Philip Levine: During the War

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Librarian of Congress James H. Billington today announced the appointment of Philip Levine as the Library’s 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2011-2012.

Levine will take up his duties in the fall, opening the Library’s annual literary season with a reading of his work at the Coolidge Auditorium on Monday, October17.

"Philip Levine is one of America’s great narrative poets," Billington said. "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."

Philip Levine succeeds W.S. Merwin as Poet Laureate and joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served in the position, including Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Rita Dove and Richard Wilbur.

Levine is the author of 20 collections of poems, including most recently "News of the World" (2009), which The New York Times Sunday Book Review describes as "characteristically wise." Levine won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for "The Simple Truth," the National Book Award in 1991 for "What Work Is" and in 1980 for "Ashes: Poems New and Old," the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979 for both "Ashes: Poems New and Old" and "7 Years From Somewhere," and the 1975 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for "Names of the Lost."

Born in Detroit, Mich., on Jan. 10, 1928, Levine received degrees from Wayne State University and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and in 1957 was awarded the Jones Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford. As a student, he worked a number of industrial jobs at Detroit’s auto-manufacturing plants, including Detroit Transmission—a branch of Cadillac—and the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory. Levine has said about writing poems in his mid-20s during his factory days: "I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry, I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought, too, that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life."

Levine taught for many years at California State University, Fresno, where he is professor emeritus in the English Department. He has also taught at New York University as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, as well as at Columbia, Princeton, Brown and Tufts universities, the University of California at Berkeley and elsewhere.

Levine’s nonfiction books include "The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography" (1994); "Don't Ask" (1981); and "So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews" (2002). He also has edited "The Essential Keats" (1987) and translated collections of Spanish poet Gloria Fuertes and Mexican poet Jaime Sabines.

Additional awards include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the Frank O’Hara Prize, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (for which he served as chair of the Literature Panel). In 1997 Levine was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2000-2006.

Source: Library of Congress; http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2011/11-143.html

 
 
During the War
 
When my brother came home from war
he carried his left arm in a black sling
but assured us most of it was still there.
Spring was late, the trees forgot to leaf out.

I stood in a long line waiting for bread.
The woman behind me said it was shameless,
someone as strong as I still home, still intact
while her Michael was burning to death.
 
Yes, she could feel the fire, could smell
his pain all the way from Tarawa–
or was it Midway?–and he so young,
younger than I, who was only fourteen,
 
taller, more handsome in his white uniform
turning slowly gray the way unprimed wood
grays slowly in the grate when the flames
sputter and die. “I think I’m going mad,”
 
she said when I turned to face her. She placed
both hands on my shoulders, kissed each eyelid,
hugged me to her breasts and whispered wetly
in my bad ear words I’d never heard before.
 
When I got home my brother ate the bread
carefully one slice at a time until
nothing was left but a blank plate. “Did you see her,”
he asked, “the woman in hell, Michael’s wife?”
 
That afternoon I walked the crowded streets
looking for something I couldn’t name,
something familiar, a face or a voice or less,
but not these shards of ash that fell from heaven.

“During the War” by Philip Levine, copyright by Philip Levine 2007.