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Levine, Philip

LEVINE, Philip

Nationality: American. Born: Detroit, Michigan, 10 January 1928. Education: Wayne State University, Detroit, B.A. 1950, M.A. 1955; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1957; Stanford University, California (fellowship in poetry, 1957). Family: Married Frances Artley in 1954; three sons. Career: Instructor, University of Iowa, 1955–57. Member of the faculty since 1958, and professor of English, California State University, Fresno, 1969–92. Taught fall semester at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, 1981–88; Elliston Professor of Poetry, University of Cincinnati, 1976; poet-in-residence, National University of Australia, Canberra, summer 1978; visiting professor, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1978, Columbia University, New York, 1978, 1981, 1984, University of California, Berkeley, 1980, and Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1984; adjunct professor, New York University, 1984; University Professor, Brown University, 1985; visiting professor, Vanderbilt University, spring 1995. Awards: San Francisco Foundation Joseph Henry Jackson award, 1961; Chapelbrook award, 1968; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1969, 1970 (refused), 1976, 1982; Frank O'Hara prize, 1972, and Harriet Monroe memorial prize, 1976 (Poetry, Chicago); American Academy grant, 1973; Guggenheim fellowship, 1973, 1980 (twice); Lenore Marshall prize, 1976; National Book Critics Circle award, 1980; American Book award, 1980; New England Poetry Society Golden Rose, 1987; Ruth Lilly award, 1987; B.A.B.R. award, 1989; Los Angeles Times Book prize, and National Book award, 1992, for What Work Is; Pulitzer prize, 1995, for The Simple Truth.Address: 4549 North Van Ness Avenue, Fresno, California 93704, U.S.A.



On the Edge. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1963.

Silent in America: Vivas for Those Who Failed. Iowa City, Shaw Avenue Press, 1965.

Not This Pig. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1968.

Five Detroits. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1970.

Thistles: A Poem Sequence. London, Turret, 1970.

Pili's Wall. Santa Barbara, California, Unicorn Press, 1971.

Red Dust. Santa Cruz, California, Kayak, 1971.

They Feed They Lion. New York, Atheneum, 1972.

1933. New York, Atheneum, 1974.

New Season. Port Townsend, Washington, Graywolf Press, 1975.

On the Edge and Over: Poems Old, Lost, and New. Oakland, Cloud Marauder Press, 1976.

The Names of the Lost. New York, Atheneum, 1976; with They Feed They Lion, New York, Knopf, 1999.

7 Years from Somewhere. New York, Atheneum, 1979.

Ashes: Poems New and Old. New York, Atheneum, 1979.

One for the Rose. New York, Atheneum, 1981.

Selected Poems. New York, Atheneum, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1984.

Sweet Will. New York, Atheneum, 1985.

A Walk with Tom Jefferson. New York, Knopf, 1988.

What Work Is. New York, Knopf, 1991.

New Selected Poems. New York, Knopf, 1991.

The Simple Truth. New York, Knopf, 1994.

Smoke. Toledo, Ohio, Aureole Press, 1997.

Unselected Poems. Santa Cruz, California, Greenhouse Review Press, 1997.

The Mercy: Poems. New York, Knopf, 1999.

Recording: The Poetry and Voice of Philip Levine, Caedmon, 1976;Hear Me, Watershed, 1977.


Don't Ask (interviews). Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1981.

The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography. New York, Knopf, 1994.

Editor, with Henri Coulette, Character and Crisis: A Contemporary Reader. New York, McGraw Hill, 1966.

Editor, and Translator, with Ernesto Trejo, Tarumba: The Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines. San Francisco, Twin Peaks Press, 1979.

Editor and Translator, with Ada Long, Off the Map: Selected Poems of Gloria Fuertes. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

Editor, The Essential Keats. New York, Ecco Press, 1987.


Critical Studies: By X.J. Kennedy, in Poetry (Chicago), 1964; by Robert Dana, in North American Review (Mt. Vernon, Iowa), 1964; by Hayden Carruth, in Hudson Review (New York), 1968; "Personally, I'd Rather Be in Fresno" by Stuart Peterfreund, in New: American and Canadian Poetry 15 (Trumansburg, New York), May 1971; "Borges and Strand, Weak Henry, Philip Levine" by James McMichael, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), winter 1972; "Interview with Philip Levine," in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 1(1), 1972; "'The True and Earthly Prayer': Philip Levine's Poetry," in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 3(2), 1974, and "Back to This Life," in New England Review (Hanover, New Hampshire), winter 1979–80, both by Ralph J. Mills, Jr.; "The Burned Essential Oil: The Poetry of Philip Levine" by Charles Molesworth, in Hollins Critic (Virginia), December 1975; "Philip Levine" by Calvin Bedient, in Sewanee Review (Tennessee), spring 1976; "New Poems" by Jay Parini, in Poetry (Chicago), August 1977; "Bringing It Home" by Stephen Yenser, in Parnassus (New York), fall-winter 1977; "The Poetry of Anarchism" by Paul Bernard, in Marxist Perspectives, summer 1979; "The Politics of Philip Levine" by Phoebe Pettingen, in New Leader (New York), 13 August 1979; "The Second Self" by Dave Smith, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), November-December 1979; William Matthews, in Ohio Review 26 (Athens), 1981; On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing edited by Christopher Buckley, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1989; "In the Tradition of American Jewish Poetry: Philip Levine's Turning" by Richard Chess, in Studies in American Jewish Literature (University Park, Pennsylvania), 9(2), fall 1990; "Philip Levine on Teaching Poetry: An Interview" by Sally A. Jacobsen, in Poets' Perspectives: Reading, Writing, and Teaching Poetry, edited by Jacobsen and Charles R. Duke, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Boynton/Cook, 1992; "The Visionary Poetics of Philip Levine and Charles Wright" by Edward Hirsch, in The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini and Brett C. Millier, New York, Columbia University Press, 1993; Tapinosis in the Poetry of Frank O'Hara and Philip Levine (dissertation) by Ellen Anne Ferguson, Washington University, 1996; interview with Paul Mariani, in Image (Kennett Square, Pennsylvania), 14, summer 1996; "New Jerusalems: Contemporary Jewish American Poets and the Puritan Tradition" by Jonathan N. Barron, in The Calvinist Roots of the Modern Era, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Michael Tomasek Manson, Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1997.

