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About this poet

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 an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. There, Levine studied with poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman, the latter of which Levine called his "one great mentor."

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 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004); The Mercy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999); The Simple Truth (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), which won the 1991 National Book Award; New Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991); Ashes: Poems New and Old (Atheneum, 1979), which received the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the first American Book Award for Poetry; 7 Years From Somewhere (Atheneum, 1979), which won the 1979 National Book Critics Circle Award; The Names of the Lost (1975), which won the 1977 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets; and They Feed They Lion (Alfred A. Knopf, 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."

In a review of Breath, Publishers Weekly wrote: "Levine writes gritty, fiercely unpretentious free verse about American manliness, physical labor, simple pleasures and profound grief, often set in working-class Detroit (where Levine grew up) or in central California (where he now resides), sometimes tinged with reference to his Jewish heritage or to the Spanish poets of rapt simplicity (Machado, Lorca) who remain his most visible influence."

Levine has also published nonfiction essays and interviews, collected in So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews (University of Michigan Press, 2002); The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (University of Michigan Press, 1994); and Don't Ask (University of Michigan Press, 1981).

As editor, Levine published The Essential Keats (Ecco Press, 1987). He has also coedited and translated two books: Off the Map: Selected Poems of Gloria Fuertes (with Ada Long, Wesleyan University Press, 1984) and Tarumba: The Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines (with Ernesto Trejo, Sarabande Books, 2007).

Levine has received the Frank O'Hara Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. 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. In 2000, Levine was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. And, in 2011, Levine was named the 18th U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress. Most recently, he received the 2013 Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry by the Academy of American Poets.

Retired from teaching, Levine currently divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Fresno, California.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

News of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)
Breath (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)
The Mercy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)
The Simple Truth (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)
New Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)
What Work Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)
Ashes: Poems New and Old (Atheneum, 1979)
7 Years From Somewhere (Atheneum, 1979)
The Names of the Lost (1975)
They Feed They Lion (Alfred A. Knopf, 1973)
Not This Pig (Wesleyan University Press, 1968)
On the Edge (The Stone Wall Press, 1963)

Nonfiction

So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews (University of Michigan Press, 2002)
The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (University of Michigan Press, 1994)
Don't Ask (University of Michigan Press, 1981)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

On 52nd Street

Philip Levine, 1928

Down sat Bud, raised his hands, 
the Deuces silenced, the lights
lowered, and breath gathered
for the coming storm. Then nothing,
not a single note. Outside starlight
from heaven fell unseen, a quarter-
moon, promised, was no show,
ditto the rain. Late August of '50,
NYC, the long summer of abundance
and our new war. In the mirror behind
the bar, the spirits—imitating you—
stared at themselves. At the bar
the tenor player up from Philly, shut
his eyes and whispered to no one,
"Same thing last night." Everyone
been coming all week long
to hear this. The big brown bass
sighed and slumped against
the piano, the cymbals held
their dry cheeks and stopped
chicking and chucking. You went
back to drinking and ignored
the unignorable. When the door
swung open it was Pettiford
in work clothes, midnight suit,
starched shirt, narrow black tie,
spit shined shoes, as ready
as he'd ever be. Eyebrows
raised, the Irish bartender
shook his head, so Pettiford eased 
himself down at an empty table,
closed up his Herald Tribune,
and shook his head. Did the TV
come on, did the jukebox bring us
Dinah Washington, did the stars
keep their appointments, did the moon
show, quartered or full, sprinkling
its soft light down? The night's
still there, just where it was, just
where it'll always be without
its music. You're still there too
holding your breath. Bud walked out. 

From Breath by Philip Levine. Copyright © 2003 by Philip Levine. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on September 2, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

From Breath by Philip Levine. Copyright © 2003 by Philip Levine. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on September 2, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Philip Levine

Philip Levine

Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Philip Levine is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently News of the World

by this poet

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poem
Everyone loves a story. Let's begin with a house.
We can fill it with careful rooms and fill the rooms
with things—tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers
closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept
or big drawers that yawn open to reveal
precisely folded garments washed half to death,
unsoiled, stale, and
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