Philip Levine new US Poet Laureate
“The truth of poetry is not the truth of history,” says Philip Levine, the newly-named poet laureate of the United States.
Levine is 83 years old. He grew up in Detroit, working at automobile factories in his youth, and published his first book of poetry in 1963, at the age of 38.
He went on to win the 1991 National Book Award for his collection What Work Is, and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for The Simple Truth. His appointment was announced by the Library of Congress on Wednesday.
Levine tells NPR’s David Greene that when James Billington, the librarian of Congress, called him earlier this week, he didn’t know what was in store.
“I thought he was probably going to ask my advice as to who should be the next poet laureate and then he said, ‘We would like you to be the next poet laureate,’ and asked me if I would accept the position. And I said, ‘Sure.'”
Levine’s work is most famous for its urban perspective, and its depiction of blue-collar life in Detroit. But while he was working in the factories, he found nothing poetic about them.
“I found the places hateful.” His job at Chevrolet Gear and Axle was hard, he says, “and the work was exhausting.”
Even though he was writing poetry at the time, he couldn’t bring himself to write about his day job.
“Even in my imagination I didn’t want to spend time where I was working,” he says. “I didn’t want to talk shop. So no, even after I left â€” because I left Detroit at age 26 â€” I was unable to write anything worth keeping about Detroit for years. I wrote things and I threw them away.”
Levineâ€™s ironically titled new collection, â€œNews of The World,â€ reminds us that the aims of poetry are antithetical to simple factuality and news for its own sake. As a result, poetry often takes for its subjects those things which are timeless. And indeed, the title poem from this collection describes finding an old vintage radio at an antique shop in the back-roads outside of Barcelona.
Because the mountains are blocking any worthwhile broadcasts, the shop-owner tunes into a local Communist radio station while promising the poet he can procure â€œanythingâ€ he might want to buy. Within a matter of hours he can have anything from Cadillac to an American film star. Of course the poet chooses not these iconic images of desire, but the enduring irony of a radio broadcasting the past.
For though thereâ€™s no real news that this radio can convey, involuntarily, it broadcasts an ongoing juxtaposition, an example of humanityâ€™s constant conflict and contingent situation â€” in this case, the bizarre mish-mash of Communism, mercantilism, history and nature erupting in the middle of Spanish exurbia. The conversation is bizarre and comic, and one can just imagine the Marxist propaganda, and its long-defunct slogans, blaring in the background.
Philip Levine was born into a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Detroit, Michigan in 1928. His father died when he was only five, and his childhood spanned the darkest years of the Great Depression. He was educated in the public schools in Detroit, and after graduating from Wayne State University, he took a number of factory jobs in the Detroit auto manufacturing industry and began to write poems during the hours when he wasnâ€™t at work. He explained his purpose to Detroit Magazine: â€œI saw that the people that I was working with… were voiceless in a way. In terms of the literature of the United States they werenâ€™t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and thatâ€™s what my life would be. And sure enough Iâ€™ve gone and done it. Or Iâ€™ve tried anyway…â€
Levineâ€™s Education as a Poet:
When Levine left Detroit it was to study poetry at the famed Iowa Writersâ€™ Workshop, where he worked with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. He was also a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University under Yvor Winters. He was in, but not really of, the Beat generationâ€”he knew Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, but his voice is his own, drawn from his own experience. His poems address the daily concerns of the common man in apparently simple, colloquial language. Levine himself defined his â€œideal poemâ€ as one in which â€œno words are noticed. You look through them into a vision of… the people, the place.â€
Philip Levine new US Poet Laureate