Levine graduated from college and entered into adulthood like many of us do, as a part-time poet and full-time something else, until he decided to shake off the shackles of normal, responsible, blue (or white or no) collar employment and go for it by returning to school to study for an MFA.
How many of us would love to say, "You know what? My soul is too big for this life. Fuck it. I'm going to become a career writer"?
Full disclosure: He did teach after he got his MFA and, in fact, taught throughout his (second) career but he was a poet first.
He published his first book of poetry at age 35, won a Pulitzer at 67, and last year - at age 85 - was awarded the Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry by the Academy of American Poets. Tucked between those achievements his book Ashes: Poems New and Old received the first American Book Award for poetry, and he was the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011 and 2012.
Levine said, "I believed...that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it value and dignity it did not...possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it. I believed that if I could understand my life...I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life."
Raise your hand if you can relate.
Goodbye, Philip Levine. You will be missed and remembered.
The Gatekeeper’s Children
This is the house of the very rich.
You can tell because it’s taken all
The colors and left only the spaces
Between colors where the absence
Of rage and hunger survives. If you could
Get close you could touch the embers
Of red, the tiny beaks of yellow,
That jab back, the sacred blue that mimics
The color of heaven. Behind the house
The children digging in the flower beds
Have been out there since dawn waiting
To be called in for hot chocolate or tea
Or the remnants of meals. No one can see
Them, even though children are meant
To be seen, and these are good kids
Who go on working in silence.
They’re called the gatekeeper’s children,
Though there is no gate nor—of course—
Any gatekeeper, but if there were
These would be his, the seven of them,
Heads bowed, knifing the earth. Is that rain,
Snow, or what smearing their vision?
Remember, in the beginning they agreed
To accept a sky that answered nothing,
They agreed to lower their eyes, to accept
The gifts the hard ground hoarded.
Even though they were only children
They agreed to draw no more breath
Than fire requires and yet never to burn.