Poetry: Philip Levine is next U.S. poet Laureate

Philip Levine
Photo © Chris Levine





The United States new Poet Laureate is Philip Levine. He’s written 20 poetry collections, won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Simple Truth,” and at 83 is one of the oldest Laureates


“He’s the laureate, if you like, of the industrial heartland,” said James Billington, the librarian of Congress. “It’s a very, very American voice. I don’t know that in other countries you get poetry of that quality about the ordinary workingman…”

“He hadn’t particularly aspired to be poet laureate, Mr. Levine said, but he was pleased that after a long career, the honor had come his way. “How can I put it? It’s like winning the Pulitzer,” he explained. “If you take it too seriously, you’re an idiot. But if you look at the names of the other poets who have won it, most of them are damn good. Not all of them — I’m not going to name names — but most. My editor was thrilled, and my wife jumped for joy. She hasn’t done that in a while.”

– from  The New York Times


Our Valley – by Philip Levine

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

– from “News of the world” by Philip Levine  (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)


What Work Is – by Philip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work
You know what work is — if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

— From “What Work Is,” by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).


About dearrosie

We think we need so much, when all we really need is time to breathe. Come walk with me, put one foot in front of the other, and get to know yourself. Please click the link to my blog - below - and leave me a comment. I love visitors.
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21 Responses to Poetry: Philip Levine is next U.S. poet Laureate

  1. shoreacres says:

    Oh, my gosh. I’ve never heard of this fellow, and now he’s MY poet laureate and even better – this is some of the best poetry ever.

    “What Work Is” – well, that one just left me speechless. And it points to the kind of work I have to do if I want to – well, not sing opera, but maybe sing something. Someday. 😉

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Linda,
      For some reason it makes me feel special when our poet Laureate’s poetry makes you want to sing. I look forward to hearing singing at your first concert. Don’t forget to let me know.

  2. souldipper says:

    Wow, Rosie, Philip Levine is one of those people who pulls that deep inner knowing from deep within the reader, sets it in front of me like filigree wisdom and says, “What? it’s been there all along. What’s the big deal?”

    I’m in awe. Thank you for a wonderful start to my Sunday’s readings!

    • dearrosie says:

      Amy I’m really glad you started your Sunday morning readings with Philip Levine’s powerful words. When a good poet accomplishes so much with so few words, I’m left gobsmacked (which I think, in this context, is a much better way to say “speechless”)

  3. Barbara Rodgers says:

    Raw and beautiful – I appreciate poets who make us aware of the unsung heroes of the working class and also of our precarious relationship with the natural world. He deserves the honor!

  4. Priya says:

    Thank you for introducing Philip Levine and his simple words. It is the simple things that go unnoticed, and yet, are the ones that make this world what it is.

    I am going to think a lot about “mountains dissolving in dust”, and “trying to sleep off a miserable night shift” today, Rosie.

    • dearrosie says:

      Priya you are skilled at using simple words and unique word combinations just like Mr Levine’s “mountains dissolving in dust”. I have a feeling that his poems are going to inspire you to reach higher mountains. I look forward to it…

  5. Lovely post! I’m glad to become acquainted with Levine, but I’m most grateful to him for introducing me to Galway Kinnell:

    A little bit about my discovery of Kinnell:

  6. Dinah says:

    Phillip Levine is one of America’s best poets — always accessible, always true. He has won just about every poetry prize there is. I think it’s just perfect that this great voice of working people has been chosen to be poet laureate at this particular moment in our history. Good for him and for all of us!

    • dearrosie says:

      I didn’t know that Philip Levine had won “just about every poetry prize there is”. But I’m not surprised. I was introduced to him earlier this year when the Academy of American poets shared one of his poems, and I fell in love with it.

      I look forward to discovering more of his poetry, and I hope to have an opportunity to hear him read.

  7. Lovely, lovely, Rosie — thanks SO much for sharing! And I read in the NY Times yesterday that his book sales have leaped … and for a poet, that is really saying something. Really enjoyed the poems you chose! xooxxo b

    • dearrosie says:

      It’s thrilling to hear that a poet’s selling many books. After reading a few of his poems – I’m glad you like the two I chose Betty – I can’t wait to read more, and am also going to buy his books.

  8. Cindy says:

    He is brilliant!

  9. jane tims says:

    “the mountains have no word for ocean” That is lovely. No wonder he is Poet Laureate! Jane

    • dearrosie says:

      Hello and welcome to my humble home Jane.
      I also love that phrase. We have to keep plugging away and in the hope that we’ll up with something comparable.

  10. jane tims says:

    Hi. I hope you’ll visit me at http://www.nichepoetryandprose.wordpress.com
    I write on many themes, but I’m a botanist, so most of my poems include plants. I’ll look around your site some more. Bye for now… Jane

    • dearrosie says:

      Hi Jane,
      I’m intrigued to hear that you’re a botanist who writes poetry. Thanks for the link to the your blog. I loved your photos of the waterfall, and the picnic table in the middle of the woods, and enjoyed reading your poems.

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