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Philip Levine Remembered As Tough Teacher, Champion Of Everyday Workers

Feb 17, 2015

2011 U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine died Saturday at age 87.
Credit Fresno State News

U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine died on Saturday at his home in Fresno. He was age 87. The former Fresno State professor was known as the poet of the working class, and drew inspiration from his time working in the auto industry in his native Detroit and from the San Joaquin Valley, which he called home for nearly 60 years.

Levine took pride in bringing stories of physical labor in America to the world of poetry. Poet Peter Everwine was a close friend and colleague.

Everwine: "Phil’s poetry has always spoken to that sense of the nation’s spirit, and its belly and its blood. I mean it’s a physical and spiritual toughness that he’s talking about at that point."

"When I taught at Princeton, students had a very difficult time taking criticism about their writing. The students at Fresno State, they knew how to fail. They could take criticism and grow from it." - Philip Levine

From 1958 to 1992 Levine taught English at Fresno State where he helped develop the careers of younger poets and built a nationally recognized poetry scene.

Everwine: "Phil was a tough teacher. He made no nonsense of the seriousness of what people were undertaking as young poets. He took poetry seriously. He took young poets seriously which was even more important."

Levine’s students included the likes of Larry Levis, David St. John and Ernesto Trejo. And while Levine admitted he could be a tough teacher, he once told Valley Public Radio that his students in Fresno were his favorite.

Levine: "When I taught at Princeton, students had a very difficult time taking criticism about their writing. The students at Fresno State, they knew how to fail. They could take criticism and grow from it."

Levine’s personal story began in Detroit, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His interest in poetry started at a young age, but he found the world he lived in largely absent from the poems he read in school.

Levine: “Much of the poetry that I was reading at the time in junior high and high school was really irrelevant. I never saw an urban poem. Nobody wrote about the city. Everything was about fields and streams and rivers.”

And those urban poems are what made Levine famous. He himself described his early work as filled with anger - frustrations he witnessed as a cog in Detroit’s vast industrial machine. After moving to California he said he found striking parallels between Detroit and the San Joaquin Valley, another frequent theme in his work.

Levine: "I came out here and the same thing existed. There was a very small class of people who owned the place, vast farms, and a sort of auxiliary of people, some of them without even getting citizenship, who worked and worked and worked and bore the same kind of reputations [as the workers in Detroit]."

Levine said he tried to make his writing sound as spontaneous as the solos of the jazz stars that he admired.

Levine: "You know if someone picks up the poem and read it and says, ‘boy a lot of work went into this,’ then you know it’s a flop. It has to seem effortless."

In 1995 Levine won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poems “The Simple Truth” and in 2011 he was named U.S. Poet Laureate.