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Literary Treasures: Philip Levine Closes the Literary Season (2012)

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The following post is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

In a packed auditorium on May 3, 2012, 18th U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine delivered his final lecture as laureate, “My Lost Poets”—a deep retrospective on Levine’s earliest introductions to poetry, and of the classmates and forgotten poets who greatly influenced his development.

Introducing this event and speaking on Levine’s tenure as laureate, Librarian of Congress James Billington had this to say:

I believe we as a people honor the value of hard work, and we see in that a dignity that binds us all. Mr. Levine’s poems represent hard work, but they remind me of the work we all do to contend with the world and try to make it better in whatever way we can, because poems do not romanticize or gloss over, but they indeed tell the simple truth—the truth that comes out of faith and community and ultimately in our country.

In his closing lecture, Levine spoke of his “marvelous high school literature teacher, Mrs. Piperno,” who introduced Philip Levine to the first “true poet who mattered” to him: Wilfred Owen, a celebrated World War I poet and soldier. Growing up in the shadow of World War II, war poets like Owen and Keith Douglas had a significant impact on Levine. Later, at Wayne State University, he fell into a group of college classmates who introduced him to poets like Demetrios Capetanakis, Alun Lewis, Naomi Replansky—poets who were touchstones for him but who are now largely absent from anthologies of the period.

About these earliest influences, Levine ended his lecture with this moving memorial:

Where would I have been without all of them, without Capetanakis and his strange vision of our origins, without Alun Lewis and the song she hurdled in death’s face, without Replansky and her righteous indignation, her struggles to resurrect the true Americas of William Blake and Cesar Vallejo, without the calm and surgical poems of Keith Douglas, without the dreams of all my lost or forgotten poets, my brothers and sisters in madness and glory who shared with me their faith in the power of the perfect words we knew as children and then forgot?

He prefaced the above by honoring his group of fellow Wayne State poetry students—he said, “I needed their encouragement, their criticism, their intelligence and dedication and their soulfulness . . . I think more than anything I needed their belief that we would share in the singular glory of poetry.” In that sense, Levine’s lecture served as a reminder not only of the poets we read who bouy us, but of our poetry community too—the fellow writers who help nurture the Philip Levines of tomorrow.

This closing event was certainly tender and powerful at the time, but is perhaps more powerful now: Philip Levine passed away in winter 2015. This lecture will always be a reminder of Levine’s contribution to the laureateship, and also as a poet we could never possibly forget.


  1. Thank you. Through the Library of Congress, and my thirst for knowledge (especially authors I’ve never heard of), my senses in enlightenment are saturated with the beauty of authors, unfamiliar, yet brilliantly celebrated.

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