poem index

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

occasions

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, whom 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 1961, followed by Not This Pig (Wesleyan University Press) in 1968.

Throughout his career, Levine published numerous books of poetry, including News of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009); Breath (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004); 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;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 (Atheneum, 1972).

About writing poetry when not working the night shift, Levine wrote: "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 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 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 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 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. In 2013, he received the Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry by the Academy of American Poets.

After retiring from teaching, Levine divided his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Fresno, California, until his death on February 14, 2015. His final poetry collection, The Last Shift (Alfred A. Knopf), as well as a collection of essays and other writings, My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry (Alfred A. Knopf), were published posthumously in 2016.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

The Last Shift (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)
News of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)
Breath (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)
The Mercy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)
Unselected Poems (Greenhouse Review Press, 1997)
The Simple Truth (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)
New Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)
What Work Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)
A Walk with Tom Jefferson (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988)
Sweet Will (Atheneum, 1985)
One for the Rose (Atheneum, 1981)
Ashes: Poems New and Old (Atheneum, 1979)
7 Years From Somewhere (Atheneum, 1979)
The Names of the Lost (Atheneum, 1976)
On the Edge & Over: Poems, Old, Lost, & New (Cloud Marauder Press, 1976)
They Feed They Lion (Atheneum, 1972)
Not This Pig (Wesleyan University Press, 1968)
On the Edge (The Stone Wall Press, 1961)

Nonfiction

My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)
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)

Gospel

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 looking for.
I didn't come for answers
to a place like this, I came to walk
on the earth, still cold, still silent.
Still ungiving, I've said to myself,
although it greets me with last year's
dead thistles and this year's 
hard spines, early blooming
wild onions, the curling remains
of spider's cloth. What did I bring 
to the dance? In my back pocket
a crushed letter from a woman
I've never met bearing bad news
I can do nothing about. So I wander
these woods half sightless while
a west wind picks up in the trees
clustered above. The pines make
a music like no other, rising and 
falling like a distant surf at night
that calms the darkness before 
first light. "Soughing" we call it, from
Old English, no less. How weightless
words are when nothing will do.

Originally appeared in The New Yorker, 2001. Copyright © 2001 by Philip Levine. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Originally appeared in The New Yorker, 2001. Copyright © 2001 by Philip Levine. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Philip Levine

Philip Levine

The author of numerous award-winning poetry collections, Philip Levine was elected a  Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2000. In 2011, he was named the 18th U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress, and in 2013, he received the Academy of American Poets' Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry.

by this poet

poem

I had been on my way to work as usual
when the traffic stalled a quarter mile
from the railroad crossing on Grand Blvd.
Then I saw the moon rise above
the packing sheds of the old Packard plant.
The moon at 7:30 in the morning.
And the radio went on playing
the same violins and

poem
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
poem

 

Click the icon above to listen to this audio poem.

2

collected in

collection
In honor of former Academy Chancellor and Unite