Philip Levine, poet of working class life, died on Saturday, February 14, 2015 in Fresno, California. He was born in Detroit, where he started working in factories at age 14, later taught at several prestigious universities in the U.S., but since 1958 chose to make his permanent home in Fresno, in the belly of the agribusiness beast in California's Central Valley.
Here's the obit from today's San Francisco Chronicle:
Philip Levine, the former poet laureate of the United States whose poems dignified working-class life, died on Saturday at his home in Fresno. He was 87 years old.
Frances Levine said her husband of 60 years had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer less than a month ago.
Mr. Levine, whose honors included the Pulitzer Prize, taught at California State University Fresno for more than three decades. He served as poet laureate from 2011 to 2012.
Raised by Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in Detroit during the Great Depression, Mr. Levine began working in factories at about age 14. He wrote poetry in his off-hours, determined “to find a voice for the voiceless,” he said in an interview with Detroit Magazine. “I saw that the people that I was working with … were voiceless in a way. In terms of the literature of the United States, they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be.”
Dean Rader, a San Francisco poet, wrote in The Chronicle in 2011, “No living American poet has written more probingly or more beautifully about work than Levine. But, by no means is that a profound observation. … What is less obvious, though, is how important it is to have a poet who is committed to writing about America’s working class.”
Unlike the working-class poetry of Charles Bukowski, Rader wrote, Mr. Levine’s poetry is “less interested in the down-and-out and more interested in how the down get up, how the lower-middle work their way into the middle. His poems forgo wallow for work.”
Mr. Levine’s poetry is also known for its accessibility. David Baker, in the Kenyon Review, wrote that Mr. Levine had “one of our most resonant voices of social conviction and witness, and he speaks with a powerful clarity.”
Lines from Mr. Levine’s poem “An Abandoned Factory, Detroit” serve as example:
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.
As a young man, Mr. Levine worked for Cadillac, in its transmission factory, and had a night shift at a Chevrolet plant. “You could recite poems aloud in there,” he told the Paris Review. “The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear.”
Mr. Levine won the National Book Award for “What Work Is” (1991).
Encouraged by his high school teachers, Mr. Levine decided to pursue a college education and enrolled at Wayne State University. “There, at college, I encountered modern poetry,” he told the Paris Review. “And I loved it. Loved it.”
Mr. Levine then went on to the University of Iowa, where he earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He continued traveling west. According to the Academy of American Poets, the poet Yvor Winters helped Mr. Levine put down roots in California, housing him and his wife and two children until they found a place of their own and selecting him for a Stanford Writing Fellowship.
Mr. Levine began teaching in the English department at California State University Fresno in 1958; he retired from the university in 1992. He also taught at many other universities, including UC Berkeley.
In his Paris Review interview, Mr. Levine sang the praises of living as a poet in Fresno. “Our payments are 165 bucks,” he said about his house. “We bought it fifteen years ago when anybody could buy a house. And people ask me why I live in Fresno!”
Mr. Levine’s first poetry collection, “On the Edge,” was published in 1963 by the Stone Wall Press, followed by “Not This Pig” (Wesleyan University Press) in 1968. More recent works include “The Simple Truth” (1994), “The Mercy” (1999), “Breath” (2004) and “News of the World” (2009), all published by Knopf.
In addition to the Pulitzer Prize (for “The Simple Truth”), Mr. Levine won two National Book Awards for Poetry (“Ashes: Poems New and Old,” 1980, and “What Work Is,” 1991), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1987) and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets (2013).