Levine, Philip 1928-
Levine, Philip 1928-
Born January 10, 1928, in Detroit, MI; son of A. Harry (a businessman) and Esther Gertrude (a bookseller) Levine; married Frances Artley (an actress and costumer), July 4, 1954; children: Mark, John, Theodore Henri. Education: Wayne University (now Wayne State University), A.B., 1950, A.M., 1954; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1957. Politics: "Anarchist." Religion: "Anarchist."
Home—4549 North Van Ness Ave., Fresno, CA 93704-3727 and New York, NY.
Poet and educator. Worked variously at industrial jobs, c. 1950s; University of Iowa, Iowa City, member of faculty, 1955-57; California State University, Fresno, professor of English, 1958-92; Tufts University, Medford, MA, professor of English, 1981-88; Elliston Professor of Poetry, University of Cincinnati, 1976; poet-in-residence, National University of Australia, Canberra, summer, 1978, and Vassar College; visiting professor of poetry, Columbia University, 1978, 1981, 1984, New York University, 1984 and 1991, and Brown University, 1985; teacher at Princeton University, Columbia University, Squaw Valley Writers Community, Bread Loaf, and Midnight Sun. Has read his poetry at the Library of Congress, Poetry Center of San Francisco, Pasadena Art Gallery, Guggenheim Museum, Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, University of California, Stanford University, Wayne State University, University of Iowa, San Francisco State University, Harvard University, Yale University, Brown University, and other schools. Chair of literature board, National Endowment for the Arts, 1984-85.
Stanford University poetry fellowship, 1957; Joseph Henry Jackson Award, San Francisco Foundation, 1961, for manuscript "Berenda Slough and Other Poems" (published in 1963 as On the Edge); Chaplebrook Foundation grant, 1969; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1969, 1970 (refused), 1976, 1981, 1987; named outstanding lecturer, California State University, Fresno, 1971; named outstanding professor, California State University System, 1972; Frank O'Hara Prize, Poetry, 1973, 1974; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1973; award of merit, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1974; Levinson Prize, Poetry, 1974; Guggenheim fellowship, 1974, 1981; Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize for Poetry, University of Chicago, 1976; Lenore Marshall Award for Best American Book of Poems, 1976, for The Names of the Lost; National Book Critics Circle Prize, 1979, for Ashes: Poems New and Old and for 7 Years from Somewhere; notable book award, American Library Association, 1979, for 7 Years from Somewhere; National Book Award for Poetry, 1980, for Ashes: Poems New and Old; Selected Poems nominated for Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1984; Golden Rose Award, New England Poetry Society, 1985; Ruth Lilly Award, Modern Poetry Association and American Council for the Arts, 1987; Elmer Holmes Bobst Award, New York University, 1990; Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and National Book Award for Poetry, both 1991, both for What Work Is; Pulitzer Prize in poetry, 1995, for The Simple Truth: Poems; named Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, 2000; American Book Award for Poetry, for Ashes: Poems New and Old.
On the Edge (limited edition), Stone Wall Press (Iowa City, IA), 1961, second edition, 1963.
Silent in America: Vivas for Those Who Failed (limited edition), Shaw Avenue Press (Iowa City, IA), 1965.
Not This Pig, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1968.
5 Detroits, Unicorn Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1970.
Thistles: A Poem Sequence (limited edition), Turret Books (London, England), 1970.
Pili's Wall, Unicorn Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1971, second edition, 1980.
Red Dust, illustrated by Marcia Mann, Kayak Books (Santa Cruz, CA), 1971.
They Feed They Lion, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1972, reprinted, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
1933, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1974.
New Season (pamphlet), Graywolf Press (Port Townsend, WA), 1975.
On the Edge and Over: Poems Old, Lost, and New, Cloud Marauder Press (Oakland, CA), 1976.
The Names of the Lost (limited edition), Windhover Press (Iowa City, IA), 1976, 2nd edition, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1976.
7 Years from Somewhere, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.
Ashes: Poems New and Old, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.
One for the Rose, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1981.
Selected Poems, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1984.
Sweet Will, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1985.
A Walk with Tom Jefferson, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
New Selected Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
What Work Is, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
The Simple Truth, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Unselected Poems, Greenhouse Review Press (Santa Cruz, CA), 1997.
