Authors: Philip Levine

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


On the Edge, 1963

Not This Pig, 1968

Thistles, 1970

Five Detroits, 1970

Pili's Wall, 1971

Red Dust, 1971

They Feed They Lion, 1972; 1933, 1974

New Season, 1975

On the Edge and Over, 1976

The Names of the Lost, 1976

Seven Years from Somewhere, 1979

Ashes: Poems New and Old, 1979

One for the Rose, 1981

Selected Poems, 1984

Sweet Will, 1985

A Walk with Tom Jefferson, 1988

What Work Is, 1991

New Selected Poems, 1991

The Simple Truth, 1994

The Look of Things, 1996

Unselected Poems, 1997

The Mercy, 1999


Don't Ask, 1981

The Bread to Time: Toward an Autobiography, 1994

So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews, 2002


Tarumba: The Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines, 1979 (with Ernesto Trejo)

Off the Map: Selected Poems of Gloria Fuertes, 1984 (with Ada Long)

Edited Texts:

Character and Crisis: A Contemporary Reader, 1966 (with Henri Coulette)

The Essential Keats, 1987


Philip Levine (luh-VEEN) is a poet of the city, in particular of one city, the blue-collar workers’ city of Detroit. Levine himself was born, raised, and educated in Detroit, and he worked “a succession of stupid jobs” in a variety of factories, side by side with the voiceless men and women whose lives he later celebrated so eloquently and elegiacally through the poetry of song. In “Silent in America,” a poem from Levine’s first collection, On the Edge, the Walt Whitman line “Vivas for those who have failed” serves as an epigraph not only for that poem but for the bulk of Levine’s body of work.{$I[AN]9810001739}{$I[A]Levine, Philip}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Levine, Philip}{$I[tim]1928;Levine, Philip}

Philip Levine

Much of Levine’s poetry serves as a medium through which he memorializes “those who have failed.” Levine recalled that “While I was working in factories and trying to write . . . I said to myself, ‘Nobody is writing the poetry of this world here . . .’ And I sort of took a vow to myself . . . I was going to do it . . . I was going to write the poetry of these people.” As he writes in “A Walk with Tom Jefferson” Levine takes the reader into a “world with only/ three seasons. . ./ one to get tired, one to get/ old, one to die.” Levine is a tour guide into the nightshift of human suffering, where, as he writes in “Sweet Will,” the body is broken down and beaten, “sad tales of men/ who let the earth break them back,/ each one, to dirty blood and bloody dirt.” It would be reductive and misleading to define Levine’s work as the poetry of anger and decay, but it is true that his best work is born out of frustration and rage. In his poetry, however, Levine transforms and ultimately enriches the failed lives he is writing about, giving them a power and dignity and grace they may not inherently possess. This is especially true of poems written after the publication of They Feed They Lion, a book whose title poem is an incantation of “the acids of rage” that spawned the Detroit riot of 1967. In this poem he celebrates the anger of uprising, and for Levine the act of such celebration ultimately becomes an act of burning devotion, a gesture of joy and love. Out of the ashes of such a book, in the books that followed, Levine’s impulse began to shift toward a lyrical tenderness, a narrative merging of memory and personal myth, in which themes of death, regeneration, and rebirth take deep root.

The death of Levine’s father, in 1933, when Levine was five, marked a noticeable turning point in Levine’s growth as a poet. In 1933, which succeeded They Feed They Lion, he appears as a poet who, instead of being obsessed with failed lives, now has turned his eye to “a black man whose/ name I have forgotten who danced/ all night at Chevy/ Gear & Axle.” Such poems reflect the shift toward an inner landscape in which Levine can include, embrace, remember those who gave him his name. Here, too, however, Levine’s poems speak of the eternal and of the universal. In poems like “1933” and “Letters to the Dead” Levine’s eye and voice is bold and wide-sweeping, as seen in the line “all the dead fathers fall out of heaven/ and begin again. . . .” Here, too, Levine remains true to his aim, as he defines it in “Silent in America,” to speak and give voice to the “ugly/ who had no chance,/ the beautiful in/ body, the used and the unused,/ those who had courage/ and those who quit–.” Levine’s is a sensibility and a vision born out of a particular time and place: Detroit just before mid-century. It is this world that Levine inherited from his parents and continues to pass down to those willing to bear his lyrical gifts.

