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Philip Levine

January 5, 2012

Philip Levine (b. January 10, 1928, Detriot, Michigan) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet best known for his poems about working-class Detroit. He was appointed to serve as the Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012.

Beginnings

Before attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Philip Levine lived with his parents in Detroit, Michigan. Levine was the son of working-class Russian Jewish immigrants: his father, Harry Levine, owned an auto parts store and his mother, Esther Priscol-Levine, worked as a bookseller. In the din of his childhood home, and in the midst of losing his father at the age of 5, and Levine started writing poetry.

From the age of 14, Levine held jobs at several different auto manufacturing businesses. Such positions were grueling for the developing poet: late hours, monotonous tasks, and dangerous work. On weekend breaks, Levine would find a model for his poetry in Diego Rivera's famous frescoes at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Levine graduated from Detroit Central High School in 1946.

After graduating high school, Levine attended Wayne State University and took night classes while he continued to work during the day. His interest and passion for poetry continued with the encouragement from his mother.

In 1953, at the end of his first marriage, Levine joined a friend at the University of Iowa.

 

At the Workshop

Levine's time at the Iowa Writer's Workshop began with much confusion. Though Paul Engle had 'promised' Levine a grant to attend the workshop, Engle left without informing anyone of this promise. In light of these circumstances, Levine was advised to register for just one course. That semester, Levine registered for three courses: two taught by Robert Lowell and one course in fiction.

Robert Lowell, though already a giant of the literary world, left Levine disappointed. Though Lowell had considerable flaws as a teacher, Levine continued to respect him. At the end of the semester, Lowell told Levine he had "come the farthest" of all the students.

Though Lowell may have "played favorites" in the classroom and Levine was certainly not his favorite, the poet was far from being heartless. One evening in Iowa City, Levine had been hit by a car, leaving his glasses broken. Lowell spotted Levine and pulled over, concerned for both Levine's safety and if he could afford new glasses. Levine assured him that he could "afford new glasses okay", despite the fact that he was living under compromising means.

Levine's time at the University of Iowa was far from luxurious. For fifteen dollars a month, Levine occupied a small apartment (8 feet by 14 feet with no kitchen) and ate his meals at the affordable Iowa Memorial Union.

Despite having run out of money to register for the spring semester, Levine persisted in attending workshop classes with a poet that would replace Lowell, a man that would influence Levine the greatest:  the troubled and brilliant John Berryman. Berryman often joked with the class concerning Levine's registration foibles: "Does anyone know this Levine fellow? Sometimes I have delusions." Berryman soon became a mentor to Levine while he developed as a poet and a teacher.

Philip Levine taught at the University of Iowa from 1955 and 1957. In this time, persistence paid off: Levine earned a Master of Fine Arts degree and met his second wife, actress Frances J. Artley.

 

After the Workshop

In 1957, while teaching technical writing at the University of Iowa, Levine received a fellowship joined the English department at Stanford University. Levine has also held  a teaching position at California State University in Fresno, a position he held for thirty years. Levine has also taught writing at Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Tufts, New York University, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Levine is the author of over twenty collections of poetry,published between 1963 and 2009. His poetry borrows subject matter from midcentury working-class America and the lives of immigrants and other working class Americans.

Levine is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his 1995 collection The Simple Truth. Levine is also the recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the Frank O'Hara prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. He replaced W.S. Merwin as the United States Poet Laureate from 2011-2012.

Further reading: Iowa City in the early 1950s: incubator of great poets

(A collage that contains excerpts from: 1) Philip Levine’s essay “Mine own John Berryman,” from The Bread of Time, copyright 1993 by Philip Levine; reprinted by permission of the author; 2) Robert Dana’s essay “Far from the Ocean: Robert Lowell at Iowa, 1953,” from A Community of Writers, copyright 1999 by Robert Dana; reprinted by permission of Peg Dana; and 3) W. D. Snodgrass’s essay “Mentors, Fomenters, and Tormentors,”, from The Southern Review, copyright 1992 by W. D. Snodgrass; reprinted by permission of Kathleen Snodgrass.)

Text: Denise Behrens