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Philip Levine (January 10, 1928 – February 14, 2015)


The great poet Philip Levine died this weekend. The poet Jeremy Bass, who’s also the music director of The Secret City, wrote a brief appreciation. We also include Levine’s iconic work: They Feed They Lion. RIP to a celebrated American poet.

I met Philip Levine at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference a few summers ago. I’d heard of him, I’d read his iconic poem “They Feed They Lion,” but hadn’t delved into his poetry beyond that. His reading that summer, made up of poems from his last collection, was intensely and joyfully moving. He wrote about working people, their lives and suffering, he wrote about family and the poets of the Spanish Civil War, he wrote about childhood and how the ghost of his dead friend Larry Levis appeared in his dreams complete with black motorcycle jacket and faded jeans, he wrote about travel and California and the Black Wine of Alicante. I immediately rushed out to purchase copies of “What Work Is” and “The Simple Truth” (for which he was awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, respectively) and found that these themes ran consistently throughout all of his work. His writing was always directed toward increasing the clarity of our awareness of being alive, and even at 85, a slight man, hunched at the podium, you could sense that generosity and brilliance of purpose. I never knew him personally, but he was considered to be one of the most dedicated and supportive teachers by all who studied with him–at times combative and fierce, but always in pursuit of nurturing the next great poem that would speak to the human condition. – Jeremy Bass


Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.

Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch,
They Lion grow.

Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
“Come home, Come home!” From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.

From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From “Bow Down” come “Rise Up,”
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

Philip Levine 1968