Levine Named Next U.S. Poet Laureate

BY Mike Melia  August 10, 2011 at 10:55 AM EDT

The Library of Congress announced Wednesday that Philip Levine will be the 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2011-2012. Levine, 83, succeeds W.S. Merwin.

“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 was born in Detroit in 1928 and was raised in a working class family in that industrial city. Talking about his time working at Ford’s River Rouge Plant, Levine told the NewsHour in 2010, “When I was a young guy working in these places and didn’t see a way out as yet — and I certainly didn’t think the way out would be poetry.”

Watch Levine read more of his work here.

Levine has written more than 20 collections of verse, winning the Pulitzer Prize and other awards on the way to becoming one of the nation’s most honored poets. Detroit, work and the lives of the working class have been the dominant themes of his work.

“I saw that the people that I was working with…were voiceless in a way,” he told Detroit Magazine. “In terms of literature of the United States they weren’t being heard. 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. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it. Or I’ve tried anyway…”

On how his career as a poet came to be, he told the NewsHour: “One of the things that made it happen was pure luck. On my 26th birthday, I met my present wife. And how many women could stay with a guy who has no prospects and wants to write poetry and stay with him now 55 years? Sometimes, she worked, so that I can sit home and scribble. And she honors what I’m doing. And I think that is the most crucial thing, to be honored, as a poet, even if it — not by a nation, because a nation is an abstraction, but just to be honored by this person, or that person, or especially by your wife, or your brothers, or your mother, father, I mean, it’s just fantastic. It keeps you going in a way that nothing else could keep you going.”

Levine will officially take over as poet laureate in October.