Friday, August 12, 2011

Poet Laureate, Philip Levine

Today, The Huffington Post's article, What the Point of a Poet Laureate Is, reports "The U.S. Poet Laureate is "the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans" -- that is, according to the Library of Congress, which each year selects the holder of the position (though some people stay in the post for more than one year.)"

Philip Levine has been named the 2011-2012 Poet Laureate.  As a writer of many things including poetry, the last sentence of the article contains a real catharsis: "In those moments when the words of newscasters and politicians no longer describe what we are going through, perhaps that is when we most need a national poet."  Often, when life does what it does and winds itself up in a knot of confusion, tension, and paradoxes, I search for verbiage that will resonate with what's going on or how I'm feeling.  What I love about Philip Levine being named, is that he is more terse than verbose, eloquent with his diction, wanting poetry to reach the masses; to reach more than a person who sits quietly reading poetry to him/herself.  In The New York Times' article from Tuesday, August 9th, Voice of the Workingman to Be Poet Laureate,  "[Mr. Levine] said he might try to get 5- or 10-minute spots for poets to read their work on the radio and hoped to help resurrect what he called “the enormous number of forgotten poets out there.

I know a great many poems that I love and that most people have never heard of,” he said. “Some of them are quite magnificent.”

He hadn’t particularly aspired to be poet laureate, Mr. Levine said, but he was pleased that after a long career, the honor had come his way. “How can I put it? It’s like winning the Pulitzer,” he explained. “If you take it too seriously, you’re an idiot. But if you look at the names of the other poets who have won it, most of them are damn good. Not all of them — I’m not going to name names — but most..." 
Picture from
Philip Levine is one of America’s most celebrated and renowned poets, having been honored with a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He was born in 1928 and raised in Detroit, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. He was educated in the public schools of Detroit and also attended Wayne State University. After a succession of industrial jobs, including punching in at Chevy Gear & Axle, running jack hammer at Detroit Transmission, and muscling cases of soda pop at Mavis Nu Icy Bottling Company, Levine left Detroit to teach part-time at the University of Iowa, which enabled him to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Levine, a writer who knows in his bones the corrosive effects of heat, foul air, long hours, low pay, and heavy work, believes his industrial jobs were an unlikely seedbed for his poetry. "Detroit is perfect for me. It’s not dinky. It’s just big enough. I know it. I’m a Detroit-sized poet," said Levine. "It took me a long time to be able to write about it without snarling or snapping. I had to temper the violence I felt toward those who maimed and cheated me with a tenderness toward those who had touched and blessed me." The poems and connections he forged in Iowa earned him a fellowship at Stanford University, which led, in turn, to a job at Fresno State in 1958, where he taught literature and writing for over thirty years.

Most of Levine’s poetry addresses the joys and sufferings of industrial life, poems marked by keen observation, rage and painful irony. His poetry is about the common people, but it is also for the common people. While his poems are carefully crafted and complex, they read like colloquial speech. Levine splits his time between New York City and Fresno. (Bio from famouspoetsandpoems)

Quotes from Philip Levine on writing poetry:

"I realized poetry's the thing that I can do 'cause I can stick at it and work with tremendous intensity."

"I think in the best poems I make a lot of discoveries about voice, about subject, about what my real feelings are."

"My sense of a poem - my notion of how you revise - is: you get yourself into a state where what you are intensely conscious of is not why you wrote it or how you wrote it, but what you wrote.

Excerpt from The Mercy:

A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange.
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.

Selected Works

On The Edge (1963)
Not this Pig (1968)
They Feed They Lion (1972)
The Names of the Lost (1976)
One for the Rose (1981)
Sweet Will (1985)
A Walk with Tom Jefferson (1988)
New Selected Poems (1991)
What Work Is: Poems (1991)
The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (1994)
The Simple Truth : Poems (1994)
Smoke (1997)
Mercy (1999)

Do you have a favorite poem or poet? Please share! Comment below or email me:


  1. I love Philip Levine, and was so thrilled to hear of his appointment, for all the reasons you've mentioned here. As a prose writer, and a teacher, I especially appreciate his accessibility, both in terms of style and subject.

    One of my favorites, "You Can Have It":

  2. Thanks for sharing that favorite of yours! So many art forms have become very accessible to a wide range of people from the art collector to the novice, but I don't believe that is true yet for poetry. Yes, Slam has created a wider audience, but I think the overall view of poetry is still that it is stuffy and uses outdated language that the majority can't relate to. I'm a firm believer that there is a place for all of it, and although I tend to be drawn to poets who write on the colloquial side of the spectrum through free verse more than form, there is no variety of poetry I write off. I love his idea of poetry readings via the radio.