By Jemmy Bluestein
I have a present to give the English-speaking world. It’s a virtually unknown poem of the late, great Fresno poet and former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine. Though there have been many obituaries and reminiscences offered since his death in February 2015, the back-story on this rare poem gives me a chance to say a few things about Phil, as he’s been known to me since childhood, (he sometimes signed letters or cards to us “Your Old Amigo, Phil”), things that may have escaped notice or gone unmentioned.
Phil wrote this poem in 1968. The title is “for Jemmy, the poet at 10.” Jemmy is me. My father, Gene Bluestein and Phil were friends and colleagues, professors in the English department at CSUF, at that time Fresno State College. The origin of the world-class creative writing program at FSC and the violent revolution which occurred there could be the subject for another piece, complete with its own poems of outrage and resistance. In any case, this was the time when the still to this day world-renowned Fresno school of poetry was born.
I was a child at the time and was impressed, maybe imprinted by the poets and poems that flowed from this community. Not surprising that around age nine I started writing poems myself. They were not great, of course, but my mother was thrilled. She copied them into mimeographed packets which, to my mild horror (I knew they were not ready for prime time) she passed out to poets and friends and family. Fortunately, this did not destroy my love for poetry or writing, which have stayed with me for life.
Phil in particular was moved to write an answering poem, which was only ever published in George Hitchcock’s magazine Kayak (#19). I find the poem even stronger today than when it was penned. With permission from Phil’s widow, Fran and in gratitude for her love and kind friendship which I will always treasure, I offer you this poem.
The poem speaks to Phil’s passionate concerns, such as his fierce opposition to fascist military activity wherever and whenever it shows itself, as well as his love of nature (he says in another poem “There is more /to be said, but by someone who has suffered/ and died for his sister the earth and his brothers the beasts and trees.”)
Phil mined his experiences and personal and family histories for treasures of human transcendence and dignity in the face of industrial, corporate fascism and oppression. And yet the first thing that comes to mind when I conjure him is his sense of humor. As a kid I attended his readings with my family and we always emerged with sore stomachs and ribs from laughing so hard.
Though most of his poems were tough and emotionally hard-hitting, I became convinced at times that he was channeling the late comedian Lenny Bruce. Which brings up the subject of Phil’s “language,” which I will not call filthy or profane but rather honest, strong and uncensored.
In those days he would never give a reading or an interview but it was laced with fuck and shit and anything else he felt like saying. (I remember my father setting the tone early in my life when he told me “I don’t feel we can afford to be scared of words or language.”) Lenny Bruce offered his own understanding while raising many questions about the concept of obscene language.
If I were to try and characterize Phil’s approach, I would ask is sex obscene? Or bodily functions or excrement? Or is the mass murder of men, women and children or the destruction of our planet obscene? Subversion of language to conceal lies and atrocities is the real obscenity which must be fought with courage and unflinching truthfulness. Besides, earthy expressions are the funniest, when used idiomatically and with creativity.
A little later in my own life I attended CSUF for a few years, studying natural sciences and English. I was privileged to study with my father and with some of the Fresno poets. Phil had a reputation as a hard-assed, sometimes even brutal teacher but this was not my experience. He showed great respect to his students and their writing. #1, he taught us to develop and exercise a reliable bullshit detector. Honesty and truthfulness were the foundation, and craft the superstructure.
Sheltering each other or ourselves from the truth is a disservice not to be indulged. If this resonated with you, Phil was your best friend and brilliant, encouraging teacher. If not, you might as well get out. Self-discipline was another aspect of Phil’s teaching and life. If you are serious, you write every day. If it’s crap, you can throw it way (another exercise worthy of practice!) But you don’t stop writing. Writer’s block is for sissies.
My own kids are now in high school and university and I’ve been horrified that creative reading and writing have been largely absent and poetry itself often ignored or even despised by their English teachers. And it shocks me that at no time in their schooling did anyone ever mention let alone teach a single poem or poet of the Fresno school of poetry. I would like to see mandatory training of all district English teachers in the Fresno poets, for their own enrichment and for the happiness and very survival of humanity, as a counter measure against fascism, militarism, genocide and ecocide.
George Orwell showed that control and subversion of language is a dangerous weapon. In many countries, poets have been tortured and murdered, often by U.S. secret forces and their proxies. Here at home we consign them to the compost heap of neglect and ignorance. To squander the riches we have grown and produced in our valley is a crime against humanity. Thank you, my old amigo Phil, poet, teacher, revolutionary, friend.
Jem Bluestein is a musician who performs a wide variety of folk styles including Appalachian, country blues, Cajun, Zydeco, Celtic, Mexican, Yiddish, Greek, blues, R&B and reggae. His electric dance band (Cajun, Zydeco, Blues, R&B, reggae) is Lonesome Jem and the Lunatics.