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Poets who make poets, not just poetry

The Last Shift Philip Levine Knopf

It’s poet’s year in Montreal. A major art gallery is mounting a blockbuster show devoted to Leonard Cohen’s life and work, and his face hovers above two city streets, super-sized, in his late-career guise of Sinatraesque cool. Wouldn’t it have been radical for the muralists to present him in his first guise, that of a poet alone on a stage, book in hand, reading? Among Cohen’s songs familiar to fans that retain the poet’s voice and stance are Chelsea Hotel #2, Hallelujah, and Tower of Song.

One often hears musings about whom we should see as Cohen’s poetic inheritors. But to make poets we need to read poetry. Young people (although this custom was waning even when I was a child in the 1960s) used to encounter poetry in school, whether in anthologies or on the back of our five and ten-dollar bills. You loved it; you hated it; or you found it incomprehensible. Cohen spoke often in interviews of the impact on his youthful imagination of a favourite anthology of English poetry.

Two poets whose work has what it takes to make new poets are the Toronto-based Kenneth Sherman and Detroit-born, long-time Californian Philip Levine. Sherman’s new collection is called Jogging with the Great Ray Charles. Levine’s, The Last Shift, is a posthumous volume. He died at age 87 in 2015.

Jogging with the Great Ray Charles Kenneth Sherman ECW Press

Both Levine and Sherman are poets of the plainspoken variety. They set scenes and portray characters in concrete, dramatic ways, so the reader feels their voices as an intimate presence. And they share an uncanny capability to bring time past to life. There is a strong elegiac note in Jogging with the Great Ray Charles, as there is in The Last Shift, which will appeal to readers who themselves feel they’ve left too much behind them. But the ability to make the past flare up before our eyes is a kind of magician’s trick, a child’s pleasure.

Sherman’s collection opens with a meditation on an abandoned clarinet, its ebony “body that flared to a bell,” which suggests “all things left off, not carried through.” Levine’s opening shot is of his zayde’s Bulova, which the grandson inherited and wore till it

finally threw up its twin baroque arms/
in surrender to the infinite and quit/
without a word.

Throughout his work Levine presents his wartime youth in Detroit as the stuff of epic narrative. The city rears up like an American Babylon:

8 a.m. and we punch out
and leave the place to our betters,
the day-shift jokers who think
they’re in for fun. It’s still Monday
2,000 miles and fifty years
later and at my back I always
hear Chevy Gear & Axle
grinding the night-shift workers
into antiquity.

Sherman’s remembered landscapes are more bucolic but have their own ghosts. In Little Grandmother he records childhood visits to Kensington Market:
you kept chickens in your yard
that you butchered
and wrapped sent my mother
a young girl
to carry stinking packages
down Baldwin Street
collecting cold quarters
from customers

you told me nothing
of the pogroms wars
your sisters
in cattle cars


Levine and Sherman are North American poets in the truest sense; Europe’s terrors intrude in their work, but the real story for them is the here-ness of the places that formed their imagination.

Ethnicity in Levine’s mid-century America is a shared burden, like poverty and aimless sons. His childhood street, with its “six frame houses / holding six immigrant families,” is a Detroit goulash, an indiscriminate mix of Ukrainians, Poles, Jews and Italians. Jewishness in Sherman’s poems attains a similar kind of indiscriminateness – it’s a difference, like the unavoidable smell of newcomer cooking, which is not immediately recognizable. North, a poem about just this, considers the peculiar shadow-ethnics of Sherman’s Ontario youth:

What if I had been born elsewhere,
far from these wasted barns and barren fields,/
far from these leafless, white-boned birches/
that persist under a shrouded sun?

What if I had been born
where neighbours share balconies,
and down in the street everyone flows with the drums,/
the masks, the fireworks of some crazed politics?

In these poems there is a shared recognition of the free-wheeling quality of North American life, out of which, for both men, came the option of poet. That archaic thing.

You hear, and read it if you open a newspaper’s business section, that children must learn to write computer code, because that’s the way of the future, its economy and its relevant social tools. A good study question for high school students might be: “To write code, or to write poetry; which and why?” Interesting outcomes might come from young minds open to various options for the future.

The working materials for this study question offered by Levine and Sherman are like a recipe book for poets.

“Go back to early April of 1949,” Levine proposes, “Get off the Woodward streetcar at Grand Circus Park, walk a few blocks west, and find behind the Greyhound bus terminal a tiny garden no larger than a Buick Roadmaster.”

Sherman is pithier with his argument about life and art in Jogging with the Great Ray Charles: “We sing, man. Then we’re gone.”

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Norman Ravvin is a writer and teacher in Montreal. His recent novel, The Girl Who Stole Everything, is set in Poland and Vancouver.