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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

 

Coming Close

Philip Levine, 1928
Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase, 
then lifting with a gasp, the first word 
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, she would turn
to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic 
you knew, you wouldn't dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.

From What Work Is by Philip Levine, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1991 Philip Levine. Used with permission.

From What Work Is by Philip Levine, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1991 Philip Levine. Used with permission.

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

poem
When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He's tired,
a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
The two gaze upwards at the sky
poem

 

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poem

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,