Philip Levine

(January 10, 1928 / Detroit, Michigan)

The Simple Truth - Poem by Philip Levine

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat" she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.


Comments about The Simple Truth by Philip Levine

  • Londis Carpenter (11/30/2017 2:34:00 PM)


    truth and lies both have a taste of their own, which as you say, it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken. This is an unusual but marvelous poem. Thanks for the share. (Report) Reply

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  • Glen Kappy (12/14/2016 12:41:00 PM)

    The Simple Truth
    this poem calls to my mind the poem happiness by carl sandburg. -glen kappy (Report) Reply

  • Michelle Claus (1/25/2015 11:59:00 AM)


    Palpable melancholy

    As I was reading this composition, I was telling myself that it comes across more like poetic prose. Then, I noticed that Philip Levine built into his lines a disclaimer: Some things you know all your life. They are so simple and true they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,

    Fair enough
    (Report) Reply

  • Michelle Claus (1/25/2015 11:58:00 AM)


    Palpable melancholy

    As I was reading this composition, I was telling myself that it comes across more like poetic prose. Then, I noticed that Philip Levine built into his lines a disclaimer: Some things you know all your life. They are so simple and true they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,

    Fair enough
    (Report) Reply

    Greg Bell Greg Bell (4/16/2017 4:07:00 PM)

    Agreed, Michelle: Palpable melancholy. Well put.

    This poem is a bit of a sleeper, beginning with just the savoring of simple pleasures, but there are 2 turns. The first (quoted by you) is, as you say, fair enough. The second arrested my attention:
    My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
    before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
    and the two of us to betray our love.

    That jarred me out of those simple pleasures (= truths) to elicit apprehension. (Where's he going with this.) Well, he was a master of subtlety, and here he continues to tease us down that road into a broad, winding turn into the dark heart of the matter, starting with those 'tasteable tangibles:

    Can you taste
    what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
    of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
    it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
    you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
    it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
    made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
    in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

    It's that catch at the back of the throat, the simple UNEXPRESSED truth - the unspoken love, the little betrayals, ultimately, I think, the betrayal of self - that festers, and we live on that.

    So I add to your observation: Masterful melancholy.

  • Kim Barney (1/25/2015 4:41:00 AM)


    Mmmmm. Makes me hungry. Red potatoes, butter, salt, onions, sweet corn.
    I find intriguing the line BEFORE HE BEGAN TO KILL HIMSELF. This implies that it was a slow process. How did he do it? Alcohol? Drugs? Fascinating.
    (Report) Reply

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Read poems about / on: june, pink, childhood, light, woman, together, truth, friend, water, red, home, dark, alone, life, night, women



Poem Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003



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