Fresno’s Philip Levine becomes poet laureate

August 10, 2011

Philip Levine of Fresno has been selected to be the nation’s next poet laureate. [The New York Times]

Known for his poems about working-class Detroit, Levine is considered a voice that speaks to the conditions of ordinary working people.

“I find him an extraordinary discovery because he introduced me to a whole new world I hadn’t connected to in poetry before,” said James Billington, the librarian of Congress, who selected Levine.

“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.”

Levine, 83, one of the oldest laureates selected, won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his book, “The Simple Truth.”

“I feel pretty good,” Levine told the Times from his home in Fresno. He said that he is still writing and that he finds great inspiration these days in the poetry of Thomas Hardy. “There’s this unbelievable humility in his work,” he said.

Still writing, he considers his earlier poems: “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 It’s been replaced by irony, I guess, and by love.”

Levine grew up in Detroit, where he held a succession of “stupid jobs,” and began writing poetry.

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.

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“ordinary working people” has become an anachronism