Philip Levine comments:

I have said elsewhere that I tried to write poetry for people for whom there is no poetry, and I believe that is true even though I said it twenty years ago. Those were the people of Detroit, the people I grew up with who brothered, sistered, fathered, and mothered me and lived and worked beside me. Their presence seemed utterly lacking in the poetry I inherited at age twenty, so I have spent the last forty-some years trying to add to our poetry what was not there.

*  *  *

The poetry of Philip Levine is somber, reflective, and honest. It is spare in form, taut in expression, simple in idiom. Levine has turned away from conventional metrical form and rhyme to write largely in blank or free verse, often in flexible three-or four-beat lines. He employs the image, hard, clean, and concrete, stripped of effusive sentiment, free from intellectual editorials. Levine protests against the evils of the modern world and searches for personal freedom and fulfillment. At its best his poetry, highly personal and nostalgic, is stark, restrained, and powerful.

Levine often indicts modern urban life, exposing its joyless futility and ugliness. Witness these lines from "Clouds":

   Morning is exhaustion, tranquilizers, gasoline,
   the screamings of frozen bearings,
   the failures of will, the TV talking to itself.
   The clouds go on eating oil, cigars,
   housewives, sighing letters,
   the breath of lies. In their great silent pockets
   they carry off all our dead.

For their silence and acquiescence the poet concludes that clouds "should be punished every morning, /they should be bitten and boiled like spoons." The anger here frequently modulates into lament over the eternally gray cityscapes, the meaningless motions, the endless Mondays "shrill with the smells of garbage /and gasoline." The poet's struggle to find a place in such a world often provokes confrontation with the past, present, and future. Most things valuable and precious, he uneasily realizes, are subject to time, to the power that turns all to ash. "New Season" meditates on the poet's mother turning seventy and concludes with striking and direct imagery:

                        the woman
   is 70 now—the willow is burning,
   the rhododendrons shrivel
   like paper under water, all
   the small secret mouths are feeding
   on the green heart of the plum.

"Starlight" recalls the lost embrace of the poet's father and the lost world of childhood. Evident here is Levine's preoccupation with domestic life. In his darker moments he articulates the disappointments and pains of family relations. In "Father" the poet hisses, "Don't come back"; in "My Son and I" he portrays the huge and silent spaces between himself and his son.

Yet, despite sensitivity to the assault on civilized life and to the pang of existential isolation, Levine sometimes finds cause for hope and joy. On such occasions his poems are hard-won affirmations, not facile celebrations. The poet draws inspiration from the earth and elemental things. In "Holding On," for example, he observes "green fingers /holding the hillside, /mustard whipping in /the sea winds, one blood-bright /poppy breathing in /and out," and he declares, "40 miles from Málaga /half the world away /from home, I am home and /nowhere, a man who envies /grass." In "A Sleepless Night," after noticing plum blossoms, sycamores, limes, poppies, and a mockingbird, he concludes, "A man has every place to lay his head." Levine also finds pleasure in old friends and acquaintances, especially those who are colorful outcasts. There are Uncle Joe, rough and salacious, who tenderly held up the newborn poet so that he could see the winter sun ("No One Remembers"); blind Tatum, who "can't hardly wait" to "see" Willie Mays ("On the Corner"); Cal, "short for Calla, the lily," who sleeps on the job, at peace in the rain ("Making It New"). The most serious affirmations are poignantly imperfect victories of love over loneliness. In "Lost and Found" "father and child /hand in hand, the living and /the dead" enter the world; in "The Rains" the poet promises that he and his wife, also "hand in hand," will one day transcend the world, "soured /with years of never /giving enough, darkened /with oils and fire," to go forward "while our clothes darken /and our faces stream /with the sweet waters /of heaven." As the poet says in "Sources," we do have each other.

For the most part Levine is an introspective poet. His later volumes, however, show serious concern with the Spanish Civil War, the setting for several moving tributes to fallen soldiers ("On the Murder of Lieutenant José Del Castillo by the Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936," "For the Fallen," "Montjuich," "Francisco, I'll Bring You Red Carnations"). Though limited in range and overreliant on minor chords, Levine's music is distinctive and intelligently modern.

—Robert Miola

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