Philip Levine, former Poet Laureate of the United States, has died at the age of 87 due to pancreatic cancer, reports Margalit Fox of the New York Times. Levine, one of the most decorated poets of his generation, wrote poetry about blue collar working class life amongst the assembly lines in industrial Detroit. Levine grew up in Detroit and suffered through several factory jobs in his youth where upon he realized that no one was telling the story of that reality and took it upon himself to present it to the masses using deceptively simple language that carried with it an underlying musicality that carried forth his genius.
Levine, who began writing poetry as a teenager, produced work across six decades that saw him awarded with, among others, two National Book Awards in 1980 for Ashes: Poems New and Old, and again in 1991 for What Work Is, which also earned him the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, as well as a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth.
Levine served as Poet Laureate of the United States for the year 2011-2012. The Poet Laureate is recognized as the nation’s official poet who is entrusted with the duty of raising the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.
Tom Vitale of NPR offered a look into Levine’s methodology by way of Levine’s own words.
“The first thing that hits me is the language. Is it fresh? Is it resourceful? The second thing is the imagery. I mean, you know, does the work have the authority of lived experience? And if it has those two things, and then musically it’s interesting, as a piece of rhythmic language, I’m hooked. I’m going. And I’m off to the races.”
In 1953, Levine attended the University of Iowa, although he was not officially enrolled, and studied alongside fellow renowned poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman. After earning a mail order Master’s degree, Levine returned to the university to earn his Master of Fine Arts degree. Levine embarked on a dual career as an educator hoping to share his passion for poetry. Levine taught for 45 years at California State University, Fresno until his retirement in 1992, after which he taught at such prestigious universities as Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Tufts, and University of California, Berkeley.
Critic Terrence Rafferty cited Levine’s simple, yet deliberate use of language, as well as his authenticity, as keys to his success.
“If you’re not paying attention, it can sound like just awfully good prose, but as you hear it in your head, you know it’s not prose. It has music. It has meter. It has subtle surprises in the diction and the thought of the poem.
“His descriptions of working class Detroit is something that hadn’t been there before. It’s not as if no one had ever written poems about workers before, clearly. But it’s a piece of the world that had not been in poetry before.”