My one great teacher, Philip Levine, died on Valentine's Day last Saturday.
Of all the teachers I've studied with as a student, none were as great as Phil Levine. I had the pleasure of taking of his advanced poetry writing workshops at Fresno State for five semesters, from the late 1970s and to the mid 1980s just before I went to graduate school.
Some of my fellow students complained about Phil's rather harsh criticism: I found his stinging, sometimes comic-tinged advice incredibly helpful. If Phil didn't like something in one of my poems, I knew after his comments that I would never repeat such flaws. For I also found the opposite, his praise, just as helpful: If he had no harsh words for one of my poems, then I knew I had written something that might--might--have some merit. His criticism and praise were the sharp points that spurred me on to always try to go beyond what I knew I could write.
That was Phil's gift as a teacher: He wanted his students to challenge themselves, to never be satisfied with one's work.
Of course, his poetry will be with us for as long as written words matter. But as a former student of Phil's, I know that I share a unique kinship with others who winced, floated, and laughed--sometimes in the same class meeting--because of Phil's gifts as a teacher.
Thank you, Phil, for the gift of your attention to those of us who became poets and, more importantly, became caring human beings, for you knew that the world is a vale of soul making.