The Mercy, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
Breath: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Sound recordings include Philip Levine Reading His Poems with Comment, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1975; Bicentennial Poetry Discussion, 1976; The Poetry and Voice of Philip Levine, Caedmon, 1976; Hear Me, Watershed Tapes; Philip Levine, 1986; and Mark Turpin and Philip Levine Reading Their Poems in the Mumford Room, 1997.
(With Henri Coulette) Character and Crisis: A Contemporary Reader, McGraw (New York, NY), 1966.
(And translator with Ernesto Trejo) Jaime Sabines, Tarumba: The Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines, Twin Peaks Press (San Francisco, CA), 1979.
(With Ada Long, and translator) Gloria Fuertes, Off the Map: Selected Poems, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1984.
(With D. Wojahn and B. Henderson) The Pushcart Prize XI, Pushcart (Wainscott, NY), 1986.
(And author of introduction) The Essential Keats, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1987.
(Author of introduction) Dennis Sampson, Forgiveness, Milkweed Editions, 1990.
(With Orlando Patterson and Norman Rush) Earth, Stars, and Writers (lectures), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1992.
The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (memoir), Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
(Author of foreword) Larry Levis, Elegy, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1997.
So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2002.
Contributor of poems to anthologies, including Midland, Random House, 1961; New Poets of England and America, Meridian, 1962; Poet's Choice, Dial, 1962; American Poems, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964; and Naked Poetry, Bobbs-Merrill, 1969. Contributor of poems to periodicals, including New Yorker, Poetry, New York Review of Books, Hudson Review, Paris Review, and Harper's.
Poet Philip Levine "is a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland" who, according to Edward Hirsch in the New York Times Book Review, should be considered "one of [America's] … quintessentially urban poets." The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine was born and raised in industrial Detroit and acquired a left-wing political awareness early. As a young boy in the midst of the Great Depres- sion of the 1930s, he listened to his elders discuss the political "isms" and was fascinated by the events of the Spanish Civil War. His heroes were not only those individuals who struggled against fascism but also ordinary folks who worked at hopeless jobs simply to stave off poverty. Joan Taylor wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Levine met his enemy in the gray arenas of industrialism, … of factory hum and stink, vacant lots, junkyards, and railroad tracks. … Levine's hero is the lonely individual who tries and often fails within this big industrial machine."
While working in the auto plants of Detroit during the 1950s, Levine resolved "to find a voice for the voiceless," he once told CA. "I saw that the people that I was working with … were voiceless in a way," he explained in Detroit Magazine. "In terms of the literature of the United States, they weren't being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that's what my life would be. And sure enough I've gone and done it. Or I've tried anyway. … I just hope I have the strength to carry it all the way through." For more than five decades, Levine has spoken for the working men and women of America's industrial cities.
In a New York Times Book Review article on Levine's 1980 National Book award-winning collection Ashes: Poems New and Old, Herbert Leibowitz commented: "Levine has returned again and again in his poems to the lives of factory workers trapped by poverty and the drudgery of the assembly line, which breaks the body and scars the spirit." However, the speaker in Levine's poems "is never a blue-collar caricature," argued Richard Tillinghast in his New York Times Book Review piece, "but someone with brains, feelings and a freewheeling imagination that constantly fights to free him from his prosaic environment."
In addition to his poems about the working class, Levine has paid tribute to the Spanish anarchist movement of the 1930s, especially in The Names of the Lost. According to Leibowitz: "Though he was too young to fight in that war, it embodies for him the historical exemplum: a people's uprising that succeeded, quixotically, for a few rare days in hinting at what a genuine egalitarian society might be." Charles Molesworth explained in his book The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry that Levine connected the Spanish revolutionaries with Detroit's laboring class during a brooding stay in Barcelona: "Both cities are built on the backs of sullen, exploited workers, and the faded revolution in one smolders like the blunting, racist fear in the other." As Leibowitz summed up: "The poet's ‘Spanish self,’ as he calls it, is kin to his Detroit self. Both bear witness to the visionary ideal destroyed."
