At 87, Poet Laureate Philip Levine Jazzed It Up

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Philip Levine recording with the Benjamin Boone Evolution Quartet in Fresno (Joe Osejo)

After Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine died last Saturday, many obituaries and tributes acknowledged him as a poet who wrote about factory life in Detroit.

But what you may not know is that he was actually deeply rooted in Fresno and was an avid jazz lover. In the last few years of his life, he collaborated with Benjamin Boone, a Fresno State jazz professor, to set more than two dozen poems to music.

Some of these compositions are playful, some deeply sentimental. In the jazz version of Levine's famous poem, “What Work Is,” the music echoes the impatience and resignation of standing in line, waiting for work.

Here's an excerpt, followed by the Levine/Boone recording of the poem:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother of you, maybe ten places. ...


The album hasn’t yet been released. But Levine had finished recording the poems before he died.

This poem, “Our Valley,” speaks to landlocked transplants, like me, who moved here from the coast. Here's another excerpt and clip:

We don't see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it. ...

Levine put down roots in Fresno after he began teaching at Fresno State in 1958 and eventually became the godfather of Fresno's poetry scene, building a nationally recognized creative writing program.

In an 2011 interview with The California Report, Levine irked some of our listeners when he called Fresno a “sewer” and said Fresno State students had “already failed” by not getting into elite schools. But he also said they were some of the best students he’d ever taught, because they weren't devastated by criticism, unlike the Ivy League students he taught.

Levine was a notoriously tough professor. Cantankerous, but beloved. Many of his students went on to win prestigious poetry prizes themselves, including Blas Manuel de Luna, Brian Turner, Lawson Inada, Dixie Salazar and scores of others. Some of them contributed to a 2013 collection of essays on Levine as a teacher and mentor.

Though he lived in Brooklyn half the year, Levine said he felt most at home in Fresno. He grew attached to his dentist, his car mechanic and his circle of poet friends here. He felt he could do his most focused work in the quiet of his Fresno bungalow.

Levine, like many of us who’ve moved to the Central Valley from elsewhere, had a love-hate relationship with Fresno. He was frustrated with its provincialism but charmed by its lack of pretentiousness.