Philip Levine Levine, Philip (Vol. 118) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Levine 1928–

American poet.

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 Information

Levine 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

On the Edge (poems) 1961
Silent in America: Vivas for Those Who Failed (poems) 1965
Not This Pig (poems) 1968
5 Detroits (poems) 1970
Thistles (poems) 1970
Pili's Wall (poems) 1971
Red Dust (poems) 1971
They Feed They Lion (poems) 1972
1933 (poems) 1974
The Names of the Lost (poems) 1976
On the Edge & Over (poems) 1976
Ashes: Poems New and Old (poems) 1979
Don't Ask (collection of interviews with Levine) 1979
7 Years from Somewhere (poems) 1979
One for the Rose (poems) 1981
Selected Poems(poems) 1984
Sweet Will (poems) 1985
A Walk with Tom Jefferson (poems) 1988
New Selected Poems (poems) 1991
What Work Is (poems) 1991
The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (essays) 1994
The Simple Truth (poems) 1994
Unselected Poems (poems) 1997

Ricard Hugo (review date May-June 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Philip Levine: Naming the Lost," in American Poetry Review, May-June, 1977, pp. 27-8.

[In the following review, Hugo lauds Levine's poetry collection, The Names of the Lost, stressing in particular the poems' emotional depth.]

Philip Levine knows a few things so well that he cannot forget them when he writes a poem, no matter what compositional problems might arise. He seldom tells us anything we don't already know but what he tells us is basic to the maintenance of our humanity, and fundamental to perpetuating our capacity for compassion. If I were dictator of the world long enough to pass a few laws, two of those laws would be: (1) at least once a...

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Emily Grosholz (review date Summer 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of One for the Rose, in Hudson Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 331-33.

[In the following excerpt, Grosholz discusses Levine's focus on and praise of the ordinary.]

… Philip Levine's poems in One for the Rose often begin in the midst of the ordinary: "This is an ordinary gray Friday after work / and before dark in a city of the known world." Not just anything, however, can count as ordinary, for it is an honorific term which Levine uses to bless things. Bus stations in Ohio are one of his paradigms, and so are small shops, bars and hotels in midwestern cities crossed off with rows of small, shoddy trees and polluted rivers....

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Richard Tillinghast (review date 12 September 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Working the Night Shift," in New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1982, Sec. 7, p. 42.

[In the following review, Tillinghast applauds the poetry in One for the Rose for its readability and declares that "Belief" is one of the age's outstanding poems.]

"A good poet," according to Randall Jarrell, "is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times." Among the poems in One for the Rose, the latest of Philip Levine's 10 books of poetry, the lightning strike is unmistakable in "Belief." This poem asserts by denying—using the recurring motif, "No one believes," to capture...

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Fred Marchant (essay date Winter 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cipriano Mera and the Lion: A Reading of Philip Levine," in Imagine, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter, 1984, pp. 148-54.

[In the following essay, Marchant discusses the spirit of anarchism in Levine's poetry.]

Not many people in the United States would call themselves anarchists, but the poet Philip Levine does. In so doing he does not mean to invoke the image of a terrorist, a bomb in hand. Instead, he wants to acknowledge his passionate opposition to any soul-destroying forces in our social relations. His anarchism means that he does not believe in "the validity of governments, laws, charters" because they "hide us from our essential oneness." Levine has also said that...

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David St. John (essay date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Where the Angels Come Toward Us: The Poetry of Philip Levine," in Antioch Review, Vol. 44, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 176-91.

[In the following essay, St. John considers Levine's career and asserts that his poetry "has become both the pulse and conscience of American poetry."]

The publication of Philip Levine's most recent collection of poetry, Sweet Will, following by only a year his superbly edited Selected Poems, presents an excellent opportunity to consider the twenty years of work these two volumes represent.

Throughout his career, Philip Levine has looked for an American voice, a voice that could stand comfortably in the...

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Frederick J. Marchant (review date June 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson, in Boston Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, June, 1988, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Marchant considers Levine's humanistic faith and the nature of spirituality in his poetry.]

In a dozen books over the last twenty-five years, one of Philip Levine's most significant achievements has been to extend the province of the lyric to include the world of the blue-collar laborer. In Levine's poetry the smell of garlicky lunchboxes and greasy machinery have always had a place. There has also been a place for the description of mind-numbing work, and most important of all, his poetry has given voice to the angers that so easily...

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Edward Hirsch (essay date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Naming the Lost: The Poetry of Philip Levine," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 258-66.

[In the following essay, Hirsch considers the evolution of Levine's poetry and its gradual change in themes and attitudes. He declares it begins in rage, grows into elegy, and culminates in celebration. He stresses Levine's growing belief in human acceptance and possibility.]

I force myself
to remember
who I am, what I am, and
why I am here.
Silent in America"

In his seminal postmodern meditation,...

