Sunday, November 14, 2010


These two books of poetry—Philip Levine's NOT THIS PIG and James Wright's THE BRANCH WILL NOT BREAK—were not just favorite books of mine since I first read them when they were published in the 1960s, reading them the first time was in each instance a watershed experience.

They became talismans to me, reminders of the craft I had been practicing and teaching myself about for years, and during the period when I discovered them, beginning to study formally with others as well (at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop back when it was one of the few in the country and the original).

THE BRANCH WILL NOT BREAK was published a few years before NOT THIS PIG so was the first to have an impact on me. I was already in love with Whitman and Williams, and had discovered on my own, or with my first wife's guidance, others poets who inspired and at times influenced me, like Muriel Rukeyser and Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima and Bob Kaufman, among others.

But Wright and Levine represented something else. Not just critically and academically acclaimed poetry, but an approach to the craft and art of writing poems that I had hitherto (wow where did that come from) dismissed as too precious and even dishonest for my taste.

The way they practiced the art though was obviously intended to advance a perspective I could identify with, and in Levine's case, to describe a kind of life and world, and the kinds of feelings, I could identify with. In Wright's case it was the inner life, the quality of the imagination and what it too was describing that got me.

They both came across to me as working men, or at least poets who had grown up in working-class families and neighborhoods. Wright's poem "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" was instantly on my list of alltime favorite poems, and I have taught it and reread it and even had it unintentionally memorized for years.

Levine's "Commanding Elephants" held a different sway over me, like the Wright poem it was about factory workers (at least in part in Wright's poem and fully in Levine's) and described the kinds of men I'd grown up around and even some of my own experiences as a laborer.

But Wright was a Midwesterner who also wrote about farm life, or at least farms, and landscapes and life experiences more foreign to me, while Levine's poems almost always seemed more urban and street tough and I thought more direct.

I've reread these books a lot and taught poems from them since the 1960s. And if you had asked me the day before my brain surgery a year ago, I'd have told you how much they meant to me and how much I loved them both. But as with other aspects of my taste, from the day of the operation to now, that has changed.

I know everyone's taste changes over time, but this is one of those abrupt products of the operation. I still love the Wright book. But no matter how many times I reread the Levine one, it leaves me cold. I get the artistry in the structuring and rhythms and language and so on in the poems in NOT THIS PIG, but I just don't dig it, or even relate to it, when for decades it had represented a deep connection with my own roots and past.

Now it just seems like it's trying too hard. And the simplicity and directness and concision of Levine's writing that I always admired seems to not be there in these poems anymore. How can that be? It's just another example of what the changes from that operation have given me insight into—the ways the brain can manufacture its own perspective and taste based on the way the synapses work and the neurons connect and the nerves align and the rest of it. Of course my brain contains my experiences and my personal and genetic history etc., but it also has these chemical and biological aspects that can be altered by various circumstances and in turn alter my (and I'm deducing all of our) perceptions and reasoning and taste.

So, anybody want to make an offer for a first edition paperback copy in good condition of Philip Levine's NOT THIS PIG?

[PS: And I realize you might read these two poems, or these books, or already have, and may have come to the exact opposite opinion. But my experience seems to indicate in both our cases that's most likely a product of the ways our brains work which could be easily altered by a little, or not so little, operation!] 


Chris Mason said...

This is a great insight into the physiological/neurological/chemicalbasis of our aesthetic judgments! It's great that you are documenting these shifts in aesthetic taste. So much of this is beyond our understanding.

Lally said...

Thanks Chris. Glad you appreciate it. I find it totally fascinating even just as an observer, though obviously not a disinterested one!