Philip Levine

United States Poet Laureate 2011-2012
Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet
National Book Award-winner

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • An Evening with Philip Levine

“[Levine] is one of those poets whose work is so emotionally intense, and yet so controlled, so concentrated, that the accumulative effect of reading a number of his related poems can be shattering.” —Joyce Carol Oates 

“What gives Levine’s work its urgency is that impulse to commemorate, the need to restore to life people who were never, despite their deadening work, dead things themselves, and who deserve to be rescued from the longer death of being forgotten.” —New York Times

Philip Levine was the eighteenth United States Poet Laureate for 2011-2012. Upon his appointment, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in a statement, “Philip Levine is one of America’s great narrative poets. His plainspoken lyricism has, for half a century, championed the art of telling ‘The Simple Truth’….”

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.” He was born in 1928 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, in Detroit, a city that inspired much of his writing. Author of twenty collections of poetry, his most recent is News Of The World (Knopf, 2009). The Simple Truth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. What Work Is won the National Book Award in 1991. David Baker writes, “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.” Levine is known as the poet of the working class, and he remains dedicated to writing poetry “for people for whom there is no poetry.” Dwight Garner of The New York Times comments, “One of the joys of following Mr. Levine’s career has been watching how playful he can be, despite the moral seriousness of his unadorned and lightly accented verse.”

As well as having received two National Book Awards, Levine is also the recipient of the National Book Critics Award and the Ruth Lily Prize. In 2013, he also won the Wallace Stevens Award for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. He divides his time between Brooklyn, NY, & Fresno, CA.

Philip Levine is the author of twenty poetry collections, including News of the WorldThe Simple Truth, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995, What Work is, which won the National Book Award in 1991, and Ashes: Poems New and Old, recipient of the 1980 National Book Award. In 2011, he was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress. In addition to having received two National Book Awards, Levine is also the recipient of the National Book Critics Award and the Ruth Lily Prize. In 2013, he also won the Wallace Stevens Award for outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.

NEWS OF THE WORLD (Poetry, 2009)
Pulitzer-winner Levine invites readers into familiar landscapes—Detroit, gritty America, forests chock-full of truth and beauty, “the shaded woods / where I go evening after evening / to converse with tangled roots and vines”—in his twentieth books of poems. He continues to romanticize hardscrabble living—pumping well water, working in an auto factory—but this collection is less an update about the current political or social situation than it is news about Levine himself. He writes in an autobiographical mode, in long stanzas that flirt with iambic pentameter, while also encouraging the reader to participate in “an actual place in the actual city / where we all grew up.” Prose poems treat adventures in far away places (“You may hear that Australia is a continent. I lived there, I know it’s an island”), while other poems recall Levine’s past: “When my brother came home from war / he carried his left arm in a black sling / but assured us most of it was there.” While Levine charts no new territory, fans will happily get what they came for. —Publishers Weekly

BREATH (Poetry, 2004)
Levine looks to the forgotten, discounted heart of the matter—”the exquisite in the commonplace”—and what is more common yet precious than breath? Intrinsic to life, breath is the animating force in poetry and music, and Levine’s masterfully crafted poems, working-class psalms, are brimming with music in their ringing language, sure rhythm, sensitivity to time, and, more overtly, tributes to musicians Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, and Charlie Parker. Strongly built and finely tuned, these are songs of wind and dust, and of the industrial wasteland, especially that of automotive Michigan, a world of fouled rivers, sooty air, “soiled meadows,” and vast parking lots. As is his wont, Levine, an earthy and prayerful winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, offers soulful elegies to Rust Belt heroes; sloggers, and escapees; family members; and long-mourned war dead. Men and women are inextricably in the thick of things, vividly eccentric and secretly noble when alive, and nearly sacred in memory, all sharing the same breath, the great exhalation and inhalation of life. —Donna Seaman


The young woman sewing
by the window hums a song
I don’t know; I hear only
a few bars, and when the trucks
barrel down the broken street
the music is lost. Before the darkness
leaks from the shadows of
the great cathedral, I see her
once more at work and later
hear in the sudden silence
of nightfall wordless music rising
from her room. I put aside
my papers, wash, and dress
to eat at one of the seafood
places along the great avenues
near the port where later
the homeless will sleep. Then I
walk for hours in the Barrio
Chino passing the open
doors of tiny bars and caves
from which the voices of old men
bark out the stale anthems
of love’s defeat. “This is the world,”
I think, “this is what I came
in search of years ago.” Now I
can go back to my single room,
I can lie awake in the dark
rehearsing all the trivial events
of the day ahead, a day that begins
when the sun clears the dark spires
of someone’s god, and I waken
in a flood of dust rising from
nowhere and from nowhere
the actual voice of someone else.

—from News of the World


The new grass rising in the hills,
the cows loitering in the morning chill,
a dozen or more old browns hidden
in the shadows of the cottonwoods
beside the streambed. I go higher
to where the road gives up and there’s
only a faint path strewn with lupine
between the mountain oaks. I don’t
ask myself what I’m looking for.
I didn’t come for answers
to a place like this, I came to walk
on the earth, still cold, still silent.
Still ungiving, I’ve said to myself,
although it greets me with last year’s
dead thistles and this year’s
hard spines, early blooming
wild onions, the curling remains
of spider’s cloth. What did I bring
to the dance? In my back pocket
a crushed letter from a woman
I’ve never met bearing bad news
I can do nothing about. So I wander
these woods half sightless while
a west wind picks up in the trees
clustered above. The pines make
a music like no other, rising and
falling like a distant surf at night
that calms the darkness before
first light. “Soughing” we call it, from
Old English, no less. How weightless
words are when nothing will do.