Philip Levine (poet)

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Philip Levine
Phil Levine by David Shankbone.jpg
Levine reading in 2006
Born(1928-01-10)January 10, 1928
Detroit, Michigan, US
DiedFebruary 14, 2015(2015-02-14) (aged 87)
Fresno, California, US
Alma mater Wayne State University University of Iowa
Notable awards United States Poet Laureate
Years active1963–2015
SpousePatty Kanterman
Frances J. Artley
ChildrenMark, John, Teddy

Philip Levine (January 10, 1928 – February 14, 2015) was an American poet best known for his poems about working-class Detroit. He taught for more than thirty years in the English department of California State University, Fresno and held teaching positions at other universities as well. He served on the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets from 2000 to 2006, [1] and was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012. [2] [3]



Philip Levine grew up in industrial Detroit, the second of three sons and the first of identical twins of Jewish immigrant parents. His father, Harry Levine, owned a used auto parts business, [4] his mother, Esther Priscol (Pryszkulnik) Levine, was a bookseller. [5] When Levine was five years old, his father died. [6] While growing up, he faced the anti-Semitism embodied by Father Coughlin, the pro-Nazi radio priest. [7] In high school, a teacher told him, “You write like an angel. Why don’t you think about becoming a writer?“ [8] But he was already working at night in auto factories, though just 14. Detroit Central High School graduated him in 1946, and he went to college at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) in Detroit, where he began to write poetry, encouraged by his mother, to whom he dedicated the book of poems, The Mercy. [9] Levine earned his A.B. in 1950 and went to work for Chevrolet and Cadillac in what he called "stupid jobs." [2] The work, he later wrote, was “so heavy and monotonous that after an hour or two I was sure each night that I would never last the shift.” [8]

He married his first wife, Patty Kanterman, in 1951. The marriage lasted until 1953. [5]

In 1953, he attended the University of Iowa without registering, [10] studying with, among others, poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman, the latter of whom Levine called his "one great mentor." [11]

In 1954, he earned a mail-order masters degree with a thesis on John Keats' "Ode to Indolence," [6] and married actress Frances J. Artley. [4]

He returned to the University of Iowa teaching technical writing, completing his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1957. [6] The same year, he was awarded the Jones Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford University. In 1958, he joined the English department at California State University, Fresno, where he taught until his retirement in 1992. He also taught at many other universities, among them New York University as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and the University of California at Berkeley. [12]

Levine and his wife had made their homes in Fresno and Brooklyn Heights. [13] [14] He died of pancreatic cancer on February 14, 2015, age 87. [15]


The familial, social, and economic world of twentieth-century Detroit is one of the major subjects of Levine's life work. [16] His portraits of working class Americans and his continuous examination of his Jewish immigrant inheritance (both based on real life and described through fictional characters) has left a testimony of mid-twentieth century American life. [16]

Levine's working experience lent his poetry a profound skepticism with regard to conventional American ideals. In his first two books, On the Edge (1963) and Not This Pig (1968), the poetry dwells on those who suddenly become aware that they are trapped in some murderous processes not of their own making. [17] In 1968, Levine signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse to make tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. [18]

In his first two books, Levine was somewhat traditional in form and relatively constrained in expression. [16] Beginning with They Feed They Lion, typically Levine's poems are free-verse monologues tending toward trimeter or tetrameter. [19] The music of Levine's poetry depends on tension between his line-breaks and his syntax. The title poem of Levine's book 1933 (1974) is an example of the cascade of clauses and phrases one finds in his poetry. [16] Other collections include The Names of the Lost, A Walk with Tom Jefferson, New Selected Poems, and the National Book Award-winning What Work Is. [16]

On November 29, 2007 a tribute was held in New York City in anticipation of Levine's eightieth birthday. [19] Among those celebrating Levine's career by reading Levine's work were Yusef Komunyakaa, Galway Kinnell, E. L. Doctorow, Charles Wright, Jean Valentine and Sharon Olds. [19] Levine read several new poems as well. [19]

Near the end of his life, Levine, an avid jazz aficionado, collaborated with jazz saxophonist and composer Benjamin Boone on the melding of his poetry and narration with music. The resulting CD, “The Poetry of Jazz” (Origin Records 82754), was released posthumously on March 16, 2018. It contains fourteen of Levine's poems and performances by Levine and Boone as well as jazz greats Chris Potter, Greg Osby, and Tom Harrell . [20] [21]




List of poems
TitleYearFirst publishedReprinted/collected
The future2014Levine, Philip (January 6, 2014). "The future". The New Yorker. 89 (43): 48–49.




