Philip Levine, a poet inspired by his memories of Depression-era Detroit, has been named the next Poet Laureate of the United States.
Levine’s subject matter will resonate with a country coping with a recession. Just take a look at What Work Is, a poem that vividly describes an unemployment line, or Among Children, that articulates the hope and fear older people feel as they watch kids grow up in a turbulent world.
"Philip Levine is one of America's great narrative poets," Librarian of Congress James Billington said in a statement. "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."
Levine’s time as an autoworker gave him fuel for a lifetime of verse. “I saw that the people that I was working with … were voiceless in a way,” Levine once told Detroit Magazine. “Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be.”
The poet’s career has taken him far from the factory floor: Levine has published 20 collections of poems and received numerous accolades, including the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1997 and served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2000 to 2006.
Levine’s unpretentious narrative makes for accessible reading. In a 1999 interview with The Atlantic, Levine said that he always keeps the casual, suburban reader in mind.
Levine told the New York Times that his early work was full of “more dash, more anger,” but in his later work anger has “been replaced by irony, I guess, and by love.”
The poet Carol Frost said of Levine’s work: “The territory of this poetry keeps coming back to a center—praise for the common person, an American, probably with immigrant parents, who having gotten ‘off the bus/at the bare junction of nothing/with nothing’ manages to find a way home.”
Levine would like to use his new role to promote poetry with initiatives that are “a little light and humorous, to encourage people to think of poetry not quite so seriously,” he told the Times. He also wants to draw more attention to “the enormous number of forgotten poets out there.”
Levine will begin his tenure as the 18th Poet Laureate with a reading at the Library of Congress on October 17. At 83, he is one of the oldest Laureates appointed.
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