Hello Poetry Lovers,
I am particularly pleased to report that Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine, known for his detailed and personal verse about the working class, has been appointed the country’s new poet laureate.
The Library of Congress announced on Wednesday, 8/10/11, that the 83-year-old Levine will succeed fellow Pulitzer winner W.S. Merwin this fall. The laureate, who receives $35,000 and is known officially as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, serves from October through May. Richard Wilbur, Joseph Brodsky and Robert Pinsky are among the previous appointees.
“I’m a fairly irreverent person and at first I thought, “This is not you. You’re an old union man,’” Levine said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Fresno, Calif.
“But I knew if I didn’t do this, I would kick myself. I thought, “This is you. You can speak to a larger public than has been waiting for you in recent years.’”
Levine has received virtually every literary honor, but he is the least rarefied of poets. A Detroit native who as a young man worked in automobile plants, he has for decades chronicled, celebrated and worried about blue collar life. Levine’s awards include the Pulitzer in 1995 for “The Simple Truth” and the National Book Award in 1991 for “What Work Is.”
No one has articulated how tough the experience of work in America can be better than Levine. Here is an example:
An Abandoned Factory, Detroit
The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands,
An iron authority against the snow,
And this grey monument to common sense
Resists the weather. Fears of idle hands,
Of protest, men in league, and of the slow
Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.
Beyond, through broken one can see
Where the great presses paused between their strokes
And thus remain, in air suspended, caught
In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,
And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.
“Philip Levine is one of America’s great narrative poets,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in a statement. “His plainspoken lyricism has, for half a century, championed the art of telling ‘The Simple Truth’ — about working in a Detroit auto factory, as he has, and about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives.”
As for his reaction to being chosen Levine is reported to have said: “I don’t want to overextend myself, but at the same time I would like to use the ‘bully pulpit,’ as they call it, to bring attention to some of my concerns,” Levine says.
“There’s a great deal of American poetry that’s hardly known and that should be known. As a poet who didn’t get published for a long time, I know what it’s like to not to be read. The other thing I’d like to do is reach out to readers. I would like to bring attention to the kind of people I’ve written about.”
For those of you who are as impressed and proud of Philip Levine as I am, I will include some highlights of his biography here.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on January 10, 1928, Philip Levine was formally educated in the Detroit public school system and at Wayne University (now Wayne State University), Michigan's only urban public research university. After graduation, Levine worked a number of industrial jobs, including the night shift at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory, reading and writing poems in his off hours. In 1953, he studied at the University of Iowa, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
In 1957, after teaching technical writing in Iowa City, Levine travelled to California, where he hoped to relocate with his wife and two children. Levine was welcomed by the poet Yvor Winters, who agreed to house the aspiring poet until he found a place to live and later chose Levine for a Stanford Writing Fellowship.
Levine published his debut collection of poems, On the Edge (The Stone Wall Press), in 1963, followed by Not This Pig (Wesleyan University Press) in 1968.
Since then, Levine has published numerous books of poetry, most recently News of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010); Breath (2004); The Mercy (1999); The Simple Truth (1994), which won the Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is (1991), which won the National Book Award; New Selected Poems (1991); Ashes: Poems New and Old (Atheneum, 1979), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the first American Book Award for Poetry; 7 Years From Somewhere (1979), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Names of the Lost (1975), which won the 1977 Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; and They Feed They Lion (1973).
About writing poetry when not working the night shift, Levine has written:
"I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life."
Levine has also published nonfiction essays and interviews, collected in The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (University of Michigan Press, 1994); Don't Ask (1981); and So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews (2002).
Levine has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry, the Frank O'Hara Prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. For two years he served as chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts.
He taught for many years at California State University, Fresno, and has served as Distinguished Poet in Residence for the Creative Writing Program at New York University.
Retired from teaching, Levine currently divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Fresno, California. His life's work has given voice to the often voiceless, and expanded a universal sense of their existence. Thank you, Philip Levine.
And thank you, readers, for clicking in. xo Judy