Levine's concentration on the negative aspects of working-class life has led many critics to describe his work as dark, brooding, and without solace. However, in Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry, Ralph J. Mills, Jr., noted that a certain resigned acceptance of the harshness of industrial life leads Levine to "an acceptance of pain and the admission that failure, defeat, and imperfection—but not surrender!—are unavoidable."
Despite its painful quality, Levine's verse displays a certain joyfulness, a sense of victory-in-defeat, suggested Marie Borroff. Writing in the Yale Review, she described the title poem of They Feed They Lion as "a litany celebrating, in rhythms and images of unflagging, piston-like force, the majestic strength of the oppressed, rising equally out of the substances of the poisoned industrial landscape and the intangibles of humiliation." Hirsch found that while anger and indignation lie at the core of Levine's poetry, his more mature poems "have developed a softer edge while maintaining their brooding intensity." Mazzocco asserted that Levine is "affectionate in his hate, hard in his compassion," and fully aware of "the twilit other world where the negative and the positive seem to be twins of the same coin, where the poet is both victor and victim, and at times blessed because he is both."
In the New York Times Book Review, Robert Pinsky remarked that "it must be admitted that Levine's work is uneven and that its failing is the maudlin, … the locking of tone into a flaw or groove, running there without the capacity for modulation of emotion: a single, sustained whine, piercing but not penetrating." Di Piero, however, believed "that in Levine's case this is a flaw of a high order, commensurate with his high ambition." Pinsky qualified his criticism as well, stating that "Levine has earned and undertaken the hardness of high standards."
Levine's poetry for and about the common man is distinguished by simple diction and a rhythmic narrative style—by what Pinsky called "the strength of a living syntax." "Levine's poetic world values reality above all else," Molesworth argued that Levine's work reflects the mistrust of language that characterizes the laboring people of whom he writes. Therefore, rather than compressing multiple meanings into individual words and phrases, and balancing their tonal and semantic qualities, as in traditionally conceived poetry, Levine's simple narratives work to reflect the concrete and matter-of-fact speech patterns of working people. Taylor described this aspect of Levine's work as a concern with what is "out there" rather than the more typical "postmodernist concern with words as the process by which one perceives what is out there."
Several critics have faulted Levine for the very reliance on narrative descriptions of realistic situations that have become his hallmark. Helen Vendler thought that this lack of traditional poetic devices makes Levine "simply a memoir-writer in prose who chops up his reminiscent paragraphs into short lines," and asked in her New York Review of Books appraisal of One for the Rose: "Is there any compelling reason why it should be called poetry?" This objection to Levine's verse originates in "the primarily narrative nature" of his poems, explained Taylor, who concluded that "Levine may now be approaching the solution more closely than ever in his growing concern with his language and his lines as they reflect his poetic vision." Thomas Hackett, in his Village Voice Literary Supplement review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson, argued that, rather than being a weakness, Levine's "strength is the declarative, practically journalistic sentence. He is most visual and precise when he roots his voice in hard, earthy nouns."
Levine has also been criticized, as Leibowitz put it, for "digging for gold in a nearly exhausted vein." "Some have said he has written the same poem for years, that he lacks variety and vision," Smith commented. "True, his vision is such a relentless denunciation of injustice that he has occasionally engaged in reductive oversimplifications." Smith believed that despite this objection and others, Levine's poetry is "nearly a national treasure." According to Jack Anderson in Prairie Schooner, "Levine achieves a calm resolution, … one devoid of easy sentimentality and consonant with his flinty perceptions."
Levine's ability to craft deeply affecting poems has long been his hallmark, and he remains among the few contemporary poets who write convincingly about working people without being condescending. David Baker, writing about What Work Is in Kenyon Review, said Levine has "one of our most resonant voices of social conviction and witness, and he speaks with a powerful clarity. … What Work Is may be one of the most important books of poetry of our time. Poem after poem confronts the terribly damaged conditions of American labor, whose circumstance has perhaps never been more wrecked." What Work Is won the National Book Award in 1991.
Some reviewers found Levine's Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection The Simple Truth, published in 1994, somewhat more subdued than his previous work. While Levine covers his usual subjects in the book, he does so with a different tone—one of wistful remembrance, several critics report. David Sofield of America recognized a lessening of Levine's wit in these poems, commenting that "there is so little elegance of language in his book that once when the word ‘ground’ is followed by ‘groaned’ we wonder why he slipped." A writer for the Virginia Quarterly Review asserted that the volume's poems lack "the hard edge and passion" found in What Work Is, but they still are "deeply felt, leavened with personal experience and family memories." At the same time, Levine carefully avoids becoming maudlin, stated a reviewer for Publishers Weekly: "Wryness intervenes to temper mourning."
