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Philip Levine, working class poet, RIP

Philip Levine

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:

Philip Levine wrote:
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).

Posted By

Hieronymous
Feb 16 2015 07:23

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  • At 14, Levine picked up a part-time factory job — the first in a succession that included Chevy Gear and Axle, the Mavis Nu Icy Bottling Co. and Detroit Transmission. That last one was the worst he said, but added it was better than the semester he taught at Princeton.

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Battlescarred
Feb 16 2015 10:39

I'm really sorry to hear that. He was a great poet and I have several volumes of his poetry.

Hieronymous
Feb 16 2015 16:27

Not to sound like a philistine, but there's not much contemporary poetry that I like. But I really love Levine's poetry. I also respect that he didn't retire to some rustic college town nestled in a bucolic paradise, but lived out his life in Fresno -- which had hollowed out and deindustrialized much like his native Detroit.

Here's some excerpts from the LA Times obit:

LA Times wrote:
In "The Bread of Time," a series of autobiographical essays, he said he was recruited after a one-year Stanford fellowship to Fresno by a dean with a face "unfurrowed by thought."

The dean told Levine about the marvels of hiking in Yosemite. Levine did not tell the dean that "hiking was what we did in Detroit when the car broke down."

Years later, he said that his Fresno students were the best he ever taught.

"You'd tell them they had two or three lines out of 20 lines that were genuine and authentic, and they didn't have a problem with that," he told the Fresno Bee in 2008.

His Ivy League students also differed from their less privileged counterparts in Detroit, wrote poet Michael Collier.

"Princeton students were apt to become emotionally undone when he critiqued their poems," Collier noted, whereas Wayne State students were likely to unleash an obscenity in response.

Black Badger
Feb 16 2015 17:13

Thanks Serge, this puts his political life into a better context than the bourgeois obits.

Battlescarred
Jan 23 2020 13:38
Hieronymous
Jan 27 2020 06:32

Strange coincidence: a couple weeks ago, on a whim, at my local public library branch I picked up a copy of The Last Shift, his last book which was published posthumously in 2016. It's incredible, depicting the poetry of working class life — especially the Detroit of his youth.

I was really moved by his last poem in the collection, also called "The Last Shift," and how strangely prescient it is about his imminent death. It ends like this:

Philip Levine wrote:
[...]
I could feel a deep cold slowly climbing
my legs, which wouldn't move, my eyes
began to itch and blink on a darkness
I had never seen before. I knew
these tiny glazed pictures—a car hood,
my own speedometer, the steering wheel,
the windshield fogging over—were the last
I'd ever see. These place where I had lived
all the days of my life were giving up
their hold on me and not a moment to soon.

Hieronymous
Feb 8 2020 15:32

What Work Is

BY PHILIP LEVINE

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

From What Work Is: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)