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, whom 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 1961, followed by Not This Pig (Wesleyan University Press) in 1968.
Throughout his career, Levine published numerous books of poetry, including News of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009); Breath (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004); 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;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 (Atheneum, 1972).
About writing poetry when not working the night shift, Levine wrote: "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 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 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 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 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. In 2013, he received the Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry by the Academy of American Poets.
After retiring from teaching, Levine divided his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Fresno, California, until his death on February 14, 2015. His final poetry collection, The Last Shift (Alfred A. Knopf), as well as a collection of essays and other writings, My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry (Alfred A. Knopf), were published posthumously in 2016.