Poet laureate Philip Levine died of pancreatic cancer on Saturday morning at the age of 87.
Dan Friedman, writing for the Forward on August 9, 2011, characterized the poet as a working-class Jewish hero of words:
Levine was one of the oldest poets laureate and his work was certainly the most humble in tone from among that august group. Though he lived in Fresno, Calif., and had spent time in New York City, he was born in Detroit to Russian Jewish immigrant parents and had long identified with the blue collar workers among whom he worked in that city.
From the beginning of his career he considered the assumptions of the American ruling class — especially those they have successfully transmitted to the rest of the country — with a degree of skepticism. His first book, “On the Edge” (1963) talks of promises in bad faith (“Those promises we heard / We heard in ignorance”) and, in the poem “Distant Winter” he talks of “the last war.” From early on, he felt the context of the Vietnam War and, in 1968 was one of the co-signatories of the 1968 “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest.” For decades, although becoming mellower, he has written about the capitalist industrial system with the experience of an insider but the knowledge of an outsider.
Ironically, given the demise of the sensationalist British tabloid by the same name, his recent book, “News of the World” (Random House, 2009) reviewed in this paper was quietly received, but continued to speak of city people’s everyday experiences. Even his own life with words is regarded as a brief sally out of the real world that he and his friends experienced while working in industry in their 20s. In “News of the World” he wrote:
I would sit for hours with the sunlight
streaming in the high windows and know
the delivery van was safe, locked in the yard
with the brewery trucks, and my job secure.
In 2000 he was the first poet in the Forward’s Psalm 151 series curated by Rodger Kamenetz. He was later joined by a distinguished group of living (and now dead) Jewish American poets including Gerald Stern and Grace Paley.
He is, perhaps, best known for his 1991 book “What Work Is” which won the National Book Award, but it was his 1995 collection “The Simple Truth” that won him a Pulitzer and both of those came over a decade after he won a National Book Critics and an American Book Award for “Ashes: Poems New and Old” which begins with filiation, affiliation and the betrayal of human life by the motors they produce:
Father The long lines of diesels
groan toward evening
carrying off the breath
of the living.
Levine was the latest Jewish poet of a proud line, dating back to Karl Shapiro in 1946 and more recently Robert Pinsky from 1997 to 2000. He was happy to have been chosen from an elite band of poets about whom he told the Times “most of them are damn good. Not all of them — I’m not going to name names — but most.”
Dan Friedman is the director of content and communications at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Formerly the executive editor and whisky correspondent of the Forward, he is the author of an illuminating (and excellent value) book about Tears for Fears, the 80s emo rock band.