The Philip Levine Poetry Project at Tufts
I didn’t get to take my one class with Philip Levine until the fall of my senior year at Tufts. The fact I was even able to was itself an unexpected stroke of fortune.
Even though I was a double-major in International Relations and History, my love for literature and writing often compelled me to look to the English Department for fun electives to take. A chance to read poetry with a nationally-acclaimed poet my last year at Tufts? That was simply too good to pass up. Except, there was just one big problem—the one Levine class that had no prerequisites conflicted with my afternoon soccer practices that fall. As the men’s team captain that season, I knew for certain my coach would not allow me to miss any practices for an elective, let alone one on poetry. As such, I mustered the courage to plead my case directly with Phil during his office hours to see if he would accept me into his advanced poetry writing workshop. Of course, the first question Phil asked me was “Have you written poetry before?” I mumbled something incoherent, and I’m sure equivocal, about verses I often jotted down in my journal, hoping my response would satisfy him. But Phil simply said, “I’ll be here in my office tomorrow—why don’t you drop off some of your work for me to read?”
I hardly slept that night. I scoured the journals I had kept over the years, extracting as many novel observations or catchy phrases as I could find that resembled poetry, to arrange and pass off as the most prosaic free verse one can imagine. I walked into Phil’s office the next day to hand him three of my “poems,” praying effort might count where talent was lacking. Phil told me to come back in a week to find out whether or not the advanced poetry workshop was for me.
A week later, with his typical jovial candor, through his trademark disarming gap-toothed grin, Phil told me my “poems” were terrible. I apologized and was halfway through simultaneously confessing their real genesis and bolting out the door, when Phil cut me off, saying “but there is one line of yours I liked…”. And on the merits of that one line, Phil accepted me into his class.
That magnanimous decision of his would turn out to be the most transformative and decisive turning point, not only in my college education, but also in my personal and professional life. In the course of one semester, Phil’s infectious passion for poetry, humble reverence for the noble lyricism of everyday work, and unremitting yet generous candor—qualities he always exuded as a poet, mentor, and friend—inspired in me the confidence to follow my own passions, to find a reliable voice for life experiences I myself could trust.
I can still recall those soccer practices in the fall of 1986, when, in the middle of yet another drill, I would obsess over verses I wanted to get just right, while balls from teammates flew and careened all around me. By then, I had also become disillusioned with the way our government, especially under Reagan, pursued its foreign policy. But it was Phil, showing me what was possible when we aspired to write and live with fierce honesty, who gave me the courage finally to reconcile my growing ambivalence towards becoming a career diplomat. I ended up getting a M.F.A. in poetry and a Ph.D. in comparative literature instead, and to this day, I’m grateful and happier in work and life for it. I owe much of all this to Philip Levine.
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