When Philip Levine got up to lead the masterclass at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference Poetry Conference last Sunday, he began by telling the audience that writers’ conferences are a bad idea. In fact, nearly every statement he made during the course of the class was-by poetry shindig standards-unexpected. The crowd spent most of the time laughing.
Levine advised the gathered poets not to buy his books, but to get them at the library (and then to memorize them). He advised against trying to find your voice, insisting that it would inevitably find you. He quoted Rilke-one of poetry’s venerated-in order to disagree with him, and insisted that Auden, who is almost entirely unread, was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He also insisted that poets ought not try to compete with the movies, especially when writing love poems. “They have all these athletes who can do just about anything,” he insisted. “All you have are a bunch of words.”
When he turned to the poems submitted for his comments, Levine declared, “I am not here to be gentle, but I am here to be helpful. It is not helpful to say, ‘This is a piece of shit.'” He was careful to balance compliments with constructive criticism and delivered all his suggestions with a spirit of good will, a clear respect for the poets, and a reverence for poetry itself. His humor made the process so enjoyable that even the poets whose poems were on the chopping block joined in to banter with him.
Levine has the reputation of being something of a curmudgeon. He himself repeated (in order to refute) an anecdote about his having made a paper airplane out of someone’s poem, sailed it across the room, and exclaimed, “Now it can fly!” And he was not afraid to read a stanza of a poem he was critiquing and respond by simply shouting, “No! No!” But his interaction with the poets and the audience at the conference made clear that he is no curmudgeon-unless there is such a thing as a charming, hilarious, generous, and self-deprecatory curmudgeon.