Philip Levine Levine, Philip - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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

1933 1974

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

Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

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.]

We live
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 desolation of reality": an unflinching acquaintance with the harsh facts of most men's situation which still confirms rather than denies its validity. If this is a difficult prospect, we must acknowledge how familiar it has become of late through the poems of Robert Lowell, David Ignatow, James Wright, Allen Ginsberg, and Galway Kinnell, to mention a few obvious names. In the writing of these poets, as in Levine's, the range of human sympathies, the frankness, perseverance, and sensitivity create of themselves an affirmative, life-sustaining balance to the bleak recognition of religious deprivation, war, social injustice, moral and spiritual confusion.

Levine's early poetry is taut, sharp, formal but gradually alters to accommodate his desire for greater freedom in line length and overall construction. A prominent theme of his first book is the reversal or defeat of expectations. Put another way, it motivates a struggle on the poet's part to view life stripped of the vestiges of illusory hope or promise, a type of hard spiritual conditioning which helps to engender his fundamental responsiveness to the dilemmas of the poor, embittered, failed lives of the "submerged population" (the late Frank O'Connor's term) in modern society, a responsiveness that accounts for much of both the energy and the deep humaneness of all his work. A firm grip on existence itself takes priority for Levine from the start, though with it necessarily comes an acceptance of pain and the admission that failure, defeat, and imperfection—but not surrender!—are unavoidable in men's affairs. The penetrating look he gives himself in "The Turning" from On the Edge points the direction he follows to maturity, which depends on the realization of flaws as well as the capacity to exist, to continue, made sturdier by this self-knowledge:

Committed to a fallen, unredeemable world, finding no metaphysical consolations, Levine embraces it with an ardor, anguish, and fury that are themselves religious emotions. In a brief comment on his work contributed to Contemporary Poets of the English Language (1970) he lists among his "obsessions" "Detroit" (where he was born, did factory labor, and studied), "the dying of America" (a recurrent theme in various guises), and "communion with others," which incorporates its predecessors as well as specifying what is for him a primary poetic impulse. Writing frequently of persons whose lives are distinct yet touch his own, he increases his consciousness and imaginative powers, and a chord of compassion and understanding reverberates within and beyond the boundaries of his poems. This is not to say that Levine puts himself out of the picture or chooses a mask of impersonality, but that his presence in a poem, whether overt or concealed, constitutes an enlargement of personality, a stepping out of the ego-bound "I" into the surrounding life. Paradoxically, he reaches inward, far into the recesses of the psyche, at the same time he reaches outward, thus fulfilling a pattern of movement Robert Bly has long advocated as essential to a modern poetry rich in imaginative potentialities.

Among the poems of Levine's initial volume, this self-extension appears most complete when he adopts the voices of different persons—the Sierra Kid, four French Army deserters in North Africa, the unnamed officer of "The Distant Winter"—to replace his own. Another sort of identification, of a crucial kind for the line of development his work pursues, occurs in the title poem "On the Edge," and also in "My Poets" and "Gangrene." In these instances he does not assume the role of another speaker but takes up the question of a poetic vocation and the destiny of poets in society today. In one shape or another, each of these poems really considers the problem of speechlessness, the lacerating irony of the mute poet imprisoned by circumstances which thwart or oppose his art, making its practice unlikely or impossible. So Levine sorts through the probabilities of his own future. The poet/speaker of "On the Edge" describes himself as the insane, alcoholic Poe of the twentieth century, born, as Levine was, "in 1928 in Michigan." This latterday Poe plays the part of an observer who doesn't write, only watches the actions and prevarications of nameless people. In the last stanza he repeats a refusal of his art, though we are provided in its statement of alienation, perceptiveness, and silence with a poetry of angry eloquence:

I did not write, for I am Edgar Poe,
Edgar the mad one, silly, drunk, unwise,
But Edgar waiting on the edge of laughter,
And there is nothing that he does not know
Whose page is blanker than the raining skies.

This abstention from writing, or persecution for telling the truth by means of it, occupies the other poems mentioned. Levine's effort here is to indicate the need for honest speech, the conditions which militate against it, and the frustrating atmosphere of separateness the poet faces. Thematically, the poem "Silent in America" from Not This Pig (1968), Levine's second collection, brings such matters to a critical climax and to a moment of transformation and decision. Though it is not the first poem in the book, dramatically speaking it should be thought of as a pivotal piece, for its procedure and resolution make possible what Levine is doing elsewhere in the same volume: breaking down those barriers which prevent him from entering areas of otherwise lost or unapprehended experience requisite to the poetry he wants to write. At the outset the poet announces his silence, which fashions for him a state of remoteness and solitude that border on anonymity. Watching ordinary things—a sprinkler wetting a lawn—stirs him toward utterance, but he stays quiet. A doctor's examination uncovers no defect. Details of nature engage him with the elusive tracery of their being; still, the animate something he notices in trees, water, and flowers defies his wish to name it, and thus his muteness persists. Locked in isolation, Levine now falls victim to inner torments, to his "squat demon, / my little Bobby," a splintered apparition of the self who plagues him with insatiable sexual demands. The poem develops rapidly toward hysteria and derangement until the poet bursts out with a negative cry of resistance. A section ensues in which he articulates the aims of his writing—to give voice to the varied experience of lost, unknown, or forgotten individuals he has met, speaking with and for them—but he is likewise forced to assent to the fact that each person remains finally impervious to total comprehension and communion. The following passage handsomely summarizes Levine's intentions and concerns:

Levine's anxiety arises from the profoundly felt impulse to put his language, as poetry, in the service of others' lives, in addition to his own. The walls of privacy and individuality he cannot traverse cause him regret and a feeling of loss. Yet, just as surely, he does speak for others to the very limit of his abilities, not only here but...

(The entire section is 3508 words.)

Calvin Bedient (review date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

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.

(The entire section is 1846 words.)

Peter Stitt (review date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1339 words.)

Robert Hosmer (review date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 [1981], "Is there any compelling...

(The entire section is 1416 words.)

Carol Frost (review date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

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....

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Philip Levine (interview date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7203 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 265 words.)