“Facts” by Philip Levine (Poem Analysis)

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When I first read this poem, it seemed so simple and straightforward. It’s just a bunch of random facts, right? Instinctually, I felt there was more to it. So I tried my best to break it down…

In each stanza of this poem, Levine uses the first two lines to state what seems like a random fact and then he uses the last two lines to add a sort of sarcastic, snarky or even just funny or interesting attitude or note about the fact previously stated. Most of the words he selects are either one or two syllables. This makes it feel simple as if he wants us to think these are just simple, separate facts and yet when read together they don’t seem so simple. I felt like I had been fed a bunch of facts and, yet, I was missing the point. Maybe that was the point. Maybe he wants us to question the facts.

I enjoyed the rhythm. It felt like he was rambling on (much like I’m doing now) and reminded me of all the times I’ve gotten stuck sitting beside a seemingly crazy person on an airplane. But as I continued reading, he seemed less crazy and more interesting much like most of my experiences with inflight insanity. Similarly, just when the poem started making sense, the plane landed. I found this both frustrating and addictive.

The way Levine switches back and forth between past, present and future tense struck me as pleasant somehow. It felt so natural and conversational and not at all stuffy or formal. He also shifts between first, second and third person. Depending on whether he started a line or thought with “I” or “We” or “You” or an ambiguous he/she/it felt important. When he separated “—if you’re scared—” from everything else using dashes, it felt like he was talking to me specifically and I found myself paying closer attention, wanting to prove I wasn’t scared to tackle this.

Levine uses inflection and rhythm masterfully. He repeats certain words and phrases for emphasis, like Cleveland and Rolls Royce for examples, bringing attention to their importance. He states facts about places and things and by repeating them or by illuminating their rhythms through alliteration or consonance (“perfect grill for a Rolls Royce” or “the coldest I’ve ever been is in Cleveland” or “the citizens of Cleveland passed me sullenly”) they start to feel connected like memories along a journey. The Rolls Royce might signify the car industry which could connect all the other places he mentions back to Detroit, his home town and first spot on his journey. He also mentions several types of transportation (Rolls, Dinky, bus, train, walking) and that along with the cities is making me think all of it is symbolic of this journey being a major theme.

The poem is made up of eleven stanzas, each with four lines. Fact about me: eleven and four are my lucky numbers—I was born 11/11 and my brother was born 4/4. But just like the facts in this poem, I don’t think this matters to you as much as it matters to me. Similarly, I think the facts in this poem mattered to Levine because they belong to him. But he shares them in such a beautiful, unique and rhythmic way that we can’t help but feel connected. The way he separates his thoughts makes each fact seem separate but of equal importance. This, along with his rhythmic choices, makes it feel so fluid when Levine draws our attention to something or when he refers back and forth between stanzas (i.e., “there are two lies in the previous stanza”) like he’s trying to get us to see the bigger picture.

I keep thinking that if I figure out how to connect the dots, I will eventually have a complete story but doing so “strikes me as an exercise in futility” much like Levine describes living “in Cleveland” or “saving your pennies to buy a Rolls Royce.”

This poem started to drive me crazy. I’ve read it over and over again, and still haven’t figured it out. I went so far as to Google Levine to learn more about him and one thing I found interesting was this quote by him during an NPR interview: “The real challenge is when language, instincts, technique and practice come together. You have to follow where the poem leads. And it will surprise you. It will say things you didn’t expect it to say. And you look at the poem and you realize, ‘That is truly what I felt.’ That is truly what I saw.”

I admit I’m no poet (at least not yet) but I was surprised by how strongly I felt about this poem. In trying to dissect it, I found myself getting more and more confused by the facts while my emotional connection to them became stronger and crisper. I fell in love with this one.

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