Philip Levine

b. 1928
Philip LevineFrances Levine

“A large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland” according to Edward Hirsch in the New York Times Book Review, Philip Levine is one of the elder statesmen of contemporary American poetry. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine was born and raised in industrial Detroit. 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” while working in the auto plants of Detroit during the 1950s. “I saw that the people that I was working with…were voiceless in a way,” he explained in Detroit Magazine. “In terms of the literature of the United States they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it. Or I’ve tried anyway…”

Critic Herbert Leibowitz, in a New York Times Book Review article on Levine’s 1980 National Book award-winning collection Ashes: Poems New and Old, commented: “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.” In addition to concentrating on the working class in his work, Levine has paid tribute to the Spanish anarchist movement of the 1930s, especially in The Names of the Lost (1976). In his book, The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry, 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 of its subject matter, critics have described Levine’s work as dark, brooding, and grim. Time contributor Paul Gray called Levine’s speakers “guerrillas, trapped in an endless battle long after the war is lost.” This sense of defeat is particularly strong when the poet recalls scenes from his Detroit childhood, where unemployment and violence colored his life. But despite its painful material, Levine’s verse can also display a certain joyfulness, suggested Marie Borroff. Writing in the Yale Review, she described the title poem of They Feed They Lion (1972) as “a litany celebrating, in rhythms and images of unflagging, piston-like force, the majestic strength of the oppressed, rising equally out of the substances of the poisoned industrial landscape and the intangibles of humiliation.” Richard Hugo commented in the American Poetry Review: “Levine’s poems are important because in them we hear and we care.” Though Levine’s poems are full of loss, regret and inadequacy, Hugo felt that they also embody the triumphant potential of language and song. Levine has kept alive in himself “the impulse to sing,” Hugo concluded, adding that Levine “is destined to become one of the most celebrated poets of the time.”

Levine’s poetry for and about the common man is distinguished by simple diction and a rhythmic narrative style—by what Robert Pinsky once called “the strength of a living syntax.” In an American Poetry Review appraisal of Ashes (1979) and 7 Years from Somewhere (1979), contributor Dave Smith noted that in Levine’s poems “the language, the figures of speech, the narrative progressions are never so obscure, so truncated as to forbid less sophisticated readers. Though he takes on the largest subjects of death, love, courage, manhood, loyalty…he brings the mysteries of existence down into the ordinarily inarticulate events and objects of daily life.” 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 is typically more concerned with the known, visible world than with his own perception of those phenomena, and this makes 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.”

However, several critics have faulted Levine for his reliance on narrative descriptions of realistic situations. Clayton Eshleman claimed in a Los Angeles Times review of Selected Poems (1984) that “the literal perspective admits only a single actor in a single life scene.” Because Levine’s poetic stance “boils down to: This is what happened to me and this is what I am,” Eshleman concluded that more imaginative poetic devices such as association, word play, and ambiguity would be alien in his verse. Helen Vendler thought that this lack of traditional poetic devices makes Levine “simply a memoir-writer in prose who chops up his reminiscent paragraphs into short lines,” and asked in her New York Review of Books appraisal of One for the Rose (1981): “Is there any compelling reason why it should be called poetry?” However, Thomas Hackett, in his Village Voice Literary Supplement review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson (1988), argued that, rather than being a weakness, Levine’s “strength is the declarative, practically journalistic sentence. He is most visual and precise when he roots his voice in hard, earthy nouns.”

Levine’s ability to craft deeply affecting poems has long been his hallmark. “His poems are personal, love poems, poems of horror, poems about the experiencing of America,” Stephen Spender wrote in the New York Review of Books. 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) in the Kenyon Review, said Levine has “one of our most resonant voices of social conviction and witness, and he speaks with a powerful clarity…What Work Is may be one of the most important books of poetry of our time. Poem after poem confronts the terribly damaged conditions of American labor, whose circumstance has perhaps never been more wrecked.” What Work Is won the National Book Award in 1991. His next book, The Simple Truth (1994) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Levine explores the forces that have shaped his life and poetry in The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (1994), a collection of nine essays. Levine deals with his experiences as a factory worker, his family and friends, the writers who served as his mentors and his fascination with the Spanish Civil War and Spanish poets. Levine’s portrayal of his mentors, John Berryman and Yvor Winters, garnered critical applause. Richard Eder, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, considered the essays on Berryman, Winters, and the Spanish poet Antonio Machado to be the strongest in the book. Through it all, added Tod Marshall in the Georgia Review, “the book’s main focus—much to the benefit and delight of anyone interested in the formative years of one of our best contemporary poets—is Levine’s relationship with poetry.”

Levine’s later books include The Mercy (1999), Breath (2004), and News of the World (2009). Breath was hailed by a 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 2013, Levine was awarded the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.

