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 a Master of Fine Arts degree 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 (2004); The Mercy (1999); The Simple Truth (1994), which won the Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is (1991), which won the National Book Award; New Selected Poems (1991); Ashes: Poems New and Old (Atheneum, 1979), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the first American Book Award for Poetry; 7 Years From Somewhere (1979), which won the 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 (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 The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (University of Michigan Press, 1994); Don't Ask (1981); and So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews (2002).
As editor, Levine published The Essential Keats (Ecco Press, 1987). He has also co-edited 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 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry, the Frank O'Hara Prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. 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. In 2011, Levine was named the 18th U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress.
Retired from teaching, Levine currently divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Fresno, California.