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The Library of Congress announced last week that Philip Levine, 83 and known for his big-hearted poems about working-class Detroit, is the new poet laureate. He succeeds W.S. Merwin, wrote Charles McGrath in the New York Times.
According to James Billington, the librarian of Congress, he was selected from a long list of nominees.
“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. I don’t know that in other countries you get poetry of that quality about the ordinary workingman.
Referring to Levine’s ironic and self-effacing nature, Billington says that wasn’t a factor in the choice.
…[B]ut he doesn’t seem to have that element of posing we all suffer from to one degree or another. He has that well under control.
This will make Mr. Levine one of the oldest laureates. He is the author of 20 collections of poems. He won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Simple Truth.”
Levine spoke on the phone with the McGrath and said “I feel pretty good.” He’s still writing, he says and he finds great inspiration these days in the poetry of Thomas Hardy.
Levine grew up in Detroit, back when it was still a “vital city,” he says. His parents were Russian immigrants, who for some reason told him he was of Spanish ancestry. As a young man he was fascinated with Spanish anarchism and the Spanish Civil War, which still turn up in his poems.
After his father died when Philip was 5, the family was nearly destitute, and before taking up poetry he had a succession of difficult jobs. He built transmissions for Cadillac, worked in the Chevrolet gear and axle factory, drove a truck for Railway Express.
His early poems, written often in narrow, seven-syllable lines, were “gritty, hard-nosed evocations of the lives of working people and their neighborhoods,” writes McGrath.
The subject matter hasn’t changed, but the lines have lengthened and the edge has softened. Lately the poems are narrative, anecdotal elegies for that vanished working-class world.
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…
The early poems were more formal than the ones he writes now. As a young man he studied with formalists: Lowell, Berryman, Yvor Winters. But also, he says, he did it to compensate for the formlessness of his life back then.
The looseness and freedom came about when he brought order to his life, he asserts. Sometime in his 40s, he was struck by tenderness in the poetry of others and thought, “Why isn’t there more tenderness in my own work?”
His late poems have that tenderness. There is also a Hardyesque humbleness. A 1999 poem is called “He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do.”
He hadn’t aspired to be poet laureate, he says. But he’s pleased that the honor has come his way after a very long career. Given the distinction of the work produced by most of the previous poets laureate, he embraces the title.
My editor was thrilled, and my wife jumped for joy. She hasn’t done that in a while.
source: Charles McGrath’s article in the New York Times. For the complete article, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/books/philip-levine-is-to-be-us-poet-laureate.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=charles%20McGrath&st=cse
The book to buy if you haven’t read Levine, says Dwight Garner in a related article, is “What Work Is,” which won a National Book Award in 1991.
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