Thank you, Philip Levine

On Valentine's Day, Philip Levine, our 2011 Poet Laureate, died.  To mark his life and the small but significant impact he had on me, I am re-posting a reflection I originally posted back in 2011, shortly after his appointment as our nation's "First Poet."  I still think about this post, and its impetus, frequently.

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from The Poetry Foundation's website
biography of Philip Levine
Written August 11, 2011. Yesterday, the Library of Congress announced the appointment of Philip Levine as the new Poet Laureate of the United States. The job of the Poet Laureate is "to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry." (Taken from the website of the Library of Congress.)

Prior to that announcement, I knew little to nothing about Philip Levine, although his name was familiar. But the news came to me yesterday while I was lamenting the quality of my children's exposure to arts and culture, at least any arts and culture that doesn't make my ears bleed. So when, in the car on the way to camp this morning, our local public radio station KQED aired an interview with Levine, I turned it up. I wanted my kids to hear this guy talking about poetry. I'm sure my intended audience was more attentive to his/her electronic devices, but I turned it up anyway. I paused to explain to my captive audience what a Poet Laureate is, and was greeted by blank stares.

But I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the interview. I liked what he had to say about teaching at Fresno State, where he has been for 30 years: 
"I've got these students, who are capable of learning, gave themselves the freedom to learn because they gave themselves the freedom to fail."
He goes on to say that at other, more prestigious schools where he has taught, like Yale and Vanderbilt, "students had a lot of trouble being told that their poems were no damn good." It seems that education, for these high achieving students, is more about being brilliant already than about expanding one's mind and possibilities. (You can access the whole interview here.)

What an important concept to keep in mind. Amidst all our striving towards excellence and achievement, it's easy to lose sight of real learning. We can forget the importance of failure in shaping our minds, our hearts, who we are, and how much we grow, in intellectual and in more personal or creative endeavors.

While we may want our children to work hard enough to go to a good college or university, what we want for them even more is the freedom to fail, the freedom to find more and better paths for their creativity and innovation to flourish. Maybe in art or poetry, maybe in engineering, maybe on a soccer field or in a medical lab, maybe in their personal pursuits or in common cause for others. 

Maybe in family life and raising children, too. Maybe parents need the freedom to fail, in order to grow and get better at crafting children, the way a poet crafts his poems. Perhaps it's not about being perfect already, but about keeping ourselves open to the possibilities before us, to directions we aren't expecting to go.

Leave it to a poet to remind us how our hearts and minds expand.

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Read more about Philip Levine in his biography on The Poetry Foundation's website.

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