A Paycheck, and a Gut-Check

For poets, verse is their work.

But for poet Philip Levine, work is the stuff of poetry.

Levine — named the 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2011-2012 today by the Librarian of Congress — has been known for decades as the bard of the “working stiffs,” the people who actively toil for their daily bread.

A denizen of California, Levine for several years taught at Cal State/Fresno and other schools including New York University, Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Tufts and the University of California/Berkeley.  But early in his life, particularly during his young-adult years in Detroit, he worked at industrial jobs —  the transmission branch of a Cadillac plant , a night shift at Chevrolet Gear and Axle. During those years he started writing poems in his hours off the shopfloor to bring some coherence to a frankly gritty working life: “I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.”

Here are three Levine poems (“An Abandoned Factory, Detroit,” and “Among Children,” both courtesy of the website “Poemhunter,” and “Coming Close,” courtesy of “Poets.org” from the Academy of American Poets.

Levine is 83; he’s been a published poet since the early 1960s, with 20 collections published since.  His most recent book, published in 2010, is “News of the World.”  Levine won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for “The Simple Truth,” the National Book Award in 1991 for “What Work Is” and in 1980 for “Ashes: Poems New and Old,” the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979 for both “Ashes: Poems New and Old” and “7 Years From Somewhere,” and the 1975 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for “Names of the Lost.” He’s also won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize for Poetry, the Frank O’Hara Prize, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.  He has also published nonfiction essays and translates other poets’ work from Spanish.

Poetry lives at the Library of Congress.  Find out more here.

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