Philip Levine, former U.S. poet laureate and Fresno State professor, dead at 87

There was only a small window of time to take the photograph: It was August 2011, and Philip Levine was about to be named the 18th Poet Laureate of the United States. A Bee photographer scurried over to his Van Ness Avenue home in order to make the next day’s paper.

The poet didn’t dress up for the occasion. He opened the door wearing a plain white T-shirt.

Over a lifetime, Mr. Levine didn’t fancy it up.

He wrote poetry that celebrated working people, and his words both resonated with and uplifted them. In a career that saw him shoot to international fame, he steadfastly maintained that the success of his Fresno State students — many of whom he knew had worked as hard as him to better themselves — was one of his biggest rewards.

The Pulitzer-Prize winner and National Book Award winner died in Fresno on Saturday, Feb. 14, Fresno State officials confirmed. He was 87. The cause of death was pancreatic and liver cancer.

Mr. Levine wasn’t born in Fresno, but the Detroit native — whose poetry smelled of the sweat of hard work, the fecundity of the earth and the grease of the factory — let the city get into his nostrils. And his heart.

In a 2011 interview prior to being named the U.S. poet laureate, he said the single greatest reward was the writing of the stuff itself: the poetry.

“And the second biggest one had to do with my students, mainly here at Fresno State,” he said. “I had some amazing students here who went on to wonderful careers as poets. Many became very good friends of mine.”

When the poet came to Fresno State in 1958, the university didn’t even have a creative writing department. He built it into a nationally recognized program that pumped out a steady stream of illustrious graduates, including Larry Levis, Gary Soto, Roberta Spear, David St. John. Sherley Williams, Ernesto Trejo, Luis Omar Salinas and Lawson Inada.

“It is still a program that is known nationally because of him, even after all these years,” said Vida Samiian, former dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State.

He retired from the university in 1992 but remained deeply connected. The Levine Prize, presented annually from Fresno State’s Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program to a promising poet, is an endowed prize at the university.

He would go on to teach at some of the most prestigious universities in the land, including New York University, Columbia University, Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley, but Mr. Levine always returned to Fresno, where he split time between a home here and in Brