Philip Levine, whose poems have chronicled American life from the industrial toils of Detroit to the dry heat of the Fresno Valley, will be the next poet laureate. He is the author of 20 collections of poems, including the Pullitzer Prize-winning “The Simple Truth” (1995). He is 83. He told the New York Times recently, “I feel pretty good,” but added candidly, “I’m not as good as ever.”
After graduating from Detroit’s Wayne State University, located right downtown, Mr. Levine worked a series of industrial jobs, including the night shift at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle Factory, where he began to refine his craft. “I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own,” he once wrote of his blue-collar work.
In 1953, he left Detroit to study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, working with poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman. His work is full of venom and grief, but also a sarcastic kind of humor (as in the brilliant “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School,” Detroit 1942). His subject matter is often tied to industrial labor, focusing on the tired factory worker pining for a lunch break (“Coming Close” from 1991) or an employee at Leo’s Tool and Die imagining, in the darkness of closing time, that the place is “a Carthaginian outpost sent to guard the waters of the West.” That heightened sense of irony, the ability to find beauty in even the most gruesome labor, gives him a rare skill of being both bleak and hopeful. His comment to the Times—“I feel pretty good/I’m not as good as ever”—could be a line from one of his poems. We offer him comfort from the climactic line in 1982’s “A New Day:”
“I could tell him that those good days/Were no more and no less than these.”