What Can We Steal From Philip Levine’s “My Father with Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart”?
Title of Work and its Form: “My Father with Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart,” poem
Author: Philip Levine
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem debuted in The Forward and has subsequently been anthologized and reprinted. The poem concludes Mr. Levine’s 1994 poem collection, The Simple Truth, a book that won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. You can also find the poem in This Is My Best: Great Writers Share Their Favorite Work, a book edited by Retha Powers and Kathy Kiernan. Mr. Levine also contributed a brief essay in which he describes the creation of the poem.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Levine gave to The Paris Review. Here is an NPR interview in which Mr. Levine discusses his upbringing and poetry. Here is the Library of Congress page dedicated to Mr. Levine, a Poet Laureate Emeritus.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration
Mr. Levine and I have a lot in common. We were both born in the Detroit area and we both write poetry. Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of it. Mr. Levine chose to conclude his book with this poem and his entry in This Is My Best reinforces that the poem means a great deal to him. As well it should; the poem’s first person narrator begins the work by evoking an ancient memory, his father “commanding” a kitchen match to flame with his thumbnail and talking about important things. The narrator “fast-forwards” sixty years to the present, putting the old memories into context. Mr. Levine (and the narrator) were children when Hitler was coming to power; the poem presents a slice of what the world was like before it changed and before Mr. Levine developed his powerful critical faculties.
I love the way Mr. Levine opens the poem:
I remember the room in which he held
a kitchen match and with his thumbnail
commanded it to flame
The image explicitly communicates that the poem is a story and implies that the tone will be a a quiet, contemplative one instead of a more intense one. The match itself is a kind of campfire, right? How many life lessons have been shared by parents under such conditions? The beginning of the flame, the beginning of the Lucky Strike moment: these are subconscious cues to the reader that he or she is about to get the same kind of important lesson as the narrator receives.
Before I read Mr. Levine’s essay in This Is My Best, I thought that the title of the poem sounded like the title of a work of visual art. (I swear! I even wrote “TITLE LIKE A WORK OF ART” in the margin.) In that short essay, Mr. Levine describes his reluctant visit to a museum, whereupon he was struck by a painting: “My Father with Cigarette,” by Harry Lieberman. Mr. Levine was inspired for a number of reasons. The story of Mr. Lieberman’s father bore some resemblance to that of his own, for example. The poem, Mr. Levine points out, came out of him relatively quickly and easily and he simply augmented the title of the painting. Why not follow Mr. Levine’s example? If you look at some visual art, you’re going to be provoked into having some cool ideas. Art can be a very potent launching point for writers.
Even better, no two writers will get the same idea or feeling from the same work. Look up Eugene Delacroix’s “Orphan Girl at the Cemetery.”
What kind of stories or images occur to you when you look at her?
What Should We Steal?
- Begin a didactic work with an image of convocation. People are trained to understand when a LESSON is about to begin. Baseball games begin with the National Anthem, court proceedings begin with a standing ovation for the judge.
- Flip through a book or art or visit a gallery and steal away. If your mind is open, you’re probably going to get some ideas worth jotting down.
- TITLE FORMULA #5550199: Borrow the title of a great work of art or modify it to fit your needs.