Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Philip Levine, Poet and Teacher, Dies at 87 on Feb. 14, 2015

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.