The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by Christopher Buckley
Wherever a poet gets to in his/her life—one book from a small press or a Pulitzer Prize—whatever level of celebrated accomplishment or simple satisfaction with craft, almost no one gets there alone.
You have models in your reading of course, the fields turned over before you arrived to show you the way, the ways, that in general you might go. Along the road, you develop friends and fellow writers who, if you’re lucky, are candid, rigorous with feedback. But what brings you fully to face and embrace your life, to risk the real possibility of failing, the lack of rewards, and a lifetime of thrift store shopping, is a good and generous teacher. For what little the world cares about a book of poetry, the humble life we’re fortunate enough to make in the endeavor to write it, we wouldn’t have even that modest bit if not for significant teachers.
There are exceptions, but rarely. I once asked my friend William Matthews about his writing process, and he said he wrote two or three drafts of a poem and if he didn’t have it by then he tossed it and went on to the next one. Bill was a prodigious talent, possessed of an encyclopedic mind and fabulous wit, and most of us will not profit by comparing our talents to Bill’s. Still, I know he had poet friends such as Stanley Plumly, and my bet is that they offered helpful responses. My longtime friend Gary Soto—also a quick writer—wrote three or four drafts and went on to the next poem. Early on he relied on fellow Fresno poet Jon Veinberg for critical response; then over time, I became the main editor Gary turned to for poetry. He would show me a ms. and we would finalize it by tossing out the weak poems and those that too closely echoed something he had already written, and what we had left was the book. Most of the time I did not have to do too much line-by-line editing or suggesting. However, when Gary began writing fiction and nonfiction with marked success, he set poetry aside for a while. When he showed me his next poetry ms., a good deal of time had gone between books. In short, as we say of athletes, he was out of shape. There was editing to do, a lot of shifting and suggesting of re-writes, especially for the endings; he worked diligently at revising the poems and made a good book. He was talented, learned quickly, but did not arrive in the classroom writing prize-winning poetry. Who was his teacher? Philip Levine at Fresno State.
When I arrived in the MFA program at UC Irvine in my early 20s, my great good fortune was to have Jon Veinberg, Soto, and Gary Young in my workshops, my good friends and friends in poetry to this day. Most of us were struggling, but Soto had already found his voice, style, and subject and was publishing in places like Poetry, the Iowa Review and The Nation, journals the rest of us could only dream of. Veinberg was writing distinctive and consistently engaging poems. Both students of Levine. I was writing just well enough to be the last one into the program before the door closed—no money, thank you very much.
However, almost entirely due to Glover Davis, my teacher at San Diego State, I at least had a few poems. Glover had been an early student of Levine’s at Fresno State in the ’60s, and he ran a rigorous workshop. Nothing weak got by; no one was patted on the head and told they were special—no participation trophies were handed out. He learned that fierce sense of craft from Levine. And like Phil, Glover was generous. He had long office hours, and back then in the early ’70s there was always a line outside his office, five or six students waiting to go over rewrites of their poems. My first semester in graduate school, I managed one finished poem and Glover must have seen 15 drafts of it over as many weeks. But I had at least one poem and was grateful for that. Did students appreciate the help? I think about half of us did. In my first semester’s workshop there must have been 20 students, and most were writing better than I. Up to that point I had not read contemporary poetry or worked with a poet; I was just self-anointed and my “work” was likely influenced by the Moody Blues and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Go figure. But one afternoon, walking out of the building, Glover paused and actually talked to me, something I did not expect. The one thing that resonated, that stuck, was advice he passed on from his teacher: Most beginning poets will not risk failure. You needed to be “all in” as the poker cliché now has it. That saved me. That, and the required books for the workshop: They Feed They Lion by Levine, Collecting the Animals by Peter Everwine, and the anthology Naked Poetry. I was not writing well, but I was at least committed to trying to do the best I could each week and Glover took the work seriously—there were no guarantees.
I spent two and a half years with Glover before heading to UC Irvine for the MFA, and I recall a day in the last week I was at San Diego, waiting outside Glover’s office to have him take a final look at a rewrite. There was a young woman in with him, someone I did not know as a student/poet, someone I had never seen in class or at a reading on campus or in the community. She looked to be a sorority girl, expensive dress, styled hair etc., and she was there complaining that the last poem she had turned into an undergraduate workshop had not been properly appreciated by Glover, that her grade was undeservedly low, probably a C. Most likely she was one of those students who had chosen a course in poetry writing to fill in electives, assuming it would be an easy A. Glover reviewed the fact that she had not turned in a poem until half way through the semester, then had submitted five at once, none which worked, and that this last poem did not get going until the middle stanza and then went rapidly down hill from there. “Perhaps you just don’t understand the poem,” offered the sorority girl. I’d already made my mind up to go into teaching after grad school, but her comment gave me second thoughts.
