The University of Iowa

Remembering Philip Levine

Former United States poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner and Iowa Writers' Workshop alum and teacher, Philip Levine, the poet of Detroit and 20th century blue-collar America, died Saturday in his home in Fresno, California, at age 87.

Born in 1928, 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. 

In 1953, Levine entered the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. He studied under Robert Lowell and John Berryman, while living for fifteen dollars a month in a small apartment (8 feet by 14 feet with no kitchen) and eating his meals at the affordable Iowa Memorial Union. 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.

Later, in 1957, while teaching 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 served as poet laureate from 2011 to 2012. He won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Simple Truth" in 1995 and two National Book Awards for "What Work Is" (1991) and "Ashes: Poems New and Old" (1980).

Detroit and the struggles of the working class were persistent themes in his work as he aspired to "find a voice for the voiceless."

"He thought that the right words in the right sequence held a power that was magical and instantaneous," wrote Mark Levine in his Poetry Foundation piece How Difficult It Is to Live: "He spoke in little jabs, like a boxer, crisp and precise but without any concern for academic refinement. At the beginning of class he bit into an apple and he didn’t stop eating until he had consumed the whole thing, core and all."

“We’ve lost a great presence in American poetry,” said Edward Hirsch, a friend of Levine and president of the Guggenheim Foundation.

    Recordings from the VWU Archives


    How Difficult It Is to Live: Mark Levine on Philip Levine

    City of Lit: Philip Levine's Time in Iowa City

    Philip Levine, a Poet of Grit, Sweat and Labor, Dies at 87

    Philip Levine, Who Found Poetry On Detroit's Assembly Lines, Dies At 87




    From the Library of Congress


    PBS News Hour