Levine explores the forces that have shaped his life and poetry in The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, a collection of nine essays. Levine deals with his experiences as a factory worker, his family and friends, the writers who served as his mentors, and his fascination with the Spanish Civil War and Spanish poets. One notable aspect of the book, several critics have pointed out, is that Levine portrays his mentors John Berryman and Yvor Winters much more sympathetically than have other observers. Richard Eder, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, considered the essays on Berryman, Winters, and the Spanish poet Antonio Machado to be the strongest in the book. Through it all, added Tod Marshall in the Georgia Review, "the book's main focus—much to the benefit and delight of anyone interested in the formative years of one of our best contemporary poets—is Levine's relationship with poetry."
Mary Kaiser, reviewing The Bread of Time for World Literature Today, described that relationship in this way: "In this novel approach to the memoir, Philip Levine comes across as a man dedicated to poetry with a romantic faith in its power to reflect and affect the real world." Levine's "novel approach" does not please all, however; Dana Gioia asserted in the New York Times Book Review that Levine's "inspired subjectivity aggravates the problems inherent in the book's episodic structure. For all its energy, The Bread of Time never develops much narrative momentum." Gioia also criticized Levine's "self-dramatization" and "his obsession with settling old scores." A different view was expressed by Phoebe Pettingell in the New Leader, who wrote that "Levine hardly plays the hero" and shows a sense of humor about himself. "All of the chapters in this memoir," Pettingell added, "engage us as much as short stories do."
In a New York Times Book Review piece, Adam Kirsch held a similar view, stating that for all his acclaim and awards, Levine "goes out of his way to tell us that he is essentially a peasant," and in his 1999 collection The Mercy "he returns again and again to his preacademic life as a manual laborer. … Levine is intent on presenting himself as a common man, more at home with the workers than with the professors." The poems of The Mercy are "filled with real people," stated David Rogers in a review for World Literature Today, "and you cannot touch their lives—including that of the poet—without being deeply moved." There is the unknown trumpeter looking down on the streets of New York, contrasted by a portrait of the jazz great Charlie Parker, "his eyes fixed on nothing." The title poem depicts Levine's immigrant mother, at age nine, aboard the ship The Mercy, preparing to embark on her new life in America. When a sailor gives the girl her first taste of an orange, the child learns that, as Levine writes, "mercy is something you can eat/ again and again while the juice spills over." As the family settles in the New World, Levine describes his grandfather peddling peaches in the street, "outhollering all competitors, [as] a testimony to the fullness of life," as Rogers described it. In these poems Levine provides "an inclusive archive of American experience sympathetically human," said a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Booklist reviewer Ray Olson thought that the poet maintains a deliberate distance in The Mercy, saying that Levine "seldom puts his present-day self squarely into a poem"; in the entry "The Return," Levine offered a small bit of autobiography, describing how he imitated his father's habit of whiling away an afternoon on a long drive down country roads. To Graham Christian in Library Journal, the poet's images of his ancestors are so distinct "that their emotional and intellectual richness arrive almost as an aftertaste." Levine's "poems are filled with real people, and you cannot touch their lives—including that of the poet—without being deeply moved," observed David Rogers in World Literature Today. Rogers further commented that "reading these deeply human and well-crafted poems is a major literary experience," and concluded that in The Mercy, Levine displays a "control of voice so complete it amounts to a spiritual discipline."
In Breath: Poems, "Levine writes gritty, fiercely unpretentious free verse about American manliness, physical labor, simple pleasures and profound grief," often within the background of industrial Detroit, noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "Strongly built and finely tuned, these are songs of wind and dust, and of the industrial wasteland," in particular that of the automotive industry that has dominated much of Levine's life and poetic work, commented Donna Seaman in Booklist. A Library Journal reviewer called Breath "a bittersweet offering from one of America's senior autobiographical poets."
