Sunday, February 15, 2015

Philip Levine, Former U.S. Poet Laureate Who Won Pulitzer, Dies at 87 -

Philip Levine was a favorite of mine and my favorite of all is the poem What Work Is.  Like William Carlos Williams he was an accurate observerof human emotion. - gwc

Philip Levine, Former U.S. Poet Laureate Who Won Pulitzer, Dies at 87 -

by Margalit Fox

Philip Levine, a former United States poet laureate whose work was vibrantly, angrily and often painfully alive with the sound, smell and sinew of heavy manual labor, died on Saturday morning at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 87.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Christopher Buckley, a longtime friend and fellow poet.

Mr. Levine served as poet laureate from 2011 to 2012. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his collection “The Simple Truth” and won two National Book Awards — in 1980 for “Ashes: Poems New & Old” and 1991 for “What Work Is.” His poetry appeared often in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and other major publications.

At his death, he was an emeritus professor of English at California State University, Fresno, where he had taught from 1958 to 1992.

In spare, realistic free verse, Mr. Levine explored the subjects that had animated his work for decades: his gritty Detroit childhood; the soul-numbing factory jobs he held as a youth; Spain, where he lived for some time as an adult; and the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s, a personal passion since he was a boy.

These were themes with which few American poets were concerning themselves when his first collection, “On the Edge,” appeared in 1961. “A large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland” is how the poet Edward Hirsch, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described Mr. Levine in 1984.

Dwight Garner,  writing in the Times in 2011, said

The work of Philip Levine, America’s new and 18th poet laureate, is welcome because it radiates a heat of a sort not often felt in today’s poetry, that transmitted by grease, soil, factory light, cheap and honest food, sweat, low pay, cigarettes and second shifts. It is a plainspoken poetry ready-made, it seems, for a time of S&P downgrades, a double-dip recession and debts left unpaid.

The book to buy, if you haven’t read Mr. Levine, is “What Work Is,” which won a National Book Award in 1991. It won’t give you the most rounded sense of his long and varied career, but it starts strong and, like a perfect rock record, won’t quit. Mr. Levine was born in Detroit and worked in Cadillac and Chevy factories as a young man; his evocations of working-class life are moving and exacting.

Here’s the beginning of “Fear and Fame,” which opens “What Work Is”:

Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death.

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