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<i>What Work Is</i> book by Philip Levine

What Work Is is a collection of poetry by Philip Levine. The collection has many themes that are representative of Levine's writing including physical labor, class identity, family relationships and personal loss. Its primary focus on work and the working class led to it being studied with emphasis on Marxist literary criticism. The focus on work is expressed in thematically different ways throughout the collection. Furthermore, much of the collection was shaped by concerns for blue collar workers as well as nationwide political events.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 "Philip Levine". Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  2. 1 2 Charles McGrath (August 9, 2011). "Voice of the Workingman to Be Poet Laureate". The New York Times . Retrieved August 9, 2011.
  3. Poetry Foundation website February 15, 2015
  4. 1 2 Russel Frank (December 28, 1994). "The Poet of the Night Shift: Literature: For Philip Levine, it was not a long trip from factory work to writing some of America's best poetry". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 15, 2011.
  5. 1 2 Christopher Buckley, ed. (1991). On the poetry of Philip Levine: stranger to nothing. University of Michigan Press. pp. 1–3. ISBN   978-0-472-06392-5.
  6. 1 2 3 Dana Gioia, Chryss Yost, Jack Hicks, eds. (2004). "Philip Levine". California poetry: from the Gold Rush to the present. A California legacy book. Heyday. pp. 159–160. ISBN   978-1-890771-72-0.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
  7. "American-Jewish poet Phillip Levine named U.S. Poet Laureate". Haaretz . August 10, 2011. Retrieved August 15, 2011.
  8. 1 2 "The Poet of the Assembly Line". The Attic. Retrieved September 25, 2018.
  9. Edward Hirsch and Philip Levine (1999). "The Unwritten Biography: Philip Levine and Edward Hirsch in Conversation". American Poet. Retrieved August 15, 2011.
  10. Mona Simpson (Summer 1988). "Philip Levine, The Art of Poetry No. 39". The Paris Review No. 107. Retrieved August 15, 2011.
  11. "Philip Levine". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved August 15, 2011.
  12. "Librarian of Congress Appoints Philip Levine Poet Laureate". Library of Congress. August 10, 2011. Retrieved August 15, 2011.
  13. Donald Munro (August 9, 2011). "Fresno's Philip Levine named nation's poet laureate". The Fresno Bee. Retrieved August 15, 2011.
  14. Kan, Elianna. "My Lost Poet", The Paris Review , February 23, 2015. Accessed January 17, 2019. "In the spring of 2012, Philip Levine delivered a lecture at the Library of Congress called “My Lost Poets,” marking the end of his tenure as the eighteenth U.S. poet laureate.... I arrived at his home on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights just as he and his wife, Franny, were finishing lunch."
  15. "Philip Levine, U.S. Poet Laureate Who Won Pulitzer, Dies At 87". New York Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 "Poet laureate Philip Levine dies at age 87". Seattle Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  17. "Philip Levine, former U.S. poet laureate and Fresno State professor, dead at 87". Fresno Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  18. “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” January 30, 1968 New York Post
  19. 1 2 3 4 "Celebrating Philip Levine's 80th". Albany Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  20. "Philip Levine's Jazz Poetry Mashup Will Finally Get Released Next Year". Fresno Retrieved December 28, 2017.
  21. "At 87, Poet Laureate Philip Levine Jazzed It Up". Retrieved January 29, 2018.
  22. "National Book Awards – 1991". National Book Foundation. Retrieved February 27, 2012.
  23. "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-27.
    (With essay by John Murillo from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  24. Library of Congress catalog entry has 1961 copyright date, but a 1964 LCCN.
  25. Library of Congress catalog entry has notes: "First trade edition of Levine's first book; A limited hand-printed edition of this book was issued in 1963 by The Stone Wall Press."