Glover was unsparing in workshop and in conferences, emphasizing craft and
the real work of many re-writes. My first quarter at UC Irvine, Diane Wakoski ran the workshop with a similar focus. At the time, she was writing regular columns for APR that addressed overall attitudes about poetry, concepts, strategies, approaches to different poets and poetries. In workshop though, she was a very specific line-by-line editor and she was a great help to those of us who did not let our egos get in the way. Wakoski could as well tie in her specific suggestions to the larger picture of the poet’s intention or the culture of ideas, the overarching traditions of poetry, old and new. As well, she was very generous and supportive, especially for someone as popular and in demand as she was then. Diane regularly would take some of us to dinner at restaurants we never could have afforded then, and often she invited the workshop to her house for dinner and wine. Those days, I cooked a lot of spaghetti dinners and tuna casseroles and they were the “gourmet” meals we shared, so Diane’s kindness and generosity supported body and soul. She was there for only the first quarter of our two years at Irvine, but she remained a mentor over the years.
Our last quarter there, we demanded a poet of some national reputation and accomplishment, as after Diane, the department simply recycled the faculty poets whom we had already seen a couple of times. One reason you went to Irvine was the list of visiting poets they had each year to teach the workshops. The other reason was Charles Wright. Our great misfortune during our time at Irvine was that Charles Wright was gone both years—one year on a Guggenheim and one visiting Iowa. So we made several forays into the Chair’s office to lodge our protests, and we got their attention, amazingly enough.
We were in luck as Peter Everwine was on leave with a Guggenheim during that time and was persuaded to drive down from Fresno once a week for ten weeks to lead our last workshop. (One reason the Fresno poets had a substantial reputation was that Peter was teaching there with Levine.) Poems I was submitting for workshop would not have been improved really by specific editing. I seemed to have back-slid with what talent I had. Think of those scenes of train wrecks on the evening news—box cars scattered cattywampus along the side of the tracks . . . the last few quarters worked like that for me. But Peter spoke to me about poets I should be reading, the way I should be thinking about voice, how I might better approach my understanding of what a poem was, and this saved me from complete despair. And after my first book ms. had come close at a big contest and I was talking about the title I’d come up with for my second book, Veinberg put me back on track; he said I should use that new title for my first book, that I should toss that ms. I reviewed the book and saw he was right. I saved four or five poems and went on. So Jon was a teacher for me very much at ground zero.
There are many ways to learn of course. I became friends with Charles Wright after I finished the MFA at Irvine, and he was a great teacher of mine though he never saw any of my poems. I just read his books, every last one of them, again and again. It was inspiring and disheartening both, as it turned out that we shared a similar approach to a mix of metaphysics and doubt—to the cosmos. I was never going to write as well as Charles. I knew that. He did not leave much meat on the bone for those of us who came later with a similar take on experience. But he was a supreme example of what you might aspire to, and each of Charles’ books suggested new ways to attack my subject. Then I was especially reading The Southern Cross, The Other Side of the River, and China Trace. As with Philip Levine’s work, I had to keep myself from “borrowing” too obviously from Charles. At San Diego State, I had Glover Davis to do that for me in the workshops: “Buckley, you can’t do that; those are Levine’s lines.” Imitation, the sincerest form . . . etc. But though I kept having to revise the endings that I “shared” with Levine in my poems, I learned a lot from all of the close reading and the brilliance and fierce music of his voice.
In the 43 years I knew Phil, I think he actually looked at/helped with three, maybe four poems. Again, I learned from reading and rereading his poems, and from talking with him about contemporary poetry. Phil was absolutely amazingly generous with his time, which is one reason I did not dun him with poems for help all the time. He had many students who, after graduating and moving on, still sent work, and there were many people who asked for help who had not been his students. He was a tireless correspondent, and in the days before email became ubiquitous, he wrote long letters to everyone who wrote to him. There are four anthologies of Levine students, literally hundreds of people who have had or still have a life in poetry thanks to Phil. It is amazing he found time to write all the books, prose, and translations that he did.
My favorite memory of Phil helping with a poem goes back ten years or so.
