Philip Levine 1928–
American poet and autobiographer.
Best known for his poetry celebrating the working class, Levine's verse extolls the virtues of blue-collar factory workers and gives voice to the inequities suffered on the lines. Levine's background—born and raised in Detroit—mirrored those people he wrote about. For a time, Levine himself worked on an assembly line in the automobile factories of his hometown. Over the years, Levine's subject matter and poetic form have changed little, resulting in mixed critical reviews.
Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, on January 10, 1928 to immigrant parents of Russian-Jewish ancestry. His youth and early adulthood typified the experiences of most lower and middle income people in Detroit, taking their place within the great industrial machine that drove the American economy: the automobile assembly plants at the height of the industry's power. Working in assembly plants, experiencing first-hand the long work days and poor conditions, inspired Levine to vow to use poetry to give a voice to the voiceless. He attended Wayne University (to later become Wayne State University) in Detroit where he received both his B.A. in 1950 and his M.A. in 1955. While attending Wayne, Levine became intrigued with the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. He later recalled the experience: "I stood in the stacks of Wayne State University Library with my hands trembling and read my life in his words."
After leaving Wayne State, Levine went on to receive an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1957, where he studied with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Later that same year he was awarded the Stanford University Fellowship in Poetry and moved to California. The following year, Levine joined the faculty of Fresno State College, where his students included the poets Luis Omar Salinas, Sherley Anne Williams, and Gary Soto (whose work is often considered similar to Levine's).
In 1961, Levine published his first volume of poetry, On the Edge. During the 1960s, Levine's fascination with Spanish literature and culture caused him to move to Spain with his family for two separate periods. The time spent in Spain profoundly influenced his poetry, the history and politics of the region becoming subjects for his work. For example, The Names of the Lost, dedicated to Buenaventura Durruti, a leader of the anarchist movement
during the Spanish Civil War, contains the elegy "For the Fallen," written in Durruti's honor.
1979 was a banner year for Levine, as he received both the American Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Prize for Ashes (1979). He met with similar success in 1991 when What Work Is earned both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Award for Poetry. Levine won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The Simple Truth in 1994.
Since his first collection, On the Edge, Levine has remained faithful to his vow to tell the stories of "the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, [and] the ugly" with little deviation from that theme. Critics have noted an intensity of purpose in Levine's poetry from the 1960s and '70s, spanning the volumes On the Edge through They Feed They Lion (1972). During this time, his narrow focus on the bleak life of the laborer earned his poetry the reputation of being drab and somewhat jaded. Beginning with 1933 (1979), however, Levine professes to have undergone a change of style and subject matter, describing his poetry as "less aggressive." Increasingly sentimental and nostalgic, he turns his attention towards relatives, friends, and notable figures of the Spanish Civil War. Such poems as "1933," "On the Murder of Lieutenant Jose Del Castillo," "For the Fallen," "Montjuich," and "Francisco, I'll Bring You Red Carnations," are examples of this trend. Beginning with Ashes (1979), Levine's style shifts again as he moves from an examination of the "sad realities of a hostile world" to an acceptance of the natural world. It is in these later volumes that Levine is at his most inventive.
Levine's work has received mixed reviews since the appearance of On the Edge, although the overall critical response has been more positive than negative. Levine's commitment to bring to light the travails of the working class and the downtrodden poor, however, along with his abandonment of conventional metrical forms and rhyme scheme, has created a critical divide over the interpretation and quality of his work. On one side, such well-known critics as Herbert Leibowitz and Helen Vendler downplay his poetic ability and contend that his style is more like prose than poetry, and drab prose at that. Harold Bloom leads the opposing viewpoint, admiring Levine's ability to control the pathos in his verse and subject matter, apparently not put off by the bleak and gritty picture of the working-class world. Other critics support Bloom, considering Levine's poetry as characteristic of the world in these modern times, describing the dreary circumstances of everyday life and creating a forum where the voices of the (traditionally) voiceless can be heard. In the end, what is irrefutable is that Levine's distinct poetic voice speaks volumes for a segment of society unaccustomed to being championed in popular literature, and for that he will be remembered, despite critics' less than enthusiastic opinion of his meter and form.
