Philip Levine 1928–
The following entry presents an overview of Levine's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 5, 9, 14, and 33.
Philip Levine has published poetry collections regularly since On the Edge was published in 1961. One of the most respected contemporary American poets, he has received numerous grants and prizes and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth (1994) in 1995. His primary poetic device is that of narration. Employing the idioms and cadences of normal speech, Levine seeks to write about the ordinary people and events of everyday life. Often called a working-class poet, he writes with particular intensity of the socially and economically deprived, and champions those who have little voice in the social hierarchy. One of the most dominant features of his poetry is the pervasive feeling of human dignity and justice. Though a keen and often bitter observer of class and economic wrongs and inequities, his working-class subjects are generally brave, spirited, and willful. Suffused with the dream of freedom, they do not quit. Richard Hugo has observed that Levine's themes revolve around what is most fundamental to humanity and that his poetry heightens compassion and understanding in readers.
Biographical InformationLevine was born in Detroit, Michigan, in January, 1928, the child of Russian-Jewish emigrants. His father died when he was young, and Levine was reared in an impoverished household. He attended Wayne State University from which he graduated with a B.A. and an M.A., in 1950 and in 1954 respectively. During the early 1950s Levine also worked at a number of factory jobs, an experience that strengthened his interest in working-class issues. Many of these issues figure prominently in his poetry. In 1954 he married Frances Artley, a marriage that produced three sons, Mark, John, and Theodore. Having refused to serve in the Korean War, Levine attended the University of Iowa where John Berryman and Robert Lowell were among his teachers. Levine graduated with a M.F.A. in 1957. He then spent time at Stanford University on a fellowship where he came into contact with Yvor Winters. In 1958 Levine became a professor at California State University, Fresno. He has also taught and lectured at numerous universities both at home and abroad. He has lived for extended periods in Spain, a country that has influenced some of his political and social beliefs as well as provided themes for a number of poems. In particular, he has identified very strongly with the antifascist and anarchist factions in the Spanish Civil War. Levine has received grants from such agencies as the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Among the honors he has received are the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award for Poetry, and the Pulitzer Prize.
The major themes of Levine's poems, from his first collection On the Edge through his subsequent volumes, have remained largely unchanged. Much of his poetry reveals his frustration and anger with the manifold problems of contemporary society. Themes of defiance, indignation, and anger are especially frequent in such early collections as Not This Pig (1968) and They Feed They Lion (1972). He is particularly concerned with social, political, and ethnic topics. Also called an "urban" poet, Levine sets many of his poems in the working-class environment of such cities as Detroit and Fresno, and he writes feelingly of the problems and abuses of American society and of the strong spirit of American urban dwellers. His subjects are invariably ordinary working folk. He writes, in the words of David St. John, "of the universal struggle of individuals ignored and unheard by their societies." Levine identifies with those in dead-end jobs and was influenced by the menial, mainly industrial jobs at which he worked during the early fifties in Detroit. Richard Chess sees Levine's sympathy for the unsung workers and the victims of a materialistic and commercial world as stemming in part from experiences growing up as a Jew in Detroit. However, though there are clearly many autobiographical elements in Levine's poetry, it is also important to recognize that he enjoys a consummate ability to employ, as Carol Frost puts it, "artistic reality." Levine is praised for his strength at imagining and empathizing "with invented characters to the point that readers assume they are acquaintances or relatives." Yet much of his work is realistic, and his poems are liberally sprinkled with dates, times, people's and places' names. While this is natural in poems dealing with such specific historical topics as Hiroshima, the Holocaust and the Spanish Civil War, he is also careful to supply many of his other poems with realistic detail. The Spanish people, history, and countryside are also frequent themes in his poetry. Particularly prominent is his strong regard for the anti-Franco faction in the Spanish Civil War, which reflects his resolute leftist leanings. For example, the 1930s Spanish anarchist movement is well treated in his 1976 collection The Names of the Lost. Levine's later collections of poetry continue to chronicle the lives of ordinary working class citizens, and to champion the cause of the underprivileged and downtrodden.
Levine is a prolific writer who has published regularly since 1961. The quality of this large oeuvre has been deemed somewhat inconsistent. Some have seen his distinctly proletarian image as responsible for producing calculated, studied poetry. Nevertheless, critical assessment of his poetry over the decades has been overwhelmingly positive. In 1977 Richard Hugo asserted that Levine "is deservedly destined to be one of the most celebrated poets of the time," and many critics agree that Levine has emerged as one of America's preeminent poets. Fred Marchant wrote that Levine has produced "a rich and important body of work." David St. John considered that Levine's early work "remains some of the most highly-crafted and imaginatively powerful poetry of the time." Critics have noted a mellowing of Levine's anger in his later poems. Though remaining a keen chronicler of the wrongs inflicted on society's marginalized, his poetry becomes more tender and optimistic. While rage and sadness are still evident, there is also hope and celebration. Edward Hirsch has observed, "What starts as anger slowly deepens into grief and finally rises into joy." A much greater acceptance of what cannot be changed is evidenced in Levine's later poems. Hirsch has compared Levine's poetry to that of William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, and Theodore Roethke.