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.