“Poverty” was the last poem Phil ever helped me with. As I said, I rarely asked, wanting to save up grace for times when I was really in trouble with a poem. Moreover, I had bothered Phil for letters for twenty years, those letters you must have for grants, for academia, for fellowships. He wrote for me for at least twenty years, perhaps more, until I received, finally, the Guggenheim. When I got the news, I called him immediately to say I had good news for us both: I received the fellowship and I would not ask him to write any more letters. . . . So, “Poverty.” Gary Young and Jon Veinberg had each taken a couple whacks at the three-to-four page poem, had cut it down, suggested shifts, slashed and burned. I had written my usual twenty-five to thirty drafts. It still wasn’t right, and I didn’t want to bother Gary and Jon further. But I knew who would not pull any punches and bring it to heel if, that is, it could be made to do so. Phil. So I sent him the most recent draft and took a yellow highlighter to about twenty lines near the beginning which I felt were suspect, slightly different in voice. Phil got right back saying, Yes, most of those lines should go. He tweaked another couple and then, saying the ending was not right, wrote in a couple new lines to finish with. I went through it again, re-writing, cutting, tightening up, finding the voice. I sent back the revision and Phil responded that Yes, this was more like it, but the ending still needed work! He re-wrote the ending yet again and sent it back. This one was even better. I did not let my ego get in the way, smart enough by that point in time to know a gift when I received one. I sent the final version back to Phil and he approved, saying any time I had a poem this good to feel free to send it to him. No pressure there. I sent it off with a couple others to the very fine journal Five Points for their James Dickey Prize and it won. The phone call was a real surprise, however, as you try lots of contests and never hear anything. But then, when I thought about it, about the help I had received, it was not so far fetched. I owed Phil a good bottle of wine. I owed him much more than that.
Over the years, in addition to specific help with some poems, Phil gave freely of his time and spent a lot of it talking to me about poetry, poets in the tradition, contemporary poets, how to approach the vagaries of writing, the lack of rewards, the important work that is the writing itself.
I was 29 when I came to teach at Fresno State. I had friends who had already won book awards, money prizes, who had tenure track jobs and had published in the better journals. I was feeling a bit left behind in the dust, with three early morning classes of composition to teach . . . . And then I received the major poetry award of my life, one you could not apply for: I was assigned to share an office with Phil. I taught at 8:00, 9:00, and 11:00; Phil did not come in until the middle of the afternoon. For a couple years then I sat at my desk correcting the piles of papers, waiting for Phil to come in, at which time I’d ask a question about a current poem or poet or journal, and my tutorials in poetry and life would begin. He gave great advice not just about poetry but about how to keep my head on straight through all the vicissitudes present and future. His insight and advice helped me keep my head above water through the spare early years. His advice and care were essential in helping me survive those lean years—he emphasized patience, fortitude, modesty, dedication, and honesty. Our discussions always came back to the point of doing the work and not betraying your talents. Most of what I learned, if slowly, about what it takes to be a poet, a writer, an ethical and democratic human being, I learned from the time Phil spent talking with me. There are many forms of instruction.
An obvious testament to the excellence and importance of Philip Levine as a teacher is found in the four anthologies of his students from Fresno State and elsewhere. In addition to Down At The Santa Fe Depot (1970), which showcased the early group of Fresno poets, there were two other anthologies of poets who had come through Fresno. Piecework: 19 Fresno Poets (1987) was put together by former Levine students Gary Soto, Ernesto Trejo, and Jon Veinberg, with Trejo and Veinberg doing the actual editing. How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets (2001) was edited by David Oliveira, M.L. Williams, and myself. Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine edited by Mari L’Esperance and Tomás Q. Morín was published by Prairie Lights Books/Univ. of Iowa Press in 2013. While the previous anthologies were a tribute to Levine mainly through the quality of the poems presented, Coming Close is a collection of essays acknowledging Levine as teacher and mentor from students and friends, older and younger. There has been no one over the last half century who has given more to students, to poets and poetry, than Phil.
This brings me to Larry Levis—Phil’s most exceptional student. If there was a voice of genius of my generation, it was Larry. Yet despite his immense talent, even Larry did not get there on his own. And, Larry became a critic, a teacher if you will, for Phil as the years went on. Phil and Larry exchanged many poems over the years and Larry suggested changes and edits for Phil’s poems as he did for Larry’s. I was editing a book for the University of Michigan Press’s Under Discussion Series—On The Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing (1991). These volumes on senior poets regularly collected the published response to the body of work, but I also wanted some essays commissioned just for the book that offered more substantial appreciations. Larry was the first poet I called to ask. The result was his essay “Philip Levine,” which is one of the most poignant and entertaining essays I know about the education of the poet—a loving tribute to the value of true and great teachers. It was first published in a small literary magazine, Pacific Review, from San Diego State where a student of mine, Chad Oness, was editing the magazine and studying with my former teacher and one of Phil’s early students, Glover Davis.
