Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Philip Levine was born in Detroit of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents; his experiences of the Depression and World War II in that city play a central role in his poetry. In an interview, Levine said that he spent most of his childhood fighting against people who attacked him because he was Jewish. His father died when he was young (apparently in 1933, according to the poem titled “1933”), and both his parents often appear in his many poems that explore the past. According to Levine, the workers he knew as a child and as a young man had a great effect on him; various immigrant anarchists have affected his politics. After his 1954 marriage to Frances Artley, they had three sons: Mark, John, and Theodore.
Because Levine often writes from personal experience, it is possible to draw a picture of him and his relationships from his poems. He has written many poems about his grandparents, parents, brother, sister, wife, and each of his three sons. Not all the “facts” in his work, however, may necessarily be true. The poems do reveal much about the writer, but the poet’s tendency to fictionalize must be kept in mind.
After holding a number of jobs, including working in a foundry, Levine attended Wayne State University, where he studied under John Berryman, receiving a B.A. degree in 1950 and an M.A. in 1955. He refused to serve in the Korean War, and although this was clearly a political protest on his part, he was declared 4-F for...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Philip Levine (luh-VEEN) is a poet of the city, in particular of one city, the blue-collar workers’ city of Detroit. Levine himself was born, raised, and educated in Detroit, and he worked “a succession of stupid jobs” in a variety of factories, side by side with the voiceless men and women whose lives he later celebrated so eloquently and elegiacally through the poetry of song. In “Silent in America,” a poem from Levine’s first collection, On the Edge, the Walt Whitman line “Vivas for those who have failed” serves as an epigraph not only for that poem but for the bulk of Levine’s body of work.
Much of Levine’s poetry serves as a medium through which he memorializes “those who have failed.” Levine recalled that “While I was working in factories and trying to write . . . I said to myself, ‘Nobody is writing the poetry of this world here . . .’ And I sort of took a vow to myself . . . I was going to do it . . . I was going to write the poetry of these people.” As he writes in “A Walk with Tom Jefferson” Levine takes the reader into a “world with only/ three seasons. . ./ one to get tired, one to get/ old, one to die.” Levine is a tour guide into the nightshift of human suffering, where, as he writes in “Sweet Will,” the body is broken down and beaten, “sad tales of men/ who let the earth break them back,/ each one, to dirty blood and bloody dirt.” It would be reductive and misleading to define Levine’s work as the poetry of anger and decay, but it is true that his best work is born out of frustration and rage. In his poetry, however, Levine transforms and ultimately enriches the failed lives he is writing about, giving them a power and dignity and grace they may not inherently possess. This is especially true of poems written...
(The entire section is 774 words.)