U.S. Poet Laureate visits campus

U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine visited Fresno State Saturday
night to share his works in front of an audience of 200.
Photo courtesy of Cary Edmondson/ University Communications

Once a year, the Librarian of Congress picks an American poet who will spend October through May raising awareness and appreciation of poetry. This year’s United States Poet Laureate is Fresno State’s own Philip Levine, who returned to campus Saturday night to be honored and to honor those who supported him during his long tenure at Fresno State.

Fresno State President John Welty and Dr. Vida Samiian, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, hosted the event that attracted more than 200 guests. Audience members were entertained with readings and remarks by seven distinguished poets and closing remarks by Provost William Covino.

When Levine took the stage, he had audience members laughing, and applauding throughout his 40-minute lecture, recital and acceptance speech.

The longest laugh and applause Levine received was when he recounted his retirement from New York University in 2008 at age 80.

“They gave me a big reading, and at that reading, I did the formulary thing,” Levine said. “I thanked my wife, Fran, and I revealed something that almost no one knew: that in fact, she had written my poems.”

After audience members settled down, Levine lauded his wife for the support she has given him and went on highlighting his modest beginnings.

Levine has accumulated a long list of achievements over a lifetime — Professor at Fresno State from 1958 to 1992, chosen as Fresno State’s Outstanding Professor of the Year in 1970 and then for the entire CSU system in 1971, author of 20 collections of poetry, 1995 Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Awards and two National Book Critic Circle Awards.

Levine went on to recite two of his works, stating his initial intention was to read his very first poem, but ran into a problem.

“I couldn’t find it,” said Levine, which elicited laughter from those in attendance.

Levine went on to explain an involved introduction to a poem he wrote in 1968 against capital punishment, “L’homme et la bête” (The Man and the Animal). Even at 84, Levine’s reading of his poem held the Music Building Concert Hall audience in thrall and elicited sustained applause.

Levine finished his presentation with his poem, “Gospel,” an upbeat poem replete with images from the outdoors.

Photo courtesy of Cary Edmondson/ University Communications

When Levine finished reading, there was a sustained 60-second standing ovation.

Covino praised Levine of his accomplishments and informed the crowd of the annual Levine Prize through the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program.

“We have an MFA program here at Fresno State that rivals the best program anywhere that produces poets and novelists and essayists with rich and compelling voices and visions whose work has resonated throughout the world,” said Covino. “This would not have been possible were we not all standing on the sturdy shoulders of Philip Levine, who is now our country’s Poet Laureate and who is indeed emblematic of an American experience that calls to us, that makes us see life and lives in ways that transform our own.”

Covino related the story about his first experience of reading a Levine poem in 1975 when he was a master’s student in English, during a break while playing a party with his cover band.

He had read Levine’s “Animals are Passing from our Lives,” saying he immediately understood that the pig in Levine’s poem, who is being driven to slaughter by a farm boy, “becomes an example for anyone who has ever been objectified, and swallowed up.”

He said it became very difficult to concentrate on singing Elton John and Captain & Tenille songs after reading Levine’s poem. The incident led him to what he called the “Encino Epiphany.”

“Peace of mind had never taught me anything, never moved me to action, or passion. The disturbing and ironic and lyrical force of ordinary life and human failings and the courage and grace to say ‘No, not this pig,’ resonated…I realized that it was this disturbing tension between conventional and comfortable ways of being and poetic ways of seeing that had brought me to literature, that had brought me to teach, that keeps bringing me back to poetry, and has made Philip Levine’s poetry a force in my life and the lives of so many others,” said Covino.

Covino finished by reciting the stock answer he gave people from then on who asked his plans for using his English degree.

“I am going to remain disturbed — the kind of disturbance that ignites the imagination. Thank you, professor, for disturbing us,” Covino said.

Samiian then spoke on behalf of Mayor Ashley Swearengin and read a City of Fresno proclamation that made Jan. 20, 2012, Philip Levine Day in Fresno.

Samiian also announced that there will be a special exhibit on Levine’s life and books on the second floor of the Madden Library and encouraged people to come by and take a look.

The Fresno State Winery also announced a limited edition blend honoring Levine, which offered pre-release orders for the red blend at the event.

In February, Levine will meet with enology students to select his favorite of several red blends crafted by the student-run winery, which will be released this fall. The proceeds from all sales will benefit the Department of Enology and the Philip Levine Scholarship in Poetry.

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