Larry’s essay alone is worth the price of the book. He recalls Levine’s classes from the ’60s at Fresno State—specifically capturing Levine’s wit and amazing sense of humor. But the essay goes far beyond that. The full text can also be found in A Condition of the Sprit: The Life and Work of Larry Levis, which I edited with a former student, Alexander Long. Here is a bit of what Larry has to say about the value of a great teacher:
[T]o have been a student in Levine’s classes from the mid to late 1960s was to have a life, or what has turned out to be my life, given to me by another. And certainly then, at the age of seventeen, I had no life, or no passionate life animated by a purpose, and I was unaware that one might be possible. . . .
It isn’t enough to say that Levine was a brilliant young poet and teacher. Levine was amazing. His classes during those four years at Fresno State College were wonders, and they still suggest how much good someone might do in the world
. . . . For in any of those fifty-minute periods, there was more passion, sense, hilarity and feeling filling that classroom than one could have found anywhere in 1964. . . .
Whenever I try to imagine the life I might have had if I hadn’t met Levine, if he had never been my teacher, if we had not become friends and exchanged poems and hundreds of letters over the past twenty-five years, I can’t imagine it. . . . I cannot see myself walking down one of those streets as a lawyer, or the boss of a packing shed, or even as the farmer my father wished I would become. When I try to do this, no one’s there: it seems instead that I simply had never been at all. All there is on that street, the leaves on the shade trees that line it curled and black and closeted against noon heat, is a space where I am not.
The essential value of teachers. So who was Phil’s teacher? John Berryman, at the University of Iowa. Phil’s now famous essay, “Mine Own John Berryman,” is a wonderful and candid testament to the good a hard working and rigorous teacher can do and is found in The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography. Phil also mentions Robert Lowell with whom he had a workshop at Iowa. At that time, Lowell was easily the more famous poet, and Phil notes that while Lowell was not much help in the classroom, he was kind and supportive on a personal level. But it was Berryman who gave of himself, who took the time, did the detailed preparation and work of responding and inspiring, who instilled the rigor and direction the writing life would demand. I can’t recommend that essay highly enough.
And Phil was rigorous with himself, throwing away many poems that he felt did not come up to his standards, keeping many poems in the drawer that did not fit into a new book thematically, not placing everything published in magazines in his books. Over the years, Phil told a few variations of the story of the writing of the long poem, “A Walk with Tom Jefferson,” but essentially patience and rigorous standards were the bottom line. He had written half of the over 600-line poem and then hit a wall. Actually he had written 600-900 lines and cut back to that first 300+ half. He put it away and many months later came back to it with an idea to complete the poem—the work of two years or more. He never let himself off easy. After the publication of New Selected Poems, 1991, it occurred to me that there were many fine and memorable poems left out. Together with Jon Veinberg, I talked Phil into publishing a book that collected those poems. Gary Young at Greenhouse Review Press liked the idea and together the three of us published the book. Phil came up with the title Unselected Poems (1997). My main idea was to make available most of the rest of his work, but during the process, Phil whittled away at the overall selection, wanting only the best of what remained. At one point he agreed to include “The Sierra Kid”—a long tour-de-force syllabic poem from his first book On The Edge, one of the best syllabic poems in contemporary poetry. But finally it was cut. Phil did include a small selection of new poems all of which made it into subsequent books with the exception of the exceptional poem “Ascension,” which was printed on the broadside handed out at his memorial tribute this last February. Phil had a judicious sense of a “book of poetry” and saw the poems working together on a theme and variation strategy, a specific emotional strategy or vision, or so it seemed to me. So, many fine poems were left in the drawer and have yet to be collected into a book. Currently, Ed Hirsch, Phil’s literary executor, is working through all of the poems that were unpublished to see which were set for the new book and which should be left out, which might contribute to a substantial New Selected or Collected at some point.
Here I am then, recently retired from teaching, a few weeks back from the tribute and memorial held for Phil on the campus at Fresno State a year after his passing. Hundreds of family, friends, colleagues, and many of his former students attended and testified to his genius, generosity, and importance to their lives. Somehow, I have a selected poems due in the fall from the University of Pittsburgh Press, Larry’s press as I often think of it. It will be a slim volume, as the press prefers—not near what I came to know as a “Selected Poems” as a young man, a book a good inch and a half thick, something you could drop from a balcony and break the sidewalk with. But I feel fortunate indeed, never sure that I would have even this much, with such an established poetry press. And celebrity being what it is, I expect few reviews—Oprah is not going to call. But it represents a life, a life in poetry I have been blessed to have—a life that, without the selfless efforts and support of great teachers, I would never have had.
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