On the Edge 1961
Silent in America: Vivas for Those Who Failed 1965
Not This Pig 1968
5 Detroits 1970
Thistles: A Poem Sequence 1970
Pili's Wall 1971; revised edition, 1980
Red Dust [illustrated by Marcia Mann] 1971
They Feed They Lion 1972
New Season 1975
On the Edge and Over: Poems Old, Lost, and New 1976
The Names of the Lost 1976
7 Years from Somewhere 1979
Ashes: Poems New and Old 1979
One for the Rose 1981
Selected Poems 1984
Sweet Will 1985
A Walk with Tom Jefferson 1988
New Selected Poems 1991
What Work Is 1991
The Simple Truth 1994
Other Major Work
The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography 1994
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SOURCE: "The True and Earthy Prayer': Philip Levine's Poetry," in Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry, University of Illinois Press, 1975, pp. 251-65.
[In the following essay, Mills traces the development of Levine's themes from On the Edge to Red Dust and They Feed They Lion.]
the way we are
—PL., "The Sadness of Lemons"
The poetry of Philip Levine, from On the Edge (1963) to his two latest collections, Red Dust (1971) and They Feed They Lion (1972), has always displayed technical skill, a dexterous handling of both formal and, more recently, informal modes, and a command of the resources of diction and rhythm. Yet these aspects of technique seem in a way secondary, absorbed as they are by a central, driving intensity peculiar to this poet's approach. Such intensity leads him to a relentless searching through the events of his life and the lives of others, through the particulars of nature as these signify something about the processes of living, the states of existence, in order to arrive not at Eliot's transcendence, Roethke's "condition of joy," or Whitman's ideal of progress and brotherhood (though the sharing of suffering and the common ties of humanity are basic to Levine's attitude) but to the sort of awareness suggested by Yeats's phrase, "the...
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SOURCE: "Four American Poets," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 355-59.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient asserts that Levine's poetry has shifted from "bereft and skeptical" towards romanticism.]
The drama of Levine's career lies in his movement away from his origins—industrial and Jewish immigrant, bereft and skeptical—toward American romanticism, that faith of the senses in an intimate bigness beyond even the bigness of the land. From Detroit, a "city pouring fire," to "the one stove of earth"—such has been his progress.
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SOURCE: "The Sincere, the Mythic, the Playful: Forms of Voice in Current Poetry," in The Georgia Review, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 202-04.
[In the following review, Stitt compares 7 Years from Somewhere with Ashes, contending Ashes is a more powerful and imaginative work.]
Because lyric poetry is spoken in a direct and seemingly intimate voice, it is by its very nature a personal form of utterance. Such recent movements as confessionalism have sometimes led us to believe that lyric poetry, being personal, is also inherently sincere. In the sense that the poet means what he or she says, of course, poetry (except for the ostensibly ironic) is generally sincere. But in the sense that the poet is writing about his or her own life, feelings, and thoughts, poetry is never necessarily sincere. In one way or another—whether it appears only in the form or also in the content—artifice must be a component of the poem, and artifice is inevitably a dilutant of absolute sincerity. Without art there would be no poem; artificiality forms the musculature of poetic structure, and when a writer cuts too close to the white bone of unadulterated truth, it is the fiber of art which is damaged. A literal poem, one which shows no figurations, neither comparisons nor transformations, no renderings of fact into metaphor, is a poem in which the artistry is dead.
In terms of...
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SOURCE: "What We See and Feel and Are," in The Southern Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 433-36.
[In the following excerpt, Hosmer counters criticism that espouses the view that Levine is not a poet but "simply a memoir writer in prose."]
