poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

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

 

A Story

Philip Levine, 1928
Everyone loves a story. Let's begin with a house.
We can fill it with careful rooms and fill the rooms
with things—tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers
closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept
or big drawers that yawn open to reveal
precisely folded garments washed half to death,
unsoiled, stale, and waiting to be worn out.
There must be a kitchen, and the kitchen
must have a stove, perhaps a big iron one
with a fat black pipe that vanishes into the ceiling
to reach the sky and exhale its smells and collusions.
This was the center of whatever family life
was here, this and the sink gone yellow
around the drain where the water, dirty or pure, 
ran off with no explanation, somehow like the point
of this, the story we promised and may yet deliver.
Make no mistake, a family was here. You see
the path worn into the linoleum where the wood,
gray and certainly pine, shows through.
Father stood there in the middle of his life
to call to the heavens he imagined above the roof
must surely be listening. When no one answered
you can see where his heel came down again
and again, even though he'd been taught
never to demand. Not that life was especially cruel;
they had well water they pumped at first,
a stove that gave heat, a mother who stood
at the sink at all hours and gazed longingly
to where the woods once held the voices
of small bears—themselves a family—and the songs
of birds long fled once the deep woods surrendered
one tree at a time after the workmen arrived
with jugs of hot coffee. The worn spot on the sill
is where Mother rested her head when no one saw,
those two stained ridges were handholds
she relied on; they never let her down.
Where is she now? You think you have a right
to know everything? The children tiny enough
to inhabit cupboards, large enough to have rooms
of their own and to abandon them, the father
with his right hand raised against the sky?
If those questions are too personal, then tell us,
where are the woods? They had to have been
because the continent was clothed in trees.
We all read that in school and knew it to be true.
Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows
of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes
into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,
there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles
of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.

From News of the World by Philip Levine. Copyright © 2009 by Philip Levine. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf. All rights reserved.

From News of the World by Philip Levine. Copyright © 2009 by Philip Levine. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf. All rights reserved.

Philip Levine

Philip Levine

Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Philip Levine is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently News of the World

by this poet

poem
When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He's tired,
a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
The two gaze upwards at the sky
poem
The new grass rising in the hills,
the cows loitering in the morning chill,
a dozen or more old browns hidden
in the shadows of the cottonwoods
beside the streambed. I go higher
to where the road gives up and there's
only a faint path strewn with lupine
between the mountain oaks. I don't
ask myself what I'm
poem

Leo's Tool & Die, 1950

In the early morning before the shop
opens, men standing out in the yard
on pine planks over the umber mud.
The oil drum, squat, brooding, brimmed
with metal scraps, three-armed crosses,
silver shavings whitened with milky oil,
drill bits bitten off. The light