A new U.S. Poet Laureate has just been named, and that honor goes to Philip Levine, who follows W.S. Merwin in the role. Upon learning the other day that Levine has been named poet laureate, I was surprised he never has been so before. He has been publishing for decades now, and it seems that at least one or two of his poems appear in every creative writing/poetry textbook or contemporary American poetry anthology.
Levine is one of my favorite contemporary American poets, and I’m so glad he got the honor. I first discovered his work through the anthology we used in my undergraduate poetry workshop courses. I then purchased his collecton of new and selected poems. Levine is a native of Detroit, and though he spent years working at prestigious colleges, he never stopped writing about his working-class roots. That’s what I’ve always liked about his poetry-how he focuses on the marginalized and the working-class, honoring such folks.
Despite the rough characters in his poems, there’s always tenderness to his work, no matter the labor the characters in his poems perform. One of my favorite Levine poems is “You Can Have it,” which is about the loss of his brother, who is “hard and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse for God and burning eyes that look upon/all creation and say, ‘You can have it.'” Like a lot of Levine’s work, that poem features direct, blue-collar language and description, but there’s a real tenderness and sorrow to it. The speaker is crying out for his brother, who died young, due to hard labor jobs.
The New York Times, Washington Post, and other publications ran nice articles about Levine this past week. But I especially like the Philadelphia Inquirer’s article. The article has nice background info about Levine, as well as a decent analysis of some of his poems and some strong quotes from the poet. I especially like that Levine promises he will use the role of poet laureate as a bully pulpit for the kinds of characters that fill his poems– the working-class and marginalized.
Check out his work by clicking here. And you should also check out the work of W.S. Merwin, the last poet laureate. He’s another great contemporary poet.