Philip Levine was one of the leading poetic voices of his generation, “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland,” according to Edward Hirsch. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine was born and raised in industrial Detroit, where he began working in the auto factories at the age of 14. As a young boy in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, he was fascinated by the events of the Spanish Civil War. His heroes were not only those individuals who struggled against fascism but also ordinary folks who worked at hopeless jobs simply to stave off poverty. Noted for his interest in the grim reality of blue-collar work and workers, Levine resolved “to find a voice for the voiceless.”
Levine began attending writing workshops at the University of Iowa, as an unregistered student, in 1953. He took classes with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Levine officially earned an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1957, and later that year he won a Jones Fellowship at Stanford University. Shortly thereafter, he began teaching at California State University, Fresno, where he would remain until 1992. Levine also taught at Columbia, Princeton, NYU, Brown, the University of California at Berkeley, and Tufts.
Though Levine did not return to live in Detroit, its people and economy would remain central concerns of his poetry. Critic Herbert Leibowitz, commenting on Ashes: Poems New and Old, wrote: "Levine has returned again and again in his poems to the lives of factory workers trapped by poverty and the drudgery of the assembly line, which breaks the body and scars the spirit." However, the speaker in Levine's poems "is never a blue-collar caricature," argued Richard Tillinghast in his New York Times Book Review piece, "but someone with brains, feelings and a free-wheeling imagination that constantly fights to free him from his prosaic environment."
The sheer humanity of Levine's poems can, at times, be surprising. In "How to Get There" readers find "an ordinary / man, somehow utterly spent," though this 'ordinary man' is one deeply in need:
the street, a man
sleeps on the sidewalk, an ordinary
man, somehow utterly spent,
he sleeps through
all the usual sounds of a Brooklyn noon.
Beside him a dog, a terrier,
its muzzle resting
on crossed paws, its brown eyes wide
and intelligent. Between man
and dog sits
a take-out coffee cup meant to receive,
next to it a picture of Jesus –
a digital, color photograph of the Lord
in his prime, robed and
impossibly young and athletic, and –
as always – alone. "Give
what you can,"
says a hand-lettered cardboard sign.
In The Names of the Lost (1976), Levine paid tribute to the Spanish anarchist movement of the 1930s. Charles Molesworth explained that Levine connected the Spanish revolutionaries with Detroit's laboring class during a brooding stay in Barcelona: "Both cities are built on the backs of sullen, exploited workers, and the faded revolution in one smolders like the blunting, racist fear in the other." As Leibowitz summed up, "The poet's 'Spanish self,' as he calls it, is kin to his Detroit self. Both bear witness to the visionary ideal destroyed."
Because Levine values reality above all in his poetry, his language is often earthy and direct, his syntax colloquial and his rhythms relaxed. Molesworth argued that Levine's work reflects a mistrust of language; rather than compressing multiple meanings into individual words and phrases as in traditionally conceived poetry, Levine's simple narratives work to reflect the concrete and matter-of-fact speech patterns of working people. Levine's work was typically more concerned with the known, visible world than with his own perception of those phenomena, and this made it somewhat unique in the world of contemporary poetry. Levine himself, in an interview with Calvin Bedient for Parnassus, defined his ideal poem as one in which "no words are noticed. You look through them into a vision of . . . the people, the place."
Levine's ability to craft deeply affecting poems has long been his hallmark. Joyce Carol Oates commented of Levine in the American Poetry Review: "He is one of those poets whose work is so emotionally intense, and yet so controlled, so concentrated, that the accumulative effect of reading a number of his related poems can be shattering." Oates dubbed Levine "a visionary of our dense, troubled mysterious time." David Baker, writing about What Work Is (1991), said Levine has "one of our most resonant voices of social conviction and witness, and he speaks with a powerful clarity." The book won the National Book Award in 1991. His next book, The Simple Truth (1994), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Breath (2004) was hailed by Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times as a "graceful new collection" that showcases Levine's unique brand of elegy, one that operates in long, thoughtful lines that summon the un-glorious past and its hard-working inhabitants. "What gives Levine's work its urgency," Rafferty went on, "is that impulse to commemorate, the need to restore to life people who were never, despite their deadening work, dead things themselves, and who deserve to be rescued from the longer death of being forgotten."
