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PHILIP LEVINE, Newest U.S. Poet Laureate

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Read & listen to Philip Levine@The Internet Poetry Archive


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Profile of Philip Levine, poet laureate

By Jessica Goldstein
The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 9, 7:43 PM

Philip Levine was not expecting to be the new poet laureate of the United States. “It just wasn’t something I thought I’d get,” he said, sounding a little amused by the whole thing.

Levine, who has written 20 collections of poems, has already won just about every major writing award: a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for “The Simple Truth,” a National Book Award in 1980 for “Ashes: Poems New and Old” and in 1991 for “What Work Is,” the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Frank O’Hara Prize, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships … the list goes on.

To read Jessica Goldstein’s piece in its entirety, click here.

Charles McGrath’s “Voice of the Workingman to Be Poet Laureate” (August 9, 2011), New York Times

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WHAT WORK IS

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

— Philip Levine

© Philip Levine
— from
What Work Is (published by Alfred A. Knopf)

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I love Philip Levine and his great, inspiring work. A fellow Detroiter, he is ten years my senior, and often on my mind. Our paths as poets keep crossing. We both wound up in the Golden State. When I first came upon They Feed They Lion, which continues to be one of my all-time favorite Philip Levine collections, I imagined that he must have overheard a bunch of school kids responding to an animal-feeding session at some zoo. “Ooo,” I pictured one little girl or boy yelling, “they feed they lion!” I told this to Philip in Seattle, where we were holding forth on a Bumbershoot Festival panel with poet-novelist Marge Piercy, all three of us Detroiters. “Close,” Philip allowed. “But it didn’t happen quite that way.” He then told the story of how a co-worker’s remark in an auto grease shop had spilled over into a dream that flushed out the poem. How can anyone not love the people-friendly, humanity-championing poetry of Philip Levine?
— Al Young,
California’s ex-poet laureate


They Feed They Lion: A taste of back-story

“In 1953 I was working in a Detroit grease shop with a tall, slender black man with a wonderful wit and disposition. His name was Lemon Still Jr., and he was a delight to work with. One day we were dividing used crosses that are the heart of a universal joint, which is a component of a transmission and not an enormous reefer. One pile was junk, the other pile was made up of those which could be refinished and sold as new. Before we stuffed the hopeless ones into a burlap sack, Lemon held the bag before me and pointed at the white lettering which read, ‘Detroit Municipal Zoo,’ and he uttered a single memorable sentence, ‘They feed they lion they meal in they sacks.’ I was stunned by the sentence itself as well as Lemon’s ability to simplify English grammar by reducing all third-person pronouns to the one ‘they.’ I don’t know how many years passed before I forgot that moment, but in the late 1960s it came back to me via an unforgettable dream.”
–Philip Levine

The whole back-story

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Philip Levine reads Belle Isle, 1949


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