Ever since the publication of his first major book, Not This Pig (1968), Philip Levine has acquired ardent champions and severe critics. The latter often single out his limited range of subject matter and style, some going so far as to say that what he writes isn't poetry at all ("simply a memoir writer in prose," said Helen Vendler, who asked of One for the Rose , "Is there any compelling reason why it should be called poetry?"). Well, yes there is, if you're willing to be flexible in developing an enlarged, somewhat nontraditional and nonmusical understanding of what poetry can be. Though he once wrote a poem "after Keats" ("Having Been Asked 'What Is A Man?' I Answer"), Levine inscribes no Grecian urns, tunes no unearthly music in his verse. Rather, something like Ashbery's poem "What Is Poetry" springs to mind, with its vigorous dismissal of academic ideas of "poetry" and its emphasis on an exploration of what is thought, felt, known at a particular moment.
Levine writes in free and blank verse, displaying, typically, in this latest collection, What Work Is, a fondness for shorter poems of...
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SOURCE: "Philip Levine at Work," in New England Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 291-305.
[In the following review, Frost discusses Levine 's poetic influences and favorably reviews New Selected Poems and What Work Is.]
Exceptional poets come in two kinds: those whose territory is small (the neighborhood or garden, privately walled, perhaps) and those who speak for a wider locale. Both—like mapmakers, blues singers, and revolutionaries—are remarkable in their reinventions of common ground. It comes down to an act of mind, the imagination's ability to inhabit a place and time so deeply that the names for it are transformed. Philip Levine is a poet of wide territory, primarily interested in portraying the lives of ordinary working class people in America, shore to shore (Detroit, Gary, Pasadena, New York City, Dubuque, Akron, Baltimore, Wheeling, L.A.), in Spain (Barcelona, Malaga, Valladolid), and, with more passing reference, in Italy, Thailand, France, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and Germany.
The Midwest exerts the strongest pull on his imagination, with its auto industry and its foundries, fertile ground for his treatment of the American work ethic, human will, and fatedness. Such places as Detroit and Belle Isle take on a nearly mythic glow, lit by the iron-colored fires of the transmission and chemical factories. "We burn the...
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SOURCE: "A Conversation with Philip Levine," in Tri-Quarterly, Winter, 1995-96, pp. 67-82.
[In the following interview, Levine answers questions from students at Davidson College regarding his method and style of writing, the political relevance of poetry, and his most recent collection, The Simple Truth.]
[Chris Wyrick] Congratulations on the big prize! [The Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The Simple Truth (1994)]
[Philip Levine] Well, thank you. Yes. It's been a long time coming. But, you see, patience does pay off. Actually, I think it's better to get it when you're old. Ah, I'm happy to win it.
[George Weld] / think now especially a lot of young writers feel a tension between the feeling that they need to be activists in their work for social change and a feeling that, as Auden says, "Poetry makes nothing happen, " that poetry is irrelevant or elitist, and I'm wondering whether you feel this tension yourself.
Well, frankly, I think that Auden is wrong. Poetry does make things happen. And I think that if a young person is troubled by the idea that he or she is practicing an elitist art, then he ought to do something else. I mean, if you have grave doubts about being a poet because you will thereby not achieve your social ambitions, then don't write poetry. Poetry will make it without you. And the question you have to ask...
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Buckley, Christopher, ed. On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994, 359 p.
Provides reviews, essays, and bibliography through Levine's 1988 publication of A Walk with Tom Jefferson.
Disch, Thomas M. "The Occasion of the Poem." Poetry CLX, No. 2 (May 1992): 94-107.
Stresses the element of grievance in Levine's poetry.
Hirsch, Edward. "The Visionary Poetics of Philip Levine and Charles Wright." In The Columbia History of American Poetry, pp. 777-805. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
A detailed critical overview of Levine's poetry.
Murphy, Bruce. "The State of the World." Poetry CLXVII, No. 3 (December 1995): 156-59.
Reviews The Simple Truth unfavorably with comparison to New and Selected Poems by Gary Soto, Levine's former student.
Vendler, Helen. "All Too Real." The New York Review of Books SSSVIII, No. 20 (17 December 1981): 32-6.
Reviews One for the Rose stating that Levine seems to be "simply a memoir-writer in prose" and asks "is there any compelling reason why...
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