Levine’s 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.”

 

[Updated 2013]

Career

Poet. Worked variously at industrial jobs, c. 1950s; University of Iowa, Iowa City, member of faculty, 1955-57; California State University, Fresno, professor of English, 1958-92; Tufts University, Medford, MA, professor of English, 1981-88. Elliston Professor of Poetry, University of Cincinnati, 1976; poet-in-residence, National University of Australia, Canberra, summer, 1978, and Vassar College; visiting professor of poetry, Columbia University, 1978, 1981, 1984, New York University, 1984 and 1991, and Brown University, 1985; teacher at Princeton University, Columbia University, Squaw Valley Writers Community, Bread Loaf, and Midnight Sun. Has read his poetry at the Library of Congress, Poetry Center of San Francisco, Pasadena Art Gallery, Guggenheim Museum, Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, University of California, Stanford University, Wayne State University, University of Iowa, San Francisco State University, Harvard University, Yale University, Brown University, and other schools. Chair of literature board, National Endowment for the Arts, 1984-85.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • On the Edge (limited edition), Stone Wall Press (Iowa City, IA), 1961, second edition, 1963.
  • Silent in America: Vivas for Those Who Failed (limited edition), Shaw Avenue Press (Iowa City, IA), 1965.
  • Not This Pig, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1968.
  • 5 Detroits, Unicorn Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1970.
  • Thistles: A Poem Sequence (limited edition), Turret Books (London, England), 1970.
  • Pili's Wall, Unicorn Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1971, second edition, 1980.
  • Red Dust, illustrated by Marcia Mann, Kayak (Santa Cruz, CA), 1971.
  • They Feed They Lion, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1972, reprinted, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
  • 1933, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1974.
  • New Season (pamphlet), Graywolf Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1975.
  • On the Edge and Over: Poems Old, Lost, and New, Cloud Marauder (Oakland, CA), 1976.
  • The Names of the Lost (limited edition), Windhover Press (Iowa City, IA), 1976, 2nd edition, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1976.
  • 7 Years from Somewhere, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.
  • Ashes: Poems New and Old, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.
  • One for the Rose, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1981.
  • Selected Poems, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.
  • Sweet Will, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1985.
  • A Walk with Tom Jefferson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
  • New Selected Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
  • What Work Is, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
  • The Simple Truth, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
  • Unselected Poems, Greenhouse Review Press (Santa Cruz, CA), 1997.
  • The Mercy, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
  • Breath: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
  • News of the World, Knopf (New York, NY), 2009.

Sound recordings include Philip Levine Reading His Poems with Comment, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1975; Bicentennial Poetry Discussion, 1976; The Poetry and Voice of Philip Levine, Caedmon, 1976; Hear Me, Watershed Tapes; Philip Levine, 1986; and Mark Turpin and Philip Levine Reading Their Poems in the Mumford Room, 1997.

OTHER

  • Don't Ask (interviews), University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1981.
  • (With Orlando Patterson and Norman Rush) Earth, Stars, and Writers (lectures), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1992.
  • The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (memoir), Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
  • So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2002.

EDITOR

  • (With Henri Coulette) Character and Crisis: A Contemporary Reader, McGraw (New York, NY), 1966.
  • (And translator with Ernesto Trejo) Jaime Sabines, Tarumba: The Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines, Twin Peaks Press (San Francisco, CA), 1979.
  • (With Ada Long, and translator) Gloria Fuertes, Off the Map: Selected Poems, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1984.
  • (With D. Wojahn and B. Henderson) The Pushcart Prize XI, Pushcart (Wainscott, NY), 1986.
  • (Selector and author of introduction) The Essential Keats, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1987.
  • (Author of introduction) Dennis Sampson, Forgiveness, Milkweed Editions, 1990.
  • (Author of foreword) Larry Levis, Elegy, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1997.

Contributor of poems to anthologies, including Midland, Random House, 1961; New Poets of England and America, Meridian, 1962; Poet's Choice, Dial, 1962; American Poems, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964; and Naked Poetry, Bobbs-Merrill, 1969. Contributor of poems to periodicals, including New Yorker, Poetry, New York Review of Books, Hudson Review, Paris Review, and Harper's.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
  • Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Volume 3, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
  • Mills, Ralph J. Jr., Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1975.
  • Molesworth, Charles, The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1979.
  • On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing, edited by Christopher Buckley, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1991.

