Poet laureate Philip Levine dies at age 87
Feb. 15, 2015
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Philip Levine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose intimate portraits of blue-collar life were grounded in personal experience and political conscience, died Saturday. Levine was 87.
Levine, the country's poet laureate in 2011-2012, died at his home in Fresno, California, of pancreatic and liver cancer, his wife said Sunday.
A native of Detroit and son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Levine was profoundly shaped by his working-class childhood and years spent in jobs ranging from driving a truck to assembling parts at a Chevrolet plant.
Although he taught in several colleges, he had little in common with the academic poets of his time. He was not abstract or insular or digressive. He consciously modeled himself after Walt Whitman as a poet of everyday experience and cosmic wonder, writing tactile, conversational poems about his childhood, living in Spain, marriage and parenting and poetry itself.
"We've lost a great presence in American poetry," said Edward Hirsch, a friend of Levine and president of the Guggenheim Foundation.
Levine captured the ways "ordinary people are extraordinary," while writing poems that are accessible to readers, Hirsch said Sunday. "They move between the most ordinary diction and high romantic heights."
Levine loved the earth and sky as much as any poet of nature, but he came to be identified with poems about work and workers, like "Buying and Selling" or "Saturday Sweeping," in which employees toil under a leaky roof and "blue hesitant light." In "What Work Is," the title piece of his celebrated 1991 collection, he offers a grim sketch of standing on line in the rain, hoping for a job:
This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
He was among the country's most decorated poets, winning the Pulitzer in 1995 for "The Simple Truth" and National Book Awards for the 1979 collection "Ashes" and for "What Work Is." His other honors included the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement and a National Book Critics Circle Award. In naming Levine poet laureate in 2011, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington cited his "plainspoken lyricism" and his gift for expressing "the hard work we do to make sense of our lives."
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928, the son of an auto-parts salesman who died when Philip was 5. Although his mother found work as an office manager, Levine remembered his childhood as "a succession of moves from first a house to a series of ever-shrinking apartments."
The future poet was a scrawny kid — 5 feet 2 inches, 125 pounds — who imagined himself in peril on the streets of Detroit, "the most anti-Semitic city west of Munich." He would imagine walking home from school with a rifle, shooting at Cadillacs, Lincolns and other cars owned by rich people.
By the end 1942, when he was just 14, he had worked at a soap factory and, like a first kiss, discovered poetry. He would walk the streets late at night, speaking to the "moon and stars about the emotional revolution that was raging" inside him. In college, Wayne State University, he read the verse of Stephen Crane and T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams and "immersed" himself in the history of poetry.
"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," he later observed.
Exhausting factory hours made Levine so determined to write that he showed up in 1953 at the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop even though a planned fellowship had fallen through. He was told he could sign up for one course, but he enrolled in three. One of his teachers, the poet John Berryman, became a mentor.
"He seemed to feel I had something genuine," Levine told The Paris Review in 1988, "but that I wasn't doing enough with it, wasn't demanding enough from my work. He kept directing me to poetry that would raise my standards."
Another poet, Yvor Winters, allowed Levine to stay with him at his home in California and picked him for a Stanford Writing Fellowship in 1958. Around the same time, Levine joined the faculty of California State in Fresno and remained there for more than 30 years. He also taught at Princeton University, Columbia University and several other colleges.
His debut collection, "On the Edge," came out in 1963. Other books included "Not This Pig," ''They Feed the Lion" and "1933." For a time in the 1960s, he lived in Spain, still under the rule of Francisco Franco. Levine developed a deep bond to the country and to its people, especially those who had fought Franco during the country's civil war of the 1930s. He wrote poems about Spain and helped translate works by the Spanish poets Gloria Fuertes and James Sabines.
Back in the U.S., Levine was an opponent of the Vietnam War and defender of civil rights and the rights of working people. In "Coming Home, Detroit 1968," he took in "the charred faces" and "eyes boarded up" of his hometown, which had been devastated by riots the year before. In 1968, he also was among the writers who vowed not to pay taxes until the Vietnam War ended.
"I can remember feeling full of the power of a just cause and believing that power would not fail me. It failed me or I failed it. We didn't really change the way Americans lived, unless you take hairstyles seriously," he once said.
"I'm not a man of action; it finally comes down to that. I'm not so profoundly moral that I can often overcome my fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I'm a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes." Levine was married twice, to Patty Kanterman and to Frances J. Artley, his wife since 1954.
AP National Writer Hillel Italie reported from New York. AP Correspondent Scott Smith reported from Fresno.