The title poem of his 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning volume The Simple Truth ends with this stanza:
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.
Twentieth century American poet, dedicated itself to the “mind of winter,” according to Wallace Stevens — to returning to a plain sense of things. The best of the late Philip Levine’s poems celebrated diners, potatoes, big rigs, western Nebraska, Spain. They had a becoming flatness. At their worst the meter dissolved, leaving decent prose description formatted as if it were poetry (Frank O’Hara, James Wright, and James Schuyler were often flat too but there was a spring in their step, a sense of exuberance borne from constant surprise). But unlike Mark Strand, whose work I love and prefer, Levine shunned autumnal melancholy, the preferred mode of the aging male American poet. I reread The Simple Truth on occasion. He lied, and he knew it: the truth looks simple.