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Linda Gregerson (review date December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson, in Poetry, Vol. CLV, No. 3, December, 1989, pp. 236-39.

[In the following review, Gregerson considers some of the major themes in Levine's poetry, both in this collection and elsewhere.]

New York, Detroit, Fresno, Medford: from a shifting home front, the poet at sixty files his report on "God's Concern / for America." The evidence is not such as to make the poet sanguine. The walls that keep the darkness out are everywhere paper-thin. The news from above is mostly of ourselves: the autumnal sunset brilliant with pollutants, "all the earth we've pumped / into the sky," makes a pageant of doom from the by-products of...

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Richard Chess (essay date Fall 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Tradition of American Jewish Poetry: Philip Levine's Turning," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall, 1990, pp. 197-214.

[In the following essay, Chess discusses the Jewishness of Levine's poetry. He contends that when Levine tackles an explicitly Jewish topic, the result is often cliché. However, when he writes sincerely of general social and political justice, a genuine Jewish voice emerges.]

The discussion of American Jewish poetry has remained limited at best. On one hand, occasional book reviews have drawn attention to the treatment of Jewish subjects by this poet or that. On the other, there has been a virtual dismissal of...

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Andrew Hudgins (review date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of New Selected Poems and What Work Is in Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 681-682.

[In the following review, Hudgins considers Levine's New Selected Poems and What Work Is. He is particularly complimentary of the latter work, declaring that it is a brilliant collection and that Levine is a superb poet.]

Except for the addition of fifteen poems culled from Sweet Will (1985) and A Walk with Tom Jefferson (1988), Philip Levine's New Selected Poems is identical with his Selected Poems (1984), right down to pagination and typeface. New Selected Poems, which serves to consolidate...

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Carol Frost (review date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Philip Levine at Work," in New England Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 291-305.

[In the following review of New Selected Poems and What Work Is, Frost not only considers the poems of these two books, but also ranges over the spectrum of Levine's wider output and poetic career.]

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 16 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Riot That Found Its Threnody," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 16, 1994, pp. 3, 9.

[In the following review of The Bread of Fire: Toward an Autobiography, Eder discusses some of the prominent aspects of Levine's life.]

"I don't understand. I don't understand," Federico Garcia Lorca exclaimed when he arrived in New York. Out of the bewildered encounter between the finely surreal singer of slain gypsies and flowers that bleed, and Manhattan's stink and clangor, came "Poet in New York." A poet can write out of any state of spirit as long as he trusts it. Lorca trusted his dismay.

And he taught Philip Levine to trust his....

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Dana Gioia (review date 20 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stanzas in a Life," in New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1994, p. 14.

[In the following review, Gioia considers The Bread of Time, Levine's collection of autobiographical essays. Though Gioia praises certain facets of the work, he also criticizes it for certain shortcomings both as an autobiography and as a book of essays.]

The last few years have witnessed a changing of the guard in American poetry. The influential generation of writers born in the 1920's has reached retirement. It's hard to imagine this vigorous bunch, which includes Adrienne Rich, Donald Justice, Robert Bly, Richard Wilbur and Louis Simpson, as senior citizens. It seems like...

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Kevin Stein (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Why 'Nothing is Past': Philip Levine's Conversation with History," in Private Poets, Worldly Acts: Public and Private History in Contemporary American Poetry, Ohio University Press, 1996, pp. 71-89.

[In the following essay, originally published in Boulevard, Volumes 25 and 26, Stein discusses Levine's historical consciousness. He analyzes Levine's insistence that the past is in constant dialogue with the present and that people and events of the past continue to mold those of today and of the future.]

Three-quarters of the way through Philip Levine's "The Present," a poem recounting the bloody memory of what happened when "Froggy Frenchman" fell from a...

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Jeff Parker Knight (review date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Simple Truth in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 71, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 179-82.

[In the following excerpt, Knight briefly considers the role of truth and reality in Levine's poems and also mentions Levine's "mastery of craft."]

There's just no reason for anyone to continue believing the old maxim that poets will have done their best work by middle age. Following the example of Robert Penn Warren, a number of American poets—among them A. R. Ammons, Maxine Kumin, and Donald Hall—are writing excellent poems past age sixty. For the reader who has watched a poet's literary life unfold, reading a first-rate collection of new poems from a longtime...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Disch, Thomas M. "The Occasion of the Poem." Poetry CLX, No. 2 (May 1992): 94-107.

Praises What Work Is as a tight and consistent work.

Jackson, Richard. "The Long Embrace: Philip Levine's Longer Poems." Kenyon Review XI. No. 4 (Fall 1989): 160-69.

Explores the resurgence of long poems by examining some of Levine's longer poems.

Mariani, Paul. "Keeping the Covenant." Kenyon Review XI, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 170-77.

In depth review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson.


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