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Philip Levine Named As America's New Poet Laureate

America's new poet laureate, Philip Levine, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Here, he's seen in a file photo at the San Joaquin River Center in Fresno, Calif.
Gary Kazanjian
America's new poet laureate, Philip Levine, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Here, he's seen in a file photo at the San Joaquin River Center in Fresno, Calif.

America has a new poet laureate today, as the Library of Congress names Philip Levine in the one-year position. He will succeed W.S. Merwin in the post. Born in Detroit in 1928, Levine has used his poetry to examine blue-collar life, often embroidering everyday events with a sense of myth.

Announcing America's most prestigious poetry post Wednesday, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington called Levine "one of America's great narrative poets. His plainspoken lyricism has, for half a century, championed the art of telling 'The Simple Truth'—about working in a Detroit auto factory, as he has, and about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives."

Billington was referring to a collection of poems titled The Simple Truth, for which Levine won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 — not, it should be noted, the David Baldacci thriller of the same name published in 1999.

A central passage of that collection's title poem goes like this:

Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

Levine has also been featured on The Writer's Almanac, with Garrison Keillor. At the Almanac website, you can hear Garrison read some of the poems.

For Newscast NPR's Neda Ulaby filed this report:

As a kid, Philip Levine hated the 'prissy' poetry they taught in school. He started writing poems at 13, but he modeled his rhythms on the preachers he heard on the radio.

"Detroit at the time was probably half Southern," he said, "and any Sunday, I loved it."

Levine, who's won virtually every major prize for his work, including a Pulitzer and two Guggenheims, is celebrated for evoking the richness of ordinary American life. Here is a line from his poem "Call It Music":

"The perfect sunlight angles into my room before willow street, part milk part iron as it passes from me into the world."

As he told the AP, Levine wasn't sure he should take the Library of Congress post:

"I'm a fairly irreverent person and at first I thought, "This is not you. You're an old union man,'" Levine said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Fresno, Calif.

"But I knew if I didn't do this, I would kick myself. I thought, "This is you. You can speak to a larger public than has been waiting for you in recent years.'"

Levine's new official title is the Poet Laureate Consultant In Poetry — a slightly redundant moniker which suggests, once again, that government job titles are not created by poets.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.