In an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Levine said, "Most of my poetry originates in memory." Publisher's Weekly noted the "autobiographical mode" of News of the World (2009), which can be seen further in some of Levine's last published poems before he died, such as 'Inheritance', which describes exactly what the title suggests:
There is still such joy in these tokens
from back of beyond: the watch,
the Parker pen, the tiny pocket knife
he used to separate truth from lies,
the ivory cigarette holder –
a gift, he claimed, from FDR
who mistook him for a famous
Russian violinist. I could call them
"Infinite riches in a little room"
or go cosmic and regard them
as fragments of a great mystery
instead of what they are,
amulets against nothing.
Levine won several other awards, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. In 2006 he was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and in 2011 was appointed poet laureate of the United States. His poetry "will be remembered for his giving voice to the complicated lives of men and women and for making something closer to simple song than ordinary speech," wrote the poet Carol Frost. "The territory of this poetry keeps coming back to a center – praise for the common person, an American, probably with immigrant parents, who having gotten 'off the bus / at the bare junction of nothing / with nothing' manages to find a way home."
News of the World, Knopf, New York, 2009
Breath: Poems, Knopf, New York, 2004
The Mercy, Knopf, New York, 1999
Unselected Poems, Greenhouse Review Press, Santa Cruz, 1997
The Simple Truth, Knopf, New York, 1994
What Work Is, Knopf, New York, 1991
New Selected Poems, Knopf, New York, 1991
A Walk with Tom Jefferson, Knopf, New York, 1988
Sweet Will, Atheneum, New York, 1985
Selected Poems, Atheneum, New York, 1984
Editor with Ada Long, and translator, Off the Map: Selected Poems by Gloria Fuertes, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1984
One for the Rose, Atheneum, New York, 1981
Ashes: Poems New and Old, Atheneum, New York, 1979
7 Years from Somewhere, Atheneum, New York, 1979
Editor and translator with Ernesto, Tarumba: The Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines, Twin Peaks Press, San Francisco, 1979
On the Edge and Over: Poems Old, Lost, and New, Cloud Marauder, Oakland, 1976
1933, Atheneum, New York, 1974
They Feed They Lion, Atheneum, New York, 1972
Red Dust, illustrated by Marcia Mann, Kayak, Santa Cruz, 1971
Pili's Wall, Unicorn Press, Santa Barbara, 1971
5 Detroits, Unicorn Press, Santa Barbara, 1970
Not This Pig, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1968
Silent in America: Vivas for Those Who Failed, Shaw Avenue Press, Iowa City, 1965
On the Edge, Stone Wall Press, Iowa City, 1961
So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2002
The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, Knopf, New York, 1994
Ed. with Orlando Patterson and Norman Rush, Earth, Stars, and Writers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 1992
Don't Ask, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1981
Ed. with Henri Coulette, Character and Crisis: A Contemporary Reader, McGraw, New York, 1966
"How Difficult It Is to Live" by Mark Levine, Poetry magazine
"Burial Rites" by Philip Levine, PoetryFoundation.org (audio)
"During the War" by Philip Levine, PoetryFoundation.org (audio)
"Poetry Off the Shelf: Lines for Hard Times", PoetryFoundation.org (audio)
"Poetry Lectures: Philip Levine", PoetryFoundation.org (audio)
"Essential American Poets: Philip Levine", PoetryFoundation.org (audio)
"Poet Philip Levine Recalls Life at the Factory", PoetryFoundation.org (video)
"US, UK Poets Laureate on Being Public Face for Solitary Act", PoetryFoundation.org/NewsHour (video)
"Philip Levine, The Art of Poetry No. 39", by Mona Simpson, Paris Review
"Fresh Air Remembers Former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine", NPR
"An Interview With Poet Philip Levine", by Sally Dawidoff, Poets & Writers