Philip Levine was a brilliant poet and teacher. And a regular guy. Someone who favored white T-shirts and who, for many years, worked out at the Gold’s Gym near Blackstone Avenue and Griffith Way in Fresno. Just another old-timer trying to ward off the inevitables that accompany advancing age.
Mr. Levine, who died Saturday at age 87 in his Fresno home, was born in Detroit to Russian Jewish immigrants. Early on, he toiled in the auto plants, but yearned for something more personally fulfilling than a factory job. He went to college at night and then, in 1958, landed a teaching job at Fresno State.
Mr. Levine followed the No. 1 rule for writers: He wrote what he knew. The result was spare free verse about hard work and working people. He was the perfect guy to do it.
“You grow up in a place and it becomes the arena of your discovery,” Mr. Levine told the Detroit Free Press in 2011. “It also became the arena of my discovery of the nature of American capitalism and the sense of how ordinary people have no choice at all in how they’re going to be formed by the society. My politics were formed by the city.”
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Mr. Levine had already won a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards when he was named our nation’s poet laureate by the Library of Congress in 2011. Some literary critics (and Levine boosters) said that he should have received the honor many years earlier. But the timing was perfect for a nation still recovering from the Great Recession.
In “What Work Is,” the title piece of Mr. Levine’s award-winning 1991 collection, he writes about standing in line, hoping for a job:
You know what work is — if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants.
Anyone who has been unemployed or who has stood around for day labor knows exactly what Mr. Levine means.
But we can’t end our salute to Mr. Levine here. The teacher and his students began something special at Fresno State in the 1960s. Two more great poets, Peter Everwine and C.G. Hanzlicek, joined the faculty early on and America’s literary community marveled at the talent developed at the university.
Glover Davis arrived at Fresno State fresh out of the Navy in 1960.
“He was a stand-up comedian,” Davis told The Bee about Mr. Levine in 2008. “He used humor to get you going. If there was anything ridiculous in your poem, he would point it out and amplify it.”
Davis would go on to teach 39 years at San Diego State. Another student, Lawson Inada, would become a university professor and Oregon’s state poet laureate: “I used the same approach in teaching that Phil used. There’s a whole bunch out here who got head-coaching jobs because of him. He’s the Bill Walsh of poetry.”
Through the decades, people would ask Mr. Levine why he kept one foot in Fresno even as he lived part of the year in Brooklyn and taught at prestigious universities all over the country.
One reason was his family home on old Van Ness Avenue. Mr. Levine was superstitious and believed he did his best work there. Another reason was his appreciation for Fresno State students, many of whom had already graduated from the School of Hard Knocks.
“The best students I ever had were here at Fresno State,“ Mr. Levine said in a 2008 interview. “I realized, after teaching at Princeton and Brown, that these Ivy League kids had never failed in an academic setting. But when you go to write serious poetry or fiction, you’re going to fail in the beginning. They found that intolerable, and I had students cry in class.
“The kids at Fresno State hadn’t gotten into Berkeley. They were from families that hadn’t been to college before. You’d tell them they had two or three lines out of 20 lines that were genuine and authentic, and they didn’t have a problem with that. They might get angry; I had one swear at me. But they didn’t cry.”
If someone were to make a movie of Levine’s life, we imagine somewhere in the script the regular guy in a white T-shirt would say, “There’s no crying in poetry.”