Philip Levine named new American poet laureate
Philip Levine, an award-winning poet who taught at Cal State Fresno for 34 years, has been named the new U.S. poet laureate. Levine will succeed W.S. Merwin and begin his yearlong tenure as poet laureate in October.
"I was stunned," Levine said by phone from Fresno. "Especially at my age, at 83."
Levine was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1995 for his collection "The Simple Truth," the National Book Award in 1991 for "What Work Is" and in 1980 for "Ashes," which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award, as did "Seven Years From Somewhere."
Levine, born in Detroit, started working at industrial jobs when he was 14. He discovered poetry in high school when he read "terrible" Stephen Crane, he told Mona Simpson in an interview the Paris Review published in 1988. The factories where he worked, which included Cadillac and Chevrolet, were so loud he could recite poetry while working on the line.
Determined to go to college, Levine enrolled at Michigan's Wayne State University, where he was asked whether he wanted a bachelor's. "I already have a place to live," he told the counselor, not realizing she was talking about a degree.
Levine went on to the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Iowa, where he taught part time and earned an MFA. He recieved the coveted Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and then, in 1958, began teaching at Cal State Fresno.
"My memories are an enormous store of situtations, details," said Levine, who has retired from teaching but continues to write poetry. Poetry connects, he says, by "having enough of the world in there to make the reader say, 'Uh-huh, I know where he is.' "
His poem "What Work Is" begins:
We stand in the rain in a long linewaiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.You know what work is—if you’reold enough to read this you know whatwork 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 mistinto your hair, blurring your visionuntil you think you see your own brotherahead 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 thanyours but with the same sad slouch, the grinthat does not hide the stubbornness,the sad refusal to give in torain, to the hours of wasted waiting,to the knowledge that somewhere aheada man is waiting who will say, “No,we’re not hiring today,” for anyreason he wants....
The U.S. poet laureate is selected by the Librarian of Congress in Washington, D.C. Joseph Brodsky, Rita Dove and W.S. Merwin, the current poet laureate, are among those who have been accorded the honor. The duties and responsibilities of the poet laureate, who receives a $35,000 stipend, are largely ceremonial, but a poet who wishes to do so can undertake any projects he or she likes during his tenure.
"I want to bring poetry to people who have no idea how relevant poetry is to their lives," he says. He may take advantage of an offer from the Detroit Free Press to engage its readership. He also hopes to bring some less-known poets into the limelight -- although as of Wednesday morning, he admitted, simply answering phone calls was taking up his time.
Levine lives seven months of the year in Fresno and spends the remainder in New York City. He has taught at Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Berkeley and NYU. "I had thought that the worst collection of people was an English department having a meeting, but the U.S. Congress runs away with the award," Levine said. Politics, particularly issues of class, thread through his poetry.
Levine has also received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, among otehr commendations. In 1997, Levine was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2000-2006.
"I've only been doing this 60-some years," Levine says. "I'm doing my best."
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Philip Levine. Credit: Frances Levine