Levine's poetry "will be remembered for his giving voice to the complicated lives of men and women and for making something closer to simple song than ordinary speech," wrote Carol Frost in an entry for the Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century. "The territory of this poetry keeps coming back to a center—praise for the common person, an American, probably with immigrant parents, who, having gotten ‘off the bus / at the bare junction of nothing / with nothing,’ manages to find a way home."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Buckley, Christopher, editor, On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, Volume 3, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Levine, Philip, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Mills, Ralph J., Jr., Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1975.
Molesworth, Charles, The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1979.
America, January 13, 1996, David Sofield, review of The Simple Truth, p. 19.
Antioch Review, spring/summer, 1977; spring, 1982, David St. John, review of One for the Rose, pp. 225-234.
Atlantic Monthly, April, 1999, review of The Mercy, p. 108.
Bloomsbury Review, March, 1996, review of The Simple Truth, p. 24.
Booklist, January 1, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of The Bread of Time, p. 800; October 15, 1994, Ray Olson, review of The Simple Truth, p. 395; March 15, 1999, Ray Olson, review of The Mercy, p. 1278; August, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Breath: Poems, p. 1892.
Chelsea, Number 65, 1998, review of Unselected Poems, p. 142.
Cortland Review, May, 1999, J.M. Spalding and Guy Shahar, interview with Philip Levine.
Detroit Magazine, February 26, 1978, interview with Philip Levine.
Georgia Review, spring, 1980; winter, 1994, Tod Marshall, review of The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, pp. 821-824.
Kenyon Review, fall, 1989; summer, 1992, David Baker, review of What Work Is, pp. 166-173.
Library Journal, April 15, 1997, Steven Ellis, review of Unselected Poems, p. 85; March 15, 1999, Graham Christian, review of The Mercy, p. 83; August, 2004, review of Breath, p. 85.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 21, 1984, Clayton Eshleman, review of Selected Poems; September 8, 1991, p. 11; January 16, 1994, Richard Eder, review of The Bread of Time, p. 3.
Midwest Quarterly, winter, 1995, Daniel J. Royer, review of The Bread of Time, p. 226.
New Leader, June 13, 1988, Phoebe Pettingell, review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson, p. 15; December 27, 1993, Phoebe Pettingell, review of The Bread of Time, pp. 12-13.
New York Review of Books, December 17, 1981, Helen Vendler, review of One for the Rose.
New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1994, Dana Gioia, review of The Bread of Time, p. 14; February 2, 1997, review of The Simple Truth, p. 28; April 18, 1999, Adam Kirsch, "Blue Collar Verse."
North American Review, November, 1998, review of Unselected Poems, p. 37.
Prairie Schooner, winter, 1974; summer, 1997, review of The Simple Truth, p. 179.
Progressive, August, 1999, review of The Mercy, p. 44.
Publishers Weekly, November 22, 1993, review of The Bread of Time, p. 54; September 26, 1994, review of The Simple Truth, p. 58; November 7, 1994, review of The Simple Truth, p. 41; January 25, 1999, review of The Mercy, p. 90; September 20, 2004, review of Breath, p. 60.
Southern Review, spring, 1992; summer, 1999, review of The Mercy, p. 621.
TriQuarterly, winter, 1995, "A Conversation with Philip Levine," p. 67.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1982; July 19, 1988, Thomas Hackett, review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1995, review of The Simple Truth, pp. 64-65.
Washington Post Book World, August 5, 1984, Joel Canarroe, review of Selected Poems, p. 3.
World Literature Today, spring, 1995, Mary Kaiser, review of The Bread of Time, pp. 371-372; winter, 2002, David Rogers, review of The Mercy, p. 154.
Yale Review, autumn, 1972, Marie Borroff, review of They Feed They Lion; autumn, 1980.
Academy of American Poets Web site,http://www.poets.org/ (May 1, 2006), biography of Philip Levine.
Atlantic Unbound,http://www.atlantic.com/ (April 9, 1999), Wen Stephenson, "A Useful Poetry: An Interview with Philip Levine."
Modern American Poetry Archive, http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets.htm/ (May 1, 2006), Fred Marchant, biography of Philip Levine.
New York State Writers Institute Web site,http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/ (May 1, 2006), profile of Philip Levine.