Philip Levine: A Workingman’s Voice

By Feroz Rather

With a serene and distant view of the hills of Sierra Nevada, on 9 August, 2011, I sat in a library at California State University Fresno, reading The Simple Truth, a collection of poems by Philip Levine. The day after, Mr. Levine, 83, was being nominated by the Library of Congress the next poet laureate of the United States. The felicitations, however, had made their way to the poet’s home here in Fresno and thrilled the entire community of writers in the Central Valley of California. Brandi Spaethe, a friend and fellow writer in our MFA program, broke the news to me. And while walking this beautiful campus dotted with maple trees, with an ecstatic gusto of a poet-in-the-making, she fell into long recitations of many touching poems from the book.

Philip Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in 1928, a year before the Great Depression started paralyzing the economy of the US. Levine was educated in Detroit public schools and at Wayne State University, Michigan’s only urban public research university. After graduation, Levine worked a number of industrial jobs, including the night shift at the Cheverolet Gear and Axle factory in 1953, working on his poems in his off hours.   In the fall of the same year, he journeyed to the University of Iowa to attend a poetry workshop. In his autobiographical account, The Bread of Time, he recalls: “The attraction at Iowa was Robert Lowell, whose Lord’s Weary Castle had received the Pulitzer Prize.”Afterwards, he became Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. And then in 1958, he came to Fresno and began teaching English and writing at California State University and which went on for 34 years.

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