Aug. 10, 2011
Photo: Writers' Workshop alumnus and new U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine at the Workshop's 75th anniversary alumni gathering in Iowa City earlier this summer.
Note: This release was corrected on Aug. 11, 2011 to clarify the ties of past Poet Laureates to the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Workshop alumnus Levine named U.S. Poet Laureate
The Library of Congress today named University of Iowa Writers' Workshop alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine--whose work addresses the joys and sufferings of industrial life--the 18th U.S. Poet Laureate.
Levine, who recently participated in the Iowa Writers' Workshop 75th anniversary alumni reunion, will take up his duties as Poet Laureate in the fall, opening the library's annual literary season with a reading of his work at the Coolidge Auditorium in Washington D.C. on Oct. 17. [Read the official announcement at http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2011/11-143.html.]
Levine succeeds W.S. Merwin, and a number of previous Poet Laureates with ties to the workshop as visting lecturers or students, including Louise Glück, Robert Hass, Rita Dove and Mark Strand.
In announcing Levine's appointment to the country's most prestigious poetry post Wednesday, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington called Levine "one of America's great narrative poets. His plainspoken lyricism has, for half a century, championed the art of telling 'The Simple Truth'—about working in a Detroit auto factory, as he has, and about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives."
Levine was born in 1928 and raised in Detroit, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. He was educated in the public schools of Detroit and also attended Wayne State University. After a succession of industrial jobs, including punching in at Chevy Gear & Axle, running jack hammer at Detroit Transmission, and muscling cases of soda pop at Mavis Nu Icy Bottling Company, Levine left Detroit in 1953 to teach part-time at the UI, which enabled him to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He studied alongside poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman, who called Levine his "one great mentor."
The poems and connections Levine forged in Iowa earned him a fellowship at Stanford University, which led, in turn, to a job at Fresno State in 1958, where he taught literature and writing for more than 30 years.
Levine published his debut collection of poems, "On the Edge" in 1963, followed by "Not This Pig" in 1968. Since then, he has published numerous books of poetry, including "The Simple Truth" (1994), which won the Pulitzer Prize; "What Work Is" (1991), which won the National Book Award; "Ashes: Poems New and Old" (1979), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the first American Book Award for Poetry; "7 Years From Somewhere" (1979), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; and "The Names of the Lost" (1975), which won the 1977 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets.
Levine's poetry explores the corrosive effects of heat, foul air, long hours, low pay, and heavy work. He addresses the joys and sufferings of industrial life in poems marked by keen observation, rage and painful irony. His poetry is about the common people, but it is also for the common people. While his poems are carefully crafted and complex, they read like colloquial speech.
Levine has said he believes his industrial jobs were an unlikely seedbed for his poetry.
"Detroit is perfect for me. It's not dinky. It's just big enough. I know it. I'm a Detroit-sized poet," Levine said. "It took me a long time to be able to write about it without snarling or snapping. I had to temper the violence I felt toward those who maimed and cheated me with a tenderness toward those who had touched and blessed me."
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