Sunday, 4 February 2018

Philip Levine: 'The Second Going'

On the list of poems which have haunted me and refuse to leave, this is a recent addition: 'The Second Going' by Philip Levine.

Philip Levine, who was the US Poet Laureate in 2011-2012, died in 2015 at the age of 87. This poem appeared in 2017 in The Golden Shovel, an anthology in honour of Gwendolyn Brooks (who was also a US Poet Laureate, and the first African-American woman to receive that honour.) The "golden shovel" poetic form was devised by Terrance Hayes and it uses each word of a line of poetry, in order, to form the last word of each line in the new poem. The line which inspired 'The Second Going', "The only sanity is a cup of tea", appears in Gwendolyn Brooks' poem 'Boy Breaking Glass'.

'The Second Going' is a beautiful example of one of my own favourite poetic "forms" (if it can be called that): the very short poem. In just eight lines, this poem says so much.

My own reading of it is rather dark. I see this as an end-of-life poem, which it may literally have been for Philip Levine, as he died in 2015 and the poem must have been commissioned for the 2017 anthology. Even the poem's shape, appearing as a descending staircase, suggests an ending. The poem's opening, "Again the/day begins", has a weariness about it, and "mercy" (in the final line) is a word I identify with assisted death or, at least, death after an exhausting illness. A sad poem, then, but also an illuminating one, like the strange clarity that can come after being awake for "long nights & absent dawns".

Photo: 'night' by Steve Johnson. Used under Creative Commons license


  1. Love your well informed commentary.

  2. Very lovely. It is such a sad poem. Only deep in depression or physical illness or on the threshold of death can I imagine such lines being written. It moved me to the point of writing this brief reply:

    Dear Phil – Would that I could offer some solace in your pain
    By explaining just how often I thrill to greet the dawn,
    Waking only to its barest hint, as it inches up to the horizon,
    Daylight is precisely what I lie and keen for, as it begins
    To becalm the long tremors of night and whispers its promise
    Of clarity that may yet exceed all that has come before

    1. Thanks for sharing. For me it's a very "tired" poem and that's what makes it sad as I think it's a particular kind of tiredness coming out of suffering.