© Image by Frances Levine

Philip Levine

(b. 1934)

"A large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland" - Edward Hirsch

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Recordings

These recordings were produced by the Poetry Foundation:

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Extras

  • A Working Man's Poet
    Philip Levine grew up in industrial Detroit and worked on the assembly lines at GM as a young man. Marketplace’s Kai Ryssdal speaks with the Pulitzer Prize-winner about how those early experiences shaped his poetry.
  • Lines for Hard Times
    Philip Levine reads his defiantly hopeful "They Feed The Lion" and "What Work Is" with commentary by Edward Hirsch.
  • Aldeburgh Backchat
    Listen to a fascinating behind the scenes interview with Philip Levine at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. He discusses finding his true subject through years of industrial labour, and regrets the absence of politics in the writing of today's young poets.

Select bibliography

  • What Work Is, Knopf, 1992
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  • The Simple TruthKnopf 1996
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  • Brief Landing on the Earth's Surface,The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996
  • The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, University of Michigan Press, 2001
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  • Stranger to Nothing: Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books 2006
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  • News of the World Knopf Publishing Group, 2009
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The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Philip Levine grew up in industrial Detroit during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography Levine deals with his experiences as a factory worker, his family and friends, his mentors John Berryman and Yvor Winters, and his fascination with the Spanish Civil War and Spanish poets. The book shows among other things that his childhood and later heroes were not only those who struggled against fascism but also ordinary people who worked at menial jobs to stave off poverty.

It was while working in the auto plants of in Detroit during the 1950s that Levine found his compelling subject. In Detroit Magazine, he explained "I saw that the people that I was working with . . . were voiceless in a way. In terms of the literature of the United States they weren't being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that's what my life would be. And sure enough I've gone and done it. Or I've tried anyway. . . . I just hope I have the strength to carry it all the way through."

For more than three decades, Levine has spoken for the working men and women of America's industrial cities. As Joan Taylor writes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Levine met his enemy in the gray arenas of industrialism, . . . of factory hum and stink, vacant lots, junkyards, and railroad tracks. . . . Levine's hero is the lonely individual who tries and often fails within this big industrial machine." According to Richard Tillinghast in the New York Times Book Review the speaker in Levine's poems "is never a blue-collar caricature, but someone with brains, feelings and a free-wheeling imagination that constantly fights to free him from his prosaic environment."

At the same time as he records his struggle, Levine celebrates the ordinary in his writing, preferring rhythmic narrative forms, and a colloquial diction which values reality above all else. Dave Smith has commented in American Poetry Review:"The language, the figures of speech, the narrative progressions are never so obscure, so truncated as to forbid less sophisticated readers. Though he takes on the largest subjects of death, love, courage, manhood, loyalty, etc., he brings the mysteries of existence down into the ordinarily inarticulate events and objects of daily life."

'They Feed They Lion' is one of Levine’s finest and most characteristic achievements. In his introduction to this Archive recording he explains that the poem was triggered by his return to Detroit following the Race Riots of 1967. He says "I discovered in the language of that day that I was part of the problem, not part of the solution. I was now middle aged, I was middle class and I was white. And I was to some degree over-whelmed."

The poem has been described at a contemporary version of Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’. But here, the 'rough beast' rises up "Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter/Out of black bean and wet slate bread,/Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar/Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies". According to Levine himself, some of the language for this poem originated with Eugene, a black man with whom he worked in Detroit: "We were sorting universal joints," he says, "which are part of the drive-shaft of a car. The guy who owned the place had bought used ones, and we were supposed to sort the ones that could be rebuilt and made into usable replacement parts from the ones that were too badly damaged. So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who'd then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in - burlap sacks - and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words 'Detroit Municipal Zoo.' And he laughed, and said, 'They feed they lion they meal in they sacks.' That's exactly what he said! And I thought, 'This guy's a genius with language'. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn't speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it."

In this recording, Levine pays special attention to the driving rhythms and tonal modulations of his lines, so as to raise parts of the poem to the level of incantation.

This recording was produced by the Poetry Foundation on 13th September , 2007, New York, NY.



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