PERIODICALS

  • America, January 13, 1996, p. 19; January 13, 1996, David Sofield, review of The Simple Truth, p. 19.
  • American Poetry Review, November, 1972; May, 1973; March, 1974; May, 1974; May, 1977; November-December, 1979, pp. 36-37.
  • Antioch Review, spring/summer, 1977; spring, 1982, David St. John, review of One for the Rose, pp. 225-234.
  • Atlantic Monthly, April, 1999, review of The Mercy, p. 108.
  • Bloomsbury Review, March, 1996, review of The Simple Truth, p. 24.
  • Booklist, March 15, 1999, Ray Olson, review of The Mercy, p. 1278.
  • Boston Globe, February 2, 1994, p. 63.
  • Carleton Miscellany, fall, 1968.
  • Chelsea, number 65, 1998, review of Unselected Poems, p. 142.
  • Chicago Tribune, March 2, 1994, sec. 5, p. 3.
  • Chicago Tribune Book World, August 5, 1984.
  • Commonweal, October 12, 1979.
  • Detroit Magazine, February 26, 1978.
  • Georgia Review, spring, 1980; winter, 1994, Tod Marshall, review of The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, pp. 821-24.
  • Harper's, January, 1980.
  • Hudson Review, winter, 1979-80.
  • Kenyon Review, fall, 1989; summer, 1992, David Baker, review of What Work Is, pp. 166-73.
  • Library Journal, April 15, 1997, Steven Ellis, review of Unselected Poems, p. 85; March 15, 1999, Graham Christian, review of The Mercy, p. 83.
  • Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1984; May 16, 1995, p. A1.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 21, 1984, Clayton Eshleman, review of Selected Poems; September 8, 1991, p. 11; August 30, 1992, p. 6; January 16, 1994, Richard Eder, review of The Bread of Time, p. 3.
  • Nation, February 2, 1980; December 30, 1991, p. 864.
  • New Leader, January 17, 1977; August 13, 1979; December 27, 1993, Phoebe Pettingell, review of The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, pp. 12-13.
  • New York Review of Books, April 25, 1968; September 20, 1973; April 3, 1975; December 17, 1981, Helen Vendler, review of One for the Rose.
  • New York Times, May 29, 1985.
  • New York Times Book Review, July 16, 1972; February 20, 1977; October 7, 1979, Herbert Leibowitz, review of Ashes: Poems New and Old; September 12, 1982; August 5, 1984; December 8, 1991, p. 7; May 31, 1992, p. 28; February 20, 1994, Dana Gioia, review of The Bread of Time, p. 14; February 2, 1997, review of The Simple Truth, p. 28; April 18, 1999, Adam Kirsch, "Blue Collar Verse."
  • New York Times Magazine, February 3, 1980.
  • North American Review, November, 1998, review of Unselected Poems, p. 37.
  • Parnassus, fall/ winter, 1972; fall/winter, 1974; fall/winter, 1977; spring/summer, 1978.
  • Poetry, July, 1972; March, 1975; August, 1977; December, 1980; December, 1989; May, 1992, p. 94.
  • Prairie Schooner, winter, 1974; summer, 1997, review of The Simple Truth, p. 179.
  • Progressive, August, 1999, review of The Mercy, p. 44.
  • Publishers Weekly, September 26, 1994, p. 58; November 7, 1994, p. 41; January 25, 1999, review of The Mercy, p. 90.
  • Saturday Review, June 1, 1968; March 11, 1972; September 7, 1977.
  • Sewanee Review, spring, 1976.
  • Shenandoah, summer, 1972.
  • Southern Review, spring, 1992; summer, 1999, review of The Mercy, p. 621,
  • Time, June 25, 1979.
  • Times Literary Supplement, September 11, 1981; July 2, 1982.
  • Village Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1982; July 19, 1988, Thomas Hackett, review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1972; spring, 1995, pp. 64-65.
  • Wall Street Journal, March 15, 1994, p. A18.
  • Washington Post, February 14, 1994, p. D2.
  • Washington Post Book World, August 5, 1984, Joel Canarroe, review of Selected Poems, p. 3.
  • Western Humanities Review, autumn, 1972.
  • World Literature Today, spring, 1995, Mary Kaiser, review of The Bread of Time, pp. 371-372; winter, 2002, David Rogers, review of The Mercy, p. 154.
  • Yale Review, autumn, 1972, Marie Borroff, review of They Feed They Lion; autumn, 1980.

OTHER

  • Atlantic Unbound, http://www.atlantic.com/ (April 9, 1999), Wen Stephenson, "A Useful Poetry: An Interview with Philip Levine."

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  • Listen Lines for Hard Times
    Philip Levine reads his defiantly hopeful "They Feed They Lion" and "What Work Is" with commentary by Edward Hirsch.
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LIFE SPAN 1928–

Philip Levine

Biography

“A large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland” according to Edward Hirsch in the New York Times Book Review, Philip Levine is one of the elder statesmen of contemporary American poetry. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine was born and raised in industrial Detroit. 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 . . .

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