime Librarian of Congress, James Billington, have been admirable ones, and most of the earlier choices for the post of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, as it was titled from 1937 to 1986, likewise drew attention to worthy authors whose new honor elevated their visibility. (Sales of Levine's books increased enormously in the period immediately following the announcement.) The official title is now Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, an awkward and redundant formulation obviously devised by a bureaucrat. After Robert Hayden served two years in the position of Consultant (1976-1978), he spoke ruefully about the telephone calls that came to his office asking him to define blank verse or explain the structure of a sonnet, or requesting that he read a manuscript of the caller's poems. He joked that he had a fantasy of President Gerald Ford, a fellow Michigander, coming to his office, pulling a sheaf of papers from his coat, and saying, "Bob, the little lady likes to try her hand at verse now and then . . ." One hopes that Levine will take heed of Hayden's warnings about the potential downside of the appointment, even as he partakes of the same warmth of celebration and enhanced respect.

Hayden and Levine share another quality that struck residents of the state of Michigan immediately. Both grew up and underwent hardscrabble experiences in Detroit. Hayden's poems about life in the black neighborhoods - the slums as he called them - now reinvented as the still-depressed corridor from Comerica Park and Ford Field northward to the hospitals, museums, and upscale dining venues on Woodward, John R., Brush, and Beaubien/Saint Antoine, rank among the finest poems of urban life in modern American poetry. Levine surely learned from those poems how to render the lives of working people, as well as the atmosphere of streets and shops common to all metropolitan locales. Levine extended the range of Detroit poetry in crucial ways, however, especially by focusing on factory work, and did so plainly and forcefully, in one artful poem after another, from the 1960s to the present. What Charles Baudelaire did for Paris, and Walt Whitman for New York, Levine has done for Detroit. Every poetry reader in the state of Michigan knows his work and speaks of it with reverence.

Levine's association with Michigan Quarterly Review is a matter of local pride, not just (I hope) in the journal's office. I'd like to take note of that association here and say something more about Levine's poetry. In 1982, four years after becoming editor of MQR, I invited Levine to join Joyce Carol Oates and Arthur Miller as a Contributing Editor. Wary of the practice of naming as many as twenty Contributing Editors with nothing in common, as some journals do, I wanted to create a triumvirate with compelling ties to southeastern Michigan, so as to give the journal a regional accent, even as I welcomed manuscripts from authors around the world. The three new Editors represented significant work in fiction, drama, and poetry - and each of them was an essayist of consummate skill. Levine and Oates have documented lives under the stress of historical events in Detroit, especially the riots of 1967, but also the devolution of the automobile industry after the 1950s and the deterioration of neighborhoods that ensued. Miller was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan during the 1930s, where he wrote some tyro plays (Robert Hayden, a fellow student, acted in one of them) and became an alumnus actively devoted to his alma mater. The appointment worked. All three of the Contributing Editors earmarked significant texts for MQR during the next three decades, and the two survivors have pledged to continue doing so. …

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