It’s not that Philip Levine isn’t appreciative of being named United States Poet Laureate. It’s just that he sometimes questions how meaningful the title is.
“If there were one different judge, I wouldn’t have gotten it,” he explained on Oct. 19 at an informal reading in the Rosenthal Library at Queens College.
“If you’re going to judge yourself by the awards you get, you’re an idiot,” he said, adding, “I will enjoy it.”
More important, apparently, to the humble Levine is the way in which his writing affects people.
A young man had once purchased one of his poetry books, he said. The man read a selection to his mother, leaving her in tears. He told Levine he had never felt so close to his mother as he did at that moment.
“I thought to myself, ‘There’s my reward,’” Levine told the audience, which consisted of over 100 students, faculty and members of the public.
The poem that elicited that reaction is entitled, “You Can Have It,” written by Levine as a gift to his own mother when he and his twin brother turned 50. About two men “sharing a heart” and inspired by their boyhood, it was one of about a dozen poems Levine shared with the Queens College audience, just days after being installed as “The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress,” as the title is officially known.
As holder of the title for the next year, Levine is expected to generate a greater appreciation for the reading and writing of poetry in this country.
Born in 1928 in Detroit, Levine has also been honored with a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry, which typically resembles free-verse monologues.
Not surprisingly, many of Levine’s poems touch upon the working class of his home town, as well as the lives of Jewish immigrants.
Still, his poems reflect a wide range of interests. He opened last week’s reading with “Baby Villon,” which was inspired by his desire to become a prize fighter.
“My trainer told me to find another sport,” he joked.
He next presented two pieces inspired by the Korean War, “The Helmet” and “Saturday Sweeping.” Levine, who refused to serve, referred to the era as “the most difficult years of my life.”
Introducing each poem with personal anecdotes, he then explained, “I love jazz ... the music of my life. Growing up in Detroit in the ’40s was magical for anyone who liked jazz. I went one night to see Art Tatum.”
A couple of days later, Levine happened upon Tatum walking down the street with his young bass player. “On the Corner” recounts their overheard conversation.
The presentation ended with readings of “Our Valley” and “Gospel,” two pieces about his adopted state of California.
Following the reading, Nicole Cooley, director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, where she is also a professor of English, asked Levine, who for 30 years was himself a college professor, to discuss his career as a teacher.
Among the first classes he taught was one called Bible As Literature. “I needed a job,” he explained, “and that’s what I got.
“All you have to give the students is the truth as you see it,” he said.
On the influence poetry can have on the world, he said, poetry is “constantly making things happen. Our responsibility as poets is to write poems.
“Be true to your emotions and the world you know and the world you don’t know. You have to have something in you that you know should be told. I had great faith in my own ability. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know if I deserved it.”
One student in the audience, Rafal Borynski, 18, of Flushing, a sophomore majoring in English and philosophy, said, “I’m a fan of poetry and great expressions of self. I like to be in the presence of artists to maybe get inspiration.”
Another, Ariel Goodrich, a senior from Forest Hills, said, “I love coming to evening readings at Queens College. To hear poetry from someone in the 21st century is inspiring. Poetry is really popular among young people. It’s a popular way to express one’s emotion.”
Cooley, a one-time student of Levine’s, said of his appearance last week, “We’re very lucky,” saying he had been invited before he was chosen as poet laureate.
“It’s a once in a lifetime chance to hear a poet laureate on your campus,” she had told her students. “We need to open their eyes to poetry.”
Poet and fiction writer David Mills
When: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 27.
Where:Queens College, 65-30 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, Klapper Hall, room 304.
Poet John Murillo
When: 5 p.m. Nov. 14.
Where: Klapper Hall, room 333.
Tickets: Free. (718) 997-5000.