Poetry News

Nobody Was Writing Poetry of This World Like Philip Levine (1928–2015)

By Harriet Staff


We are so sad to help report that Philip Levine—former U.S. Poet Laureate (2011–2012), Pulitzer Prize-winner and beloved professor—has died at the age of 87. A New York Times obituary tells us the cause was pancreatic cancer. From that piece:

Mr. Levine was the first member of his family to earn a college degree. “When I turned college age I had to make a decision about what I was going to do about my life,” he told the novelist Mona Simpson in a 1988 interview in The Paris Review. “My high school teachers encouraged me to go to college. I stood in line at Wayne State University to enroll, and when I got up to the head of the line, this woman said, ‘Can I help you?’ “I said, ‘I’d like to go to college.’ She said, ‘Do you want a bachelor’s?’

“I said, ‘I already have a place to live.’ Because to me a bachelor’s was a small apartment.”

At Wayne University, as it was then known, Mr. Levine fell in love with modern poetry, receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English there. In 1957 he earned a master of fine arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where his mentors included the distinguished poet John Berryman; Mr. Levine included a moving portrait of Mr. Berryman in his collection of autobiographical essays, “The Bread of Time” (1994).

Mr. Levine, who was also a regular guest instructor at New York University, had homes in Fresno and Brooklyn. He is survived his wife, Frances J. Artley; three sons, Mark, John and Teddy; a twin brother, Edward; another brother, Eli; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

His other volumes of poetry include “Not This Pig” (1968), “They Feed They Lion” (1972), “A Walk With Tom Jefferson” (1988), “The Mercy” (1999) and “Breath” (2004). He also edited an anthology, “The Essential Keats” (1987).

Among his other honors are the 1977 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets for “The Names of the Lost”; the 1979 National Book Critics Circle Award for “Ashes” and “7 Years From Somewhere,” both published that year; and the 1987 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation for his body of work.

In a 1977 radio conversation with Studs Terkel, reproduced in “Don’t Ask” (1981), a collection of interviews with Mr. Levine, the poet spoke of the influence of his blue-collar background on his later career.

“It was at an early age, while I was working in factories and also trying to write,” Mr. Levine said. “I said to myself, ‘Nobody is writing the poetry of this world here; it doesn’t exist!’ And it didn’t. You couldn’t find it.” He continued: “I took a vow that I was going to do it, and goddamn it, it didn’t matter how long it was going to take. I was going to write the poetry of these people because they weren’t going to do it. And it was very funny, when my fellow workers would say, you know, ‘What do you do?’ and I would say, ‘I write poetry,’ nobody laughed at me.”

Please find poems, articles, audio, video, and more about Philip Levine here. Our hearts go out to his friends and family.

Originally Published: February 16th, 2015