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Philip Levine

Coming Close

About this poet

Born in Detroit, Michigan, on January 10, 1928, Philip Levine was formally educated in the Detroit public school system and at Wayne University (now Wayne State University), Michigan's only urban public research university. After graduation, Levine worked a number of industrial jobs, including the night shift at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory, reading and writing poems in his off hours. In 1953, he studied at the University of Iowa, earning an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. There, Levine studied with poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman, the latter of which Levine called his "one great mentor."

In 1957, after teaching technical writing in Iowa City, Levine travelled to California, where he hoped to relocate with his wife and two children. Levine was welcomed by the poet Yvor Winters, who agreed to house the aspiring poet until he found a place to live and later chose Levine for a Stanford Writing Fellowship.

Levine published his debut collection of poems, On the Edge (The Stone Wall Press), in 1963, followed by Not This Pig (Wesleyan University Press) in 1968.

Since then, Levine has published numerous books of poetry, most recently News of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010); Breath (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004); The Mercy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999); The Simple Truth (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), which won the 1991 National Book Award; New Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991); Ashes: Poems New and Old (Atheneum, 1979), which received the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the first American Book Award for Poetry; 7 Years From Somewhere (Atheneum, 1979), which won the 1979 National Book Critics Circle Award; The Names of the Lost (1975), which won the 1977 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets; and They Feed They Lion (Alfred A. Knopf, 1973).

About writing poetry when not working the night shift, Levine has written: "I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life."

In a review of Breath, Publishers Weekly wrote: "Levine writes gritty, fiercely unpretentious free verse about American manliness, physical labor, simple pleasures and profound grief, often set in working-class Detroit (where Levine grew up) or in central California (where he now resides), sometimes tinged with reference to his Jewish heritage or to the Spanish poets of rapt simplicity (Machado, Lorca) who remain his most visible influence."

Levine has also published nonfiction essays and interviews, collected in So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews (University of Michigan Press, 2002); The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (University of Michigan Press, 1994); and Don't Ask (University of Michigan Press, 1981).

As editor, Levine published The Essential Keats (Ecco Press, 1987). He has also coedited and translated two books: Off the Map: Selected Poems of Gloria Fuertes (with Ada Long, Wesleyan University Press, 1984) and Tarumba: The Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines (with Ernesto Trejo, Sarabande Books, 2007).

Levine has received the Frank O'Hara Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation. For two years he served as chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts.

He taught for many years at California State University, Fresno, and has served as Distinguished Poet in Residence for the Creative Writing Program at New York University. In 2000, Levine was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. And, in 2011, Levine was named the 18th U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress. Most recently, he received the 2013 Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry by the Academy of American Poets.

Retired from teaching, Levine currently divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Fresno, California.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

News of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010)
Breath (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)
The Mercy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)
The Simple Truth (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)
New Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)
What Work Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)
Ashes: Poems New and Old (Atheneum, 1979)
7 Years From Somewhere (Atheneum, 1979)
The Names of the Lost (1975)
They Feed They Lion (Alfred A. Knopf, 1973)
Not This Pig (Wesleyan University Press, 1968)
On the Edge (The Stone Wall Press, 1963)

Nonfiction

So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews (University of Michigan Press, 2002)
The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (University of Michigan Press, 1994)
Don't Ask (University of Michigan Press, 1981)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

Coming Close

Philip Levine, 1928
Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase, 
then lifting with a gasp, the first word 
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, she would turn
to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic 
you knew, you wouldn't dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.

From What Work Is by Philip Levine, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1991 Philip Levine. Used with permission.

From What Work Is by Philip Levine, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1991 Philip Levine. Used with permission.

collection

Classic Books of American Poetry

This collection of books showcases the masterpieces of American poetry that have influenced—or promise to influence—generations of poets. Take a look.

collection

Poets in Conversation

In this collection of conversations, poets talk with one another about what inspires them most about the art form.

collection

Poetry and Place

In this collection, we examine the significance of place in contemporary American poetry. Here you'll find a range of poems, commentary, and essays that revolve around what we mean by the idea of "home" or of "homelessness" resulting from travel or displacement. Some works deal with a specific time and location, while others focus on a more socially-constructed view of place through the lenses of pop culture and identity. In the end, we hope this collection both confirms and challenges your notion of place in American poetry.

For a more thorough exploration of our theme, check out W. T. Pfefferle's anthology Poets on Place: Essays & Tales from the Road.

Marilyn Nelson
Photo credit: Larry Fink
collection

Poetry and Sports

While sports fans may not be widely known for their literary passions, the relationship between literature and athletic competition can be traced as far back as ancient Greece where spectator sports often included literary events as part of the festivities, and champion athletes were known to commission poets to write their victory songs. Even our own Walt Whitman was a baseball lover. Reporting for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1846, he wrote: "In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing 'base,' a certain game of ball...Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms...the game of ball is glorious."

We hope this collection not only demonstrates a variety of play and seriousness, but also frames poetry itself—the craft and game of it—as a lively and reactive art form, a pastime as great as any sport.

poem

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas
1937
poem

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Langston Hughes
1994