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10 August 2011

Philip Levine appointed American Poet Laureate

Chronicler of blue-collar American life gets top job in American poetry.

By Daniel Barrow

The Library of Congress has today appointed former Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Levine as the new American Poet Laureate. Levine, born in Detroit in 1928, came to poetry through various manual jobs and as a graduate of Wayne State University and the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has since written 18 poetry collections and taught for years at California State University, Fresno, where he lives.

His work, often using the form of free-verse monologues that tended away from the experimental extremes of American poetry in the 1960s, towards the lyricism typified by Robert Hass, has chronicled working-class lives and the problems of his own Jewish inheritance. For that, and his willingness to encourage and correspond with young writers, his work has become strongly respected in the poetry world and wider circles, winning him the Pulitzer in 1995 for The Simple Truth.

Speaking on politics and poetry in 1988, he said:

I’m not a man of action; It finally comes down to that. I’m not so profoundly moral that I can often overcome my fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I’m a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do? I guess we can hang on and encourage each other, dig in, protest in every peaceful way possible, and hope that people are better than they seem. We can describe ourselves as horribly racist people, which we are, as imperialists, which we have been and are, but we can also see ourselves as bountiful, gracious, full of wit, courage, resourcefulness. I still believe in this country, that it can fulfill the destiny Blake and Whitman envisioned. I still believe in American poetry.

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Asked about the appointment by Associated Press, he has said:

I’m a fairly irreverent person and at first I thought, “This is not you. You’re an old union man”. But I knew if I didn’t do this, I would kick myself. I thought, “This is you. You can speak to a larger public than has been waiting for you in recent years.”