He's as American as poets get - a son of immigrant parents, the hardworking classes, a master of straightforward, uncompromising American-English poetry telling of life as flesh-and-blood people live and feel it.
And Wednesday, Philip Levine, 83, was appointed by Congress as U.S. poet laureate, succeeding the eminent W.S. Merwin.
It's amazing Levine hasn't been laureate yet. He has won almost every high-profile prize for poetry, including a Pulitzer, two Guggenheims, two National Book Awards, and a Ruth Lilly Prize.
"It's terrific news," says Al Young, California poet laureate emeritus. "What I love about Philip's work is that it is lyrical, but also socially committed. It's poetry that the mass of people can understand and be moved by right away." Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky says by e-mail that "Philip Levine brings further honor to the title."
W.D. Ehrhardt, a much-published poet who lives in Mount Airy, says, "Philip Levine is a working-class poet, and I mean that as a compliment, born and raised in Detroit, public-school- and state-university-educated. No matter that he has spent his writing life in academia; his poetry still reflects those gritty roots."
Levine was born in 1928 to Russian immigrant parents. His father died in 1933. As a teen, living on the outskirts of Detroit, Philip would go outside after dinner and compose poetry in his head. He worked in car factories such as Detroit Transmission and Chevrolet Gear and Axle, composing as he worked. He has said, "What I found was a voice within myself that I didn't know was there."
In his 20s, he began an academic career that took him to the two most prestigious literature programs in the country, Iowa and Stanford, and on to a career that has included more than 20 books of poems, as well as books of criticism and personal essays.
Perhaps the most enduring quality of Levine's poetry is its vivid picture of the working life. His best-known poem, "What Work Is," has inspired generations of poets by discovering, in unpromising, "unpoetic" material, huge resources of human tenderness. It's also a great example of his style: nearly flat language with irresistible rhythms, building up to a trenchant, emotional climax. The poem starts matter-of-fact and tough-guy:
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is - if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Truth is, "What Work Is" could well be titled "What Love Is," for it is a love poem for a brother.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek?
That's the key to Levine: the tenderness beneath the toughness. In "Of Love and Other Disasters," we see the moment love ignites between a "punch-press operator from Flint" and an "assembler from West Virginia." The woman lifts a man's glasses to wipe off a speck:
she said, lowering his glasses, "I
got it," and even with his glasses on
what she showed him was nothing
he could see. He thought, better
get out of here before it's too late, but
knew too late was what he wanted.
On display here is another Levine specialty: line endings that pull from one verse into another with energy that increases line by line.
Philadelphia poet Tom Devaney says he clipped out "What Work Is" and "taped the poem onto my wall next to my desk. For Levine, work and love are the same subject. His poems are often about the working class, but the poems go further than that, illuminating work's greater meaning in all of our lives. His question of 'what work is' is a defining one, and one that reverberates poignantly in this American moment."
"Every poem is a political poem," Levine has said. "Telling the truth is a political act." And he is one of most accomplished political poets in the United States, with deep compassion for the lives of the marginalized and ignored. As Young says, "He really dashes the often-heard notion that poetry and politics don't mix." Levine often speaks in the voices of the excluded, as in "Pili's Wall," in which a determined Pili says,
Out of saying No . . .
out of blind
out of deaf, closed, still
I stand and stand and stand into
His political commitment, he has said, grew out of the "sudden, just fantastic shock" of discovering "an immense lie. . . . Your country wasn't what you had been told it was."
Levine has three poetic homes, so to speak - the Detroit of his youth and many of his poems; the Fresno Valley in California, where he has lived and taught for many years; and Brooklyn, where Levine has long kept a second home. His one-year appointment (pay: $35,000) has but two requirements: that the laureate begin and end the term with a reading. But many laureates create special programs to highlight poetry. Levine has said he'd like to use the post as a "bully pulpit" both for poetry in general and for the kind of people his poetry has tended to include.