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About Philip Levine

Jay Parini

Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, and educated in local schools and at Wayne State University. He is now Professor of English at California State University in Fresno. Levine has periodically lived in Spain, a country whose people, landscape, and history remain a strong presence in his poems.

A prolific poet, Levine has published collections at regular intervals since On the Edge appeared in 1963. His earliest poems were relatively formal in character, but Not This Pig (1968), his second book, marks the emergence of Levine's mature style, characterized by a haunting lyricism, an inward sense of the natural world (frequently invoked for symbolic purposes), and a strong identification with ethnic and working-class issues. There is an undertone of rage and defiance throughout this, and other, volumes. (In 'Animals Are Passing from Our Lives', for instance, a pig refuses to be butchered, crying in the last line: 'No. Not this pig.')

Levine is particularly well known for his poems set in Detroit, a blighted urban landscape about which he has written with visionary intensity. 1933 (1974) was his most explicitly autobiographical work, in which family members and the physical geography of Detroit were uniquely invoked. 'Letters for the Dead', 'Uncle', and ‘1933' are among the finest poems of his maturity, followed in The Names of the Lost (1976) by more poems set in Detroit, such as 'Belle Isle, 1949', which describes a young couple who 'baptize’ themselves in the polluted Detroit River with its 'brine / of cars parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, / melted snow'.

Levine's strong identification with the antifascist side of the Spanish Civil War has given his poetry a decidedly left-populist political slant, as in his elegy for a Republican soldier, 'To P.L., 1916-1937', which appeared in They Feed They Lion (1972), one of Levine's strongest collections. Another strong poem focused on this period is 'On the Murder of Lieutenant Jose Del Castillo by the Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936'--a vivid historical piece, published in The Names of the Lost. Here, as in Levine's best work generally, he re-creates a particular milieu with freshness and originality.

Though he has written well about Spain and Detroit, Levine has lived much of his adult life in northern California, and a number of his poems reflect the dry dust and hot climate of the Fresno Valley, as in 'A Sleepless Night', which begins: 'April, and the last of the plum blossoms / scatters on the black grass / before dawn'. Levine is, ultimately, a religious poet, and he invests whatever landscape he chooses to write about--geographical or mental--with a fervent spirituality. A volume called Ashes (1979) contains many of his most explicitly religious poems, many of which explore his Jewish roots, as in 'On a Drawing by Flavio', which summons the image of the Rabbi of Auschwitz, who 'bows his head and prays / for us all'.

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.

Fred Marchant

L. began to write poetry while he was going to night school at Wayne State University in Detroit and working days at one of that city's automobile manufacturing plants. The intersection of brutal factory work with an impulse to poetry formed the imaginative nexus out of which emanated not only L.'s first poems but also to a considerable degree his entire poetic output.

[. . .]

In that intersection of two different kinds of labor, L. discovered that few of the fundamental experiences of working class life had rarely, if ever, found expression in the realms of contemporary American poetry. The epiphany that launched L. was his sense that the clang of industrial labor--and all the human spirit that was swallowed up in it--could be a source of a poetry that probed the many forms of alienation found in and among those people he knew best, those who had to work hard for a living.

[. . .]

[T]he imaginative core of his being is on the assembly line floor. It is there where he first sensed that an exploration of the infinite varieties of loss could be made into poetry.

L.'s working experience lent his poetry a profound skepticism in regard to conventional American ideals. He had seen too many victims of the crushing pressures felt in the lives of the poor, so he quite naturally found within himself an uncanny empathy with the outcast and the despised in general. In L.'s first two books, On the Edge (1963) and Not This Pig (1968), the poetry dwells on those who suddenly become aware they are trapped in some murderous processes not of their own making. In "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives," for example, the pig trotting off to market intends to keep his dignity, no matter what the charnel house outcome is, as if that kept dignity marks a triumph.

[. . .]

L.'s poetry developed its distinctive style and subject matter also during the same years as the U.S. was enmeshed in the African American struggle for civil rights. From L.'s point of view, the dehumanization of factory labor was just another example of what had happened over the centuries to racial minorities. Everything human was or would be turned into a commodity. People and all they cared about were bound to be bought, sold, trashed. The American Dream for some had always been a nightmare. Such is the insight that drives L.'s third book, They Feed, They Lion (1972). The title poem was inspired by race riots in Detroit in the late 1960s and forms the refrain of a chant that conjures the fury of the thwarted and dispossessed.

If, in his first two books, L. was somewhat traditional in form and relatively constrained in expression, he discovers with his third book an expressive form that will serve him throughout his poetic career. Beginning with They Feed, They Lion, L.'s poems are typically free-verse monologues tending toward trimeter or tetrameter. Sometimes he experiments with syllabic verse, while other times even his loose versification gives way to an emotion that demands release. Above all, the music of L.'s poetry comes to depend on a tension between his line-breaks and his syntax. His sentences want to cascade down the page, passing through skeins of modifying clauses and phrases, through enjambment after enjambment until the energy of his sentence is exhausted. For the reader, there is a gathering, vertiginous momentum in the typical L. poem, which leaves the reader feeling slightly out of control, not knowing what's going to happen next, but utterly in the grip of the emotion. The title poem of 1933 (1974), L.'s next book, is as good an example as any of the typical cascade of clauses and phrases one finds in L.'s poetry.

With 1933, a significantly surreal element also emerges into the foreground of L.'s work. The surreal had always been implicit in his poetry, but a long stay in Spain in the late 1960s confirmed L. in this direction. Studying Spanish, he also translated Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, among many others, and incorporated into his own work their unabashed combination of political concerns with the surprising, nonrational, nonrepresentational image or figure of speech. This served L. in subsequent books such as The Names of the Lost (1976) and Ashes (1979), the primary subject matter of which are elegies for family members. The speakers of these elegies not only explore feelings of loss and vulnerability, but also maintain an imaginative defiance in the face of death. They speak as if time and mortality were the oppressors; and the imagination--with its capacity for the surreal--becomes a way to lessen the fear of death. The surrealism in L.'s poetry is thus an assertion of the vital realm of the spirit. This is especially clear in his poems about the Spanish Civil War in 7 Years from Somewhere (1979), and most memorably in "To Cipriano, One for the Wind" in One for the Rose (1981).

The way in which the soul manages to survive in hostile environs has been the primary concern in L.'s poetry of the last fifteen years, the most productive period in his career.

[Excerpted from a longer essay in Encyclopedia of American Literature. Copyright © 1999 by the Continuum Pub. Co.]

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