Philip Levine, the Pulitzer Prize winner who was named the nation's next poet laureate Wednesday, has spent much of his career listening and reflecting on the voices of America. In his new job he said he has one main goal.
"I want to bring poetry to people who have no idea how relevant poetry is to their lives," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Fresno, where he is a professor emeritus at Cal State Fresno while continuing to write poetry.
He also hopes to bring some less known poets into the limelight — although as of Wednesday morning, he said, simply answering phone calls was taking up his time.
Despite all of his many honors over a 60-year-writing career — the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts — Levine says he was not exactly ready when he heard that he would succeed W.S. Merwin as poet laureate.
"I was stunned," Levine said. "Especially at my age, at 83."
Informed by his personal experience working in factories, Levine's poetry focuses on the moments and textures of the day-to-day life of the working class. Robert Pinsky, another poet laureate, once described Levine's plain-spoken poetry as has having "the strength of a living syntax."
Politics, particularly issues of class, thread through his poetry.
"My memories are an enormous store of situations, details," said Levine. Poetry connects, he says, by "having enough of the world in there to make the reader say, 'Uh-huh, I know where he is.'"
David St. John, a professor of poetry at USC who studied under Levine, called the poet "an American institution," and said that "this is a long overdue appointment."
"He's traditionally been one of the humanitarian voices, the voice of social and political justice in American poetry," St. John said. In addition to work and working people, St. John says that Levine is a poet of "the natural world, as well as the industrial world."
A sharp critic of the current political environment, Levine remarked: "I had thought that the worst collection of people was an English department having a meeting, but the U.S. Congress runs away with the award."
Levine, born in Detroit, started working at industrial jobs when he was 14. He discovered poetry in high school reading "terrible" Stephen Crane, he told Mona Simpson in an interview the Paris Review published in 1988. The factories where he worked, which included Cadillac and Chevrolet, were so loud he could recite poetry while working on the line and not be heard.
Determined to go to college, Levine enrolled at Michigan's Wayne State University, where he was asked whether he wanted a bachelor's. "I already have a place to live," he told the counselor, not realizing she was talking about a degree.
Levine went on to the University of Iowa's creative writing program, where he taught part time and earned an MFA. He received the coveted Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and then, in 1958, began teaching at Cal State Fresno and taught there for 34 years.
Levine lives seven months of the year in Fresno and spends the remainder in New York City. He has taught at Columbia, Princeton, Brown, UC Berkeley and New York University.
The U.S. poet laureate is selected by the librarian of Congress in Washington, D.C. The duties and responsibilities of the poet laureate, who receives a $35,000 stipend, are largely ceremonial, but a poet who wishes to can undertake any projects he or she likes during his tenure. His yearlong term begins in October.
Levine was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1995 for his collection "The Simple Truth," the National Book Award in 1991 for "What Work Is" and in 1980 for "Ashes," which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award, as did "Seven Years from Somewhere." In 1997, Levine was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2000-2006. Among his collected works is the poem "What Work Is," which begins:
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.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants....