It was pelting rain in Brooklyn and I was out with my son, then about four, headed to the grocery store. Directly across the street, I saw a lanky elderly man, his iron-gray hair matted with rain, on the top step of his stoop, banging on the front door of his brownstone and shouting up at the third-floor window to be let in. It was the poet Philip Levine. I had seen him around the neighborhood for years, and may have even waved to him the way one does to familiar-looking strangers, but now I recognized him because just a couple weeks before his picture had been in the paper when he was appointed the nation’s Poet Laureate.
“I can’t believe it, I locked myself out,” he explained when I crossed the street and asked what was wrong.
“Well, at least come down here,” I said. “You can stand under my umbrella.”
When I read over the weekend that Levine had died, at age 87, I thought of that rainy September afternoon in Brooklyn. A couple months later, on assignment for Poets & Writers Magazine, I would climb the stairs to the third-floor apartment Levine shared with his wife, Frances, and listen to his stories of growing up poor and full of rage in Depression-era Detroit. From the window of his study, I could see into the window of my own apartment across the street, but it was an altogether different Brooklyn on Philip Levine’s side of the street. He talked about starting work at age 14, about working factory jobs at Chevrolet and Cadillac, and how “intoxicating” it had been to discover the war poetry of Wilfred Owen when he had been a young man facing the possibility of fighting in a war.
The anger that filled him in his early years was of no use to him as a writer, he told me. “It was a huge hindrance because it meant I couldn’t write anything worth a damn about that work life,” he said. “I couldn’t get that disinterestedness that’s often required. I couldn’t get Wordsworth’s tranquility. It took me until I was about 35 before I really wrote a poem that was about work.”
What changed him, he said, was a dream he’d had about a friend from his working days in Detroit named Eugene. In the dream, Eugene had called from L.A. hoping to be invited up to Fresno, where Levine taught at the state university, but Levine hadn’t invited Eugene to his home. “I woke up and was furious with myself,” he said. “How could I possibly not invite Eugene to my house? This was terrible. I was turning my back on my whole growing up.” That morning, he settled into bed with a pad of paper and wrote without stopping for a week, beginning a run of poems about working-class America that would earn him two National Book Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and an appointment as the nation’s Poet Laureate from 2011 to 2012.
But that interview was still several months in the future, and on this rainy September afternoon, Levine was merely a soaked 83-year-old neighbor who had locked himself out of his house. Huddled under my umbrella, I told him that by chance I’d met his son Mark through friends in upstate New York, and that Mark and I had had an unintentionally hilarious discussion in which it had gradually developed that his father, the famous poet Philip Levine, lived part of the year in a brownstone directly across the street from ours in Brooklyn Heights. Then I said: “And now you’re the Poet Laureate.”
He looked at me, startled, as if he were Clark Kent and I had somehow guessed his secret identity. Then he threw back his head and laughed.
“That’s right, I am,” he said. “I’m the Poet Laureate of the United States.”
Previously: A Year in Reading: Philip Levine
Photo: US Department of Labor