Philip Levine

Balladeer for the working man, newest Poet Laureate of the United States

With the arrival of autumn, we enter a new literary season, according to the Library of Congress. To usher in this period of erudite orchestration and balladry, the Librarian of Congress has appointed poet Philip Levine (who thankfully would never use the phrase erudite orchestration) as the new Poet Laureate of the United States.

Levine was born in 1928. He grew up in Detroit, and worked various blue-collar and manufacturing jobs. He began writing poetry in college, and has since been the recipient of many distinguished honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Describing the inspiration for his poem “What Work Is”, Levine talks of an episode in which he was made to wait in the rain for two hours with a group of men looking for work outside of a Ford plant. He recalls:

“I realized that they’d done this on purpose… They required a test of our docility. If we hadn’t waited for two hours, then we weren’t right for these sh**ty jobs… And it angered me. I carried that anger with me for many, many years…”

The anger at the indignity suffered by America’s working class comes through in much of Levine’s work, especially earlier in his career. His later writing includes more of an ironic, and loving touch.

This “loving irony” is a quality that makes Mr. Levine instantly likable, and it certainly comes through in some of his readings, which are available on the Internet Poetry Archive, hosted by ibiblio. On this site users can listen to Levine, as well as other poets such as Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney and Czeslaw Milosz read and discuss a selection of their own works.

Here is Levine reading his National Book Award-winning poem: “what_work_is

The IPA is a unique resource, and contains recordings of these distinguished artists that are not found anywhere else. We at ibilio highly recommend browsing the collection, and maybe you too will be inspired to try out your lyrical chops…

In exposure to po’ms are you wanting?

Seek ye words both alluring and haunting?

To remedy this, do not be remiss,

to find them need not be so daunting…

All you have to do is visit the Internet Poetry Archive, at ibiblio!

Hm, maybe we’d better leave it to the pros. Congratulations, Philip Levine!