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Philip Levine, America's Poetry Man

New U.S. poet laureate aims to shine spotlight on lesser-known artists

Calling all great but little-known poets: Philip Levine wants to champion you.

"I'm looking for poets who are significant and underappreciated," says Levine, 83, who in August was named the 18th poet laureate of the United States. "Someone who is a terrific poet and who is not a common name to most people."

See also: Interview With Garrison Keillor on 'Good Poems'

Philip Levine, United States Poet Laureate, 2011

Photo by Jim Wilson/The New York Times/Redux

Philip Levine, 83, is the new U.S. poet laureate.

Levine's new position, formally known as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, has few specific duties beyond suggesting which poets should be invited to read their works in the Library of Congress' literary series at the Poetry and Literary Center in Washington. But many poet laureates have sought to undertake projects that broaden audiences for poetry. "I'd like to have a lot of input on that," he says.

The Detroit native, who splits his time between California and New York, plans to help shine the light on other poets, particularly those under the radar.

"Today, there are so many people writing poetry — writing good poetry — that I enjoy reading," says Levine, who has written 20 poetry collections, including his latest, News of the World. "There are people that I read with great pleasure, and I feel inspired by their work." They include American poets Adrienne Rich, Galway Kinnell, John Ashbery and Charles Wright.

"We don't have a good system for finding out who's out there," he continues. "This country is so vast, and so many people are writing now that it's hard to bring attention to them."

Surprising honor

Levine has gotten his share of attention. His many honors include the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for "The Simple Truth" and two National Book Awards, in 1991 for What Work Is, and in 1980 for Ashes: Poems New and Old. He also has written three nonfiction books and edited The Essential Keats.

"Philip Levine is one of America's great narrative poets," says James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress who named Levine to the one-year post. "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."

Being named poet laureate was a surprise to Levine. "It took some time to sink in," says Levine. "I was totally unprepared for it." His duties officially begin Oct. 17.

Frequently, Levine's writings reflect his experiences from working 12 years in Detroit's automobile plants, during and after the time he spent at what is now Wayne State University. While Levine continued to write about working-class Americans over the years, his other subjects have ranged from fatherhood (he has three sons and five grandchildren) and family life to war.

By age 28, he was teaching at the University of Iowa; he later settled in at the English department at California State University-Fresno, where he taught for more than 30 years and is now professor emeritus.

Shuns 'workingman' label

Despite never veering too far from issues affecting everyday people in his poetry over the years, Levine eschews any notion of being the "workingman's poet."

"I left hard labor at the age of 26. It would be pretentious and arrogant to say that I am the voice of the workingman," he says. "I don't know what they're doing now [in those factories] for me to presume that I speak for them.

"I speak for myself, and I welcome people to listen."

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Todd Beamon is a writer in Washington.

"The Simple Truth" 

An except from Philip Levine's poem "The Simple Truth":

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.

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