Philip Levine left Detroit in 1953, but, like a contemporary Orpheus, he cannot keep himself from looking back to the landscape that shaped his sensibility and to the city that put its stamp on all his poetry. In What Work Is, which won the 1992 National Book Award, and The Simple Truth, which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize, and The Mercy, Levine continues to celebrate lives that have been boxed in by work and to make poetry out of the daily bread of everyday working people, giving voice to those who are too often silenced by the day-to-day. In his poetry he rescues their own words–all the poems waiting to be told–from being swallowed by the sound of the “great presses slamming/ home, the roar of earth/ striking the fired earth.”

BibliographyBrouwer, Joel. “The Stubbornness of Things.” Progressive 68, no. 8 (August, 1999): 44. This observant and respectful review of The Mercy singles out key passages from representative poems to illustrate Levine’s fascination with the past and his “obsessive desire to get it right.”Buckley, Christopher, ed. On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. This first comprehensive look at the poet’s career offers important reviews chronologically arranged plus a series of essays that focus on different aspects of Levine’s work.Holden, Jonathan. Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. In the concluding section of this analysis of contemporary poetry, Holden singles out a poem by Levine, “Milkweed,” for special praise. He feels that it combines the attention to the world with the ability to make value judgments, the characteristics of postmodern poetry according to Holden.Jackson, Richard. “The Long Embrace, Philip Levine’s Longer Poems.” The Kenyon Review 11 (Fall, 1989): 160-169. A detailed analysis of three long poems of Levine: “Letters for the Dead” (in 1933, 1974), “A Poem with No Ending” (in Sweet Will, 1985), and “A Walk with Tom Jefferson,” the title poem of the 1988 volume. He singles out the most recent poem as the most successful in sustaining intensity throughout a long poem.Knight, Jeff Parker. Review of The Simple Truth, by Philip Levine. Prairie Schooner 71, no. 2 (Summer, 1997): 179-182. Claims that Levine measures the tension between truth and reality in The Simple Truth and in his other poems. Attending also to matters of craft, Knight praises “the perspective gained from an attentive lifetime.”Levine, Philip. “A Conversation with Philip Levine.” TriQuarterly 95 (Winter, 1995/1996): 67-82. In a conversation with Davidson College students, Levine comments on his style, the biographical sources for his subjects, and the situation of contemporary American poetry. A very rich ramble.Mariani, Paul. “Keeping the Covenant.” Review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson, by Philip Levine. The Kenyon Review 11 (Fall, 1989): 170-171. This laudatory essay compares Levine to Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. Mariani concludes that Levine’s poetry has kept its covenant with the dispossessed.Mills, Ralph. Cry of the Human. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975. The clearest analysis of Levine’s early work. Mills singles out “They Feed They Lion” and “Angel Butcher” as remarkable achievements and concludes his analysis by calling Levine one of the best poets writing in English today.Smith, Dave. Local Assays: On Contemporary American Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Despite the fact that Smith feels that the work is sometimes marred by polemics, he states that Levine is a master of depicting daily life. He praises the work for its honesty and accessibility and finds the theme of communion at the heart of Levine’s poetry.Stein, Kevin. “Why ‘Nothing Is Past’: Philip Levine’s Conversation with History.” In Private Poets, Worldly Acts: Public and Private History in Contemporary American Poetry. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996. Stein explores the way in which the past impinges on the present in Levine’s work. Levine carries on a dialogue with the past to reach “an understanding of the self that transcends the self.”Tillinghast, Richard. “Poems That Get Their Hands Dirty.” The New York Times Book Review, December 18, 1991, 7. Compares Levine’s What Work Is to Turner Cassity’s Between the Chains and Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World.Vendler, Helen. “All Too Real.” The New York Review of Books 28 (December 17, 1981): 32-36. An all-out attack on Levine’s poetry, an exception to the usual praise heaped on it. Vendler criticizes the metrics, the anecdotal subjects, and what she calls the sentimentality of the poetry. She states that Levine has too limited a notion of the real.
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