Voice of the Workingman to Be Poet Laureate
By CHARLES McGRATH
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.
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 It’s been replaced by irony, I guess, and by love.”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.
“I don’t know why it took so long,” he said. “That looseness and freedom took place when I brought order to my life. I got married, got a job — not a good job but a job.” (He taught English and writing at California State University, Fresno.) Sometime in his 40s, he added, he was struck by the tenderness in the poetry of others and thought, “Why isn’t there more tenderness in my own work?”
His late poems are full of that tenderness and also of a Hardyesque humbleness in which, while still enthralled by poetry, he hesitates to make too great claims for it. A 1999 poem by Mr. Levine is called “He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do” and ends:
Fact is, silence is the perfect water:
unlike rain it falls from no clouds
to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
to give heart to the thin blades of grass
fighting through the concrete for even air
dirtied by our endless stream of words.
Strictly speaking, the poet laureate has few official duties during the one-year term, but lately the laureates have tended to take on projects intended to broaden the audience for poetry. Robert Pinsky started his Favorite Poem Project, encouraging Americans to share their selections at readings and in audio and video projects. Ted Kooser created a free weekly newspaper column in which he introduced a poem by a contemporary American poet.
Mr. Levine said he had thought of proposing a project in which people would be asked to name the ugliest poem they could think of. “I knew they wouldn’t go for it,” he added, referring to the Library of Congress. “But I was trying to think of something a little light and humorous, to encourage people to think of poetry not quite so seriously.”
He said he might try to get 5- or 10-minute spots for poets to read their work on the radio and hoped to help resurrect what he called “the enormous number of forgotten poets out there.”
“I know a great many poems that I love and that most people have never heard of,” he said. “Some of them are quite magnificent.”
He hadn’t particularly aspired to be poet laureate, Mr. Levine said, but he was pleased that after a long career, the honor had come his way. “How can I put it? It’s like winning the Pulitzer,” he explained. “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. Not all of them — I’m not going to name names — but most. My editor was thrilled, and my wife jumped for joy. She hasn’t done that in a while.”