Philip Levine

He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do by Philip Levine

‘He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do’ is a poem about talking and silence. The poet describes his friend with who he enjoys spending silent, reflective time. In the final section of the poem, the poet explores the nature of silence itself.

He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do by Philip Levine


Form and Tone

‘He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do’ is written in free verse and treads the fine line between prose and poetry. It is forty four lines long and only contains eight sentences over its duration. This gives the poem a feel of being stream of consciousness. This is an interesting device to use in a poem that is about a guy who is quite economical with his words.


Analysis of He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do

If you said “Nice day,” he would look up
ever he was doing or not doing.

The first section of the poem, which can be read in full here, describes how the person who is the subject of this poem behaves. It is an interesting description. First of all, it sets up a mini “scene” by describing the weather. But when it comes to really letting us have an insight into the character it doesn’t show us much at all. It doesn’t even tell us if the character was doing anything. This lack of information helps create a sense of intrigue though and this intrigue helps to compel a reader to continue reading.

If you asked for a smoke or a light,
on La Guardia Place. I remember

This section of the poem is perhaps even more insightful as we start to see a real picture of this character develop. Although the person it is describing certainly has an air of mystery about them. Firstly it seems quite incongruous that the man would hand a person anything if they were asking for a light and he didn’t have one. So either he has one and disapproves of smoking or he doesn’t have one but doesn’t want to disappoint by not giving anything away. The irony is that here the poet isn’t giving anything away except for the suggestion that the man they are describing is a bit of an oddball!

a single sparrow was perched on the back
of ’97, spring had come late,

If you are reading through this poem and thinking that it is almost like reading prose. You’d be correct. the lack of structure and later the inclusion of dialogue makes it a poem that really does straddle the line between the two mediums. This section of the poem talks about the man feeding a bird that sits on his shoulder. Once again this adds intrigue to this man who acts in a way that you might call unusual.

Upon first reading this poem it made me think of a guy on the streets, a homeless person. Perhaps that’s because that is the type of person someone might ask for a light on a regular basis. Also in this section, a little information is shared about the narrator themselves. They describe themselves as having a bad eye. With this tiny snippet of information, we already know more about the narrator’s appearance then that of their subject!

but the sun warmed both of us for hours
streaming past silence. My friend Frankie

This section seems to provide a sense of serenity. There is a peacefulness against the background of the buzzing city. The sun heating them up adds to this feeling of comfort.

was such a comfort to me that year,
I needed to go on talking nonsense

It would appear from this section that the man that has been described up until this point, presumably the man who is referenced in the title of the poem, is called Frankie. In this section, we see the first physical description of Frankie. We see that his lack of words allow the narrator to keep “talking nonsense” the idea of talking and silence is repeated through the second half of this poem.

as he sat patiently waiting me out,
getting it wrong and right, just as he said

The narrator continues and we hear Frankie say his first words “silence is silver” which he attributes to being told by “zaydee” an unusual girl’s name. and the narrator thinks that he has misquoted “silence is golden” but perhaps he hasn’t. Maybe he thinks silence isn’t the best thing in the world? Or maybe he just got it wrong!

“Water is thicker than blood,” thinking
being half German, half Indian.

This poem was already quite quirky but is great to see a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor here. This is a nod to America’s cultural diversity and also a commentary on what people think being American is all about. People associate the US with its family values but at the same time this is stated with a metaphor including the word blood, which has obvious violent undertones.

Fact is, silence is the perfect water:
dirtied by our endless stream of words.

In this final section, the narrator seems to be eulogizing the silence. It is clear that one of the qualities he admires about his friend Frankie is his ability to maintain silence. So much so that the title of the poem is named after that very ability. For this section, Levine evokes nature in comparing silence to water. He makes the suggestion that silence has purity. That is has a cleansing quality. He claims that the words of people dirty that water. This is powerful stuff and a really interesting concept. Especially as the nature of the poem suggests that the narrator themselves is a bit of a chatterbox. Although in terms of actual dialogue he says nothing, the majority of the poem is effectively his monologue.


About Philip Levine

Philip Levine was a Pulitzer prize-winning American poet. He was born in Detroit, which is a particularly rough city. This informed a lot of his poetry which was largely based on his hometown. Levine also taught for almost thirty years in Fresno in California. He spent two years as the poet Laureate for the USA. He lived to the age of 87, passing away in 2015 and during that time was prolific releasing more than 20 poetry collections.

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Lee-James Bovey Poetry Expert
Lee-James, a.k.a. LJ, has been a Poem Analysis team member ever since Novemer 2015, providing critical analysis of poems from the past and present. Nowadays, he helps manage the team and the website.
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