We're saying goodbye to a major talent. 2011-2012 U.S. Poet Laureate and 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine died on Saturday at age 87 in his Fresno, California home.
Levine, who was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in working-class Detroit, was a prolific writer, whose numerous awards also include two National Book Awards for Poetry and, most recently, the 2013 Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award. In 1957, Levine earned a master of fine arts at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied with Robert Lowell and was mentored by John Berryman. He also taught at California State University from 1958 to 1992.
His career was long and highly distinguished, but the poet was beloved — and will be remembered — for his unapologetic appeal to the Everyman experience, for his authentically American voice. In addition to being a gifted poet, Levine was a hard worker: a child of the Great Depression, Levine began working at age fourteen in Detroit’s car manufacturing plants.
His rough-and-tumble upbringing, marked indelibly by war and racism and class struggle, informed his colloquial tone and his refusal to embellish pedestrian experience. In a memorable interview with The Paris Review, Levine said, “My earliest poems were a way of talking to somebody. I suppose to myself.”
Levine’s writing is deeply rhythmic but un-prettified, by turns fiercely political (“On the Murder of Lieutenant José del Castillo by the Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936”) and meditatively quotidian ("The Future"). Whatever the topic, Levine wrote from his first-generation heart; with his calloused hands; from the experience of marginalization in a time that rewarded the mainstream.
It’s that sense of familiarity, of writing for himself, that makes Levine so American: he is independently and only himself; but he was also, and will continue to be, an ineradicable part of this country's artistic consciousness.
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