Philip Levine was not expecting to be the new poet laureate of the United States. “It just wasn’t something I thought I’d get,” he said, sounding a little amused by the whole thing.
Levine, who has written 20 collections of poems, has already won just about every major writing award: a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for “The Simple Truth,” a National Book Award in 1980 for “Ashes: Poems New and Old” and in 1991 for “What Work Is,” the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Frank O’Hara Prize, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships . . . the list goes on.
“He could’ve been poet laureate 20 years ago,” said Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. “It’s the most visible and widest reaching position in American poetry, and arguably one of the most visible and widest reaching positions in American letters.”
The poet laureate is selected by the librarian of Congress to serve a one-year term. His or her only defined responsibilities are to open the literary season in October and close it in May with a reading, but many poets laureate elect to organize poetry projects to increase awareness of the art across the country. The laureate, said Casper, is “bringing poetry to ordinary Americans and showing how it’s valuable and even essential to their lives.”
Like most great triumphs, Levine’s achievement has a simple beginning.
It was the early 1940s and 13-year-old Levine was living by the outskirts of Detroit, about a mile from 8 Mile Road. That was back when the city really ended at its borders; Levine remembers there were five or so houses in an area of six city blocks and, beyond that, emptiness.
After dinner, he went out into the groves of trees. He would stand in the dirt, in the dusk, in the dark, and compose poetry in his head. He’d always had a fantastic memory, so it was no trouble to recite and revise his words on the spot. It became a weekly ritual.
“What I found was a voice within myself that I didn’t know was there,” said Levine, now 83. “A joy in my being, in creation, in the physical world that surrounded me.
“It began with a love of just the language. There was nothing that I had ever read that moved me as powerfully as some of the poetry I read. . . . Poems were something I could memorize and carry with me, and recite them in my head, and live with them. “
Levine later labored at industrial gigs in automobile manufacturing plants, such as Detroit Transmission and the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory, while continuing to write poems in his off hours. His poetry taps into memories of his time on an assembly line, a sort of transcript of a life spent hard at work.
He went on to college at Wayne State University and earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1953. Levine has also written several antiwar nonfiction books. He taught at California State University, Fresno, and remains a professor emeritus in the English Department.
When Levine was 17, his English teacher lent him a book of Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Levine, coming of age during WWII, immersed himself in this “exquisitely antiwar book” based on Owen’s experiences as a lieutenant in WWI.
“It validated my own feelings about a future in combat,” he said. “I did not look forward to graduating high school and getting drafted. . . . If you went to the films, which we did all the time, it was very clear that you were less than a man if you weren’t willing to go out there and get blown apart in battle. And I didn’t really want to kill anybody either. . . . That was my first powerful attraction to great poetry.”
Levine lucked out; he graduated from high school in 1946, after the war was over. By the time he was 26, Levine had this visceral certainty: He could be a poet. “I had immense confidence,” he said. “I don’t know where the [expletive] it came from. I knew I could do this thing. I didn’t know what the [expletive] it would be or where it would go. But I knew I was going to write poetry and I knew that I was going to stick with it.”
James Billington, the librarian of Congress, selected Levine as the poet laureate (while he takes the opinions of others into consideration, it ultimately falls to the librarian to make the choice). He said of Levine’s work, “It’s marvelous to see parts of automobiles and other things in Detroit turned into a story that is partly mythological in its suggestion but based on very ordinary things that we all use and depend on.”
“He elevates the experience of working people into something that is able to impart a little wisdom to us.”
“His poems . . . are accessible but not simple,” said Casper. “They speak to the struggles and the mysteries of our lives.”
True to the down-to-earth nature of his poetry, Levine doesn’t have grand ambitions for his service as poet laureate. “I want the best poetry to be read and appreciated, that’s all. . . . You can be a magnificent person and be profound and super and really an ideal kind of man or woman and not give two [expletive] for poetry.”
You can be, that is, but he is not. Poetry, he said, “is almost a religion to me.”