Nation’s bard charms boro

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Just two days after being named U.S. poet laureate, Phil Levine read from a few of his poetry books to an audience at Queens College last week.

“It’s curious — when I was first chosen I could hardly say, ‘I am the poet laureate of the United States,’” Levine told the crowd at the Benjamin Rosenthal Library, but said he warmed up to the idea so much that he joked his wife had to stop him from saying “fill up for the poet laureate of the United States” when he needed to gas up his car.

A native of Detroit, Levine, 83, has won a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards for his poetry, inspired by his growing up in a manufacturing city.

Levine, who serves a minimum of one year and a maximum of two as U.S. poet laureate, chalked up his appointment to luck.

“How meaningful is it? It’s like getting the Pulitzer Prize,” he said. “If it had been a different judge, I wouldn’t have gotten it. If you’re going to judge yourself by the awards you get, then you’re an idiot.”

After reading a series of poems — including ones written about Levine and his twin brother turning 50 years old, a poem about his French relatives’ life in France during World War II and another about overhearing two jazz musicians talking on a Detroit street — Levine answered questions from Nicole Cooley, a Queens College professor and head of the college’s Masters in Fine Arts and Creative Writing Program.

Levine said his influence as poet laureate was felt immediately, when he received a letter from a 25-year-old Pennsylvania man who read one of his poems to his mother shortly after he was named poet laureate and she cried.

The man wrote to Levine that he never felt closer to his mother after reading the poem.

“And I thought to myself, ‘That’s my reward,’” Levine said.

Jonathan Karpinos, a student at Queens College’s MFA program, called the experience with Levine “mind-blowing.

“I felt like you sort of get to know a different cross-section of America listening to him,” he said. “I loved the poem ‘You Can Have It,’ about him and his brother. I’m also a twin.”

Cooley asked Levine if he believed poets should give voice to what is going on in their time.

“If you want to write about the dream life of angels, go do it,” Levine advised. “To ask Emily Dickinson to write like Walt Whitman is pure insanity.”

Levine dismissed the idea that poetry does nothing for the world after the suggestion was brought up by Cooley.

“The idea that it makes nothing happen, I think, is kind of silly,” he said. “Poetry has made a great deal happen in me. It’s changed my life.”

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4573.

Posted 6:56 pm, October 26, 2011
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