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Voice of the Workingman to Be Poet Laureate

August 10, 2011

The Library of Congress will announce on Wednesday that Philip Levine, best known for his big-hearted, Whitmanesque poems about working-class Detroit, is to be the next poet laureate, succeeding W. S. Merwin.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“It’s like winning the Pulitzer. If you take it too seriously, you’re an idiot. But if you look at the names of the other poets who have won it, most of them are damn good.” — Philip Levine

He was selected from a long list of nominees by James Billington, the librarian of Congress, who said on Monday, “I find him an extraordinary discovery because he introduced me to a whole new world I hadn’t connected to in poetry before.”

“He’s the laureate, if you like, of the industrial heartland,” Mr. Billington added. “It’s a very, very American voice. I don’t know that in other countries you get poetry of that quality about the ordinary workingman.” Referring to Mr. Levine’s ironic and self-effacing nature, he said: “This wasn’t really a factor in the choice, but he doesn’t seem to have that element of posing that I suppose we all suffer from to one degree or another. He has that well under control.”

The author of some 20 collections of poems and the winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Simple Truth,” Mr. Levine is 83, making him one of the oldest laureates. But speaking on the phone the other day from his home in Fresno, Calif., he sounded much younger. “I feel pretty good,” he said, adding that he was still writing and that he found great inspiration these days in the poetry of Thomas Hardy. “There’s this unbelievable humility in his work,” he said. “He kept writing right up until he died, when he was almost 90.”

“But I’m not as good as ever,” Mr. Levine went on, referring to the writing that he had done in the last year or so. In an e-mail he said he thought he had begun doing his best work in the early 1990s, but on the phone he added: “I find more energy in my earlier work. More dash, more anger. Anger was a major engine in my poetry then. It’s been replaced by irony, I guess, and by love.”

Mr. Levine grew up in Detroit, back when it was still a “vital city,” he said. His parents were emigrants from Russia, but for some reason they told him he was of Spanish ancestry ,and as a young man he became fascinated with Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Civil War, which still turn up in his poems. Mr. Levine’s father died when he was 5, leaving the family hard up, and before embracing poetry he held a succession of what he has called “stupid jobs.” He built transmissions for Cadillac, worked in the Chevrolet gear and axle factory, drove a truck for Railway Express. His early poems, often written in narrow, seven-syllable lines, were gritty, hard-nosed evocations of the lives of working people and their neighborhoods.

Over the years Mr. Levine’s subject matter hasn’t changed much — he remains a distinctly urban poet — but his line has lengthened, and his edge has softened. Many of his poems these days are narrative, anecdotal elegies for that vanished working-class world, and as in the title poem of his Pulitzer-winning volume, he finds depths of beauty in the simplest of pleasures — food, for example:

Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong …

Mr. Levine’s early poems were more formal than the ones he writes now, doubtless because as a young man he studied with eminent formalists like Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Yvor Winters, but also, he suggested, to compensate for the formlessness of his own life back then.

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