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Philip Levine is known for poetry grounded in the harsh reality of contemporary urban life. Deeply committed to the plight of the lower-class, blue-collar worker, Levine describes his poetry as an attempt to create ”a voice for the voiceless.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Raised with Radical Politics
Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, to Russian jewish immigrants. A. Harry Levine was a businessman, and Esther Priscoll Levine was a bookseller. Both his parents were deeply interested in the radicalism of the Great Depression. with the economic downturn that resulted from the stock-market crash in 1929—and the high unemployment that followed, leaving one in every four workers out of a job— several radical political movements gained popularity, including anarchism, communism, and socialism. These philosophies sought to redress the inadequacies of capitalism that, because of the suffering caused by the Great Depression, seemed to only hurt working Americans. Popular radical movements included societies that shared resources equally rather than encouraging competition (as in a capitalistic system). Levine grew up in a political household, where he listened to debates about communism and anarchism. He also became fascinated by the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a conflict that pitted long-suffering workers against their own military establishment, and even involved support provided by fascist dictators Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
Levine received his BA from Wayne University (now Wayne State University) in 1950 and then worked at a series of assembly line jobs in automobile factories before accepting a teaching position at the University of Iowa in 1955. He was awarded an MFA there in 1957, and he has since earned his living teaching poetry, primarily at California State and Tufts Universities.
Poetry of the Working Poor
Levine’s poetry has changed little since his first collection, On the Edge (1961). Although his lines have evolved from traditional meters to freer, more open cadences, and his poems have become increasingly lyrical and less narrative, his themes have largely remained the same—a blend of the personal and the political, the spiritual and the concrete. His rage at the political and economic powers that constrain people’s lives features prominently in They Feed They Lion (1972), 1933 (1974), and The Names of the Lost (1976). Another major theme is the Spanish Civil War, which, as Herbert Leibowitz comments in the New York Times Book Review, ”embodies for him… a people’s uprising that succeeded, quixotically, for a few rare days in hinting at what a genuinely egalitarian society might be.” His best-known descriptions of the war include ”For the Fallen” and ”Francisco, I’ll Bring You Red Carnations.” He also evokes his experiences with family members and friends in poems such as ”Father,” ”To Fran,” and ”My Son and I.”
Throughout his career, Levine has rejected the use of self-consciously poetic language, dismissing rhetoric as distracting his readers from what he considers the proper business of his poetry, addressing the truth about life. Critics have often praised Levine for the honesty of his poetry. other critics, though they admire his personal integrity and the force of his emotion, question whether what he writes can really be distinguished from prose.
Levine received the American Book Award for Ashes (1979) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Ashes and 7 Years from Somewhere (1979). He continues to teach and splits his time between New York and California.
Works in Literary Context
Working Class Poetry
For more than three decades, Levine has spoken for the working men and women of America’s industrial cities. Levine himself explains, ”I saw that the people that I was working with … were voiceless in a way,” he stated in Detroit Magazine, continuing,
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.
In the Hudson Review, Vernon Young finds that Levine ”has never acknowledged the claim of any society save that of the bluecollar dispossessed, the marginal and crunched for whom he has elected to be the evangelist and spokesman.” Critic Herbert Leibowitz comments: ”Levine has returned again and again in his poems to the lives of factory workers trapped by poverty and the drudgery of the assembly line, which breaks the body and scars the spirit.” However, the speaker in Levine’s poems ”is never a blue-collar caricature,” argues Richard Tillinghast in his New York Times Book Review, ”but someone with brains, feelings and a free-wheeling imagination that constantly fights to free him from his prosaic environment.”
Poetry of the Human Condition
His first book of poems, On the Edge (1961), demonstrates Levine’s early and abiding preoccupation with narratives and portrait poems that celebrate the heroism of the ordinary individual living out his stubborn joys and hopes in the face of the fear, pain, and loneliness of the human condition. The German officer losing his sense of identity in ”The Distant Winter,” the deserters from the French-Algerian army in ”The Negatives,” and the poet himself in the doctor’s waiting room in Passing Out” are all such characters. His portraits, as in The Drunkard” and On the Edge,” frequently show the subject losing in the struggle, although the portrait is painted with respect. In this and succeeding books, Levine is especially, although not exclusively, concerned with the plight of urban and suburban humans whose pain derives from or is exacerbated by the exploitations of a complex of corporate, industrial, military, and political interests.
Works in Critical Context
Levine’s concentration on the negative aspects of working class life has led many critics to describe his work as dark, brooding, and without solace. This sense of defeat is particularly strong when the poet recalls scenes from his Detroit childhood, where unemployment and violence colored his life.
They Feed They Lion
Despite its often painful quality, Levine’s verse also displays a certain joyfulness, a sense of victory-in-defeat, suggests Marie Borroff. Writing in the Yale Review, she describes the title poem of They Feed They Lion as a litany celebrating, in rhythms and images of unflagging, piston-like force, the majestic strength of the oppressed, rising equally out of the substances of the poisoned industrial landscape and the intangibles of humiliation.” Edward Hirsch in Michigan Quarterly Review finds that while anger and indignation lie at the core of Levine’s poetry, his later poems have developed a softer edge while maintaining their brooding intensity.” Robert Mazzocco asserts in The New York Review of Books that Levine is affectionate in his hate, hard in his compassion,” and fully aware of the twilit other world where the negative and the positive seem to be twins of the same coin, where the poet is both victor and victim, and at times blessed because he is both.” And Richard Hugo comments in the American Poetry Review: Levine’s poems are important because in them we hear and we care.” Though Levine’s poems tell of despair, pain, and inadequacy, Hugo feels that they still hold out the hope that people can triumph over sadness through language and song. Because Levine has kept alive in himself the impulse to sing,” Hugo concludes that Levine is destined to become one of the most celebrated poets of the time.”
- Buckley, Christopher, ed. On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1991.
- Boroff, Marie. Review of They Feed They Lion. Yale Review (Autumn 1980).
- Hirsch, Edward. ”Naming the Lost: The Poetry of Philip Levine.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28.2 (1989): 258-266.
- Hugo, Richard. ”Philip Levine: Naming the Lost.” American Poetry Review 6 (1977): 27-28.
- Leibowitz, Herbert. ”Lost Souls, Lost Cause.” The New York Times Book Review (October 7, 1979): 15, 30-31.
- Mazzocco, Robert. ”Matters of Life and Death.” New York Review of Books 22 (April 3, 1975): 20-23.
- Tillinghast, Richard. ”Working the Night Shift.” New York Times Book Review (September 12, 1982):Sec. 7, 42.
- Young, Vernon. Hudson Review (Winter 1979).
- Philip Levine on Poets.org. Retrieved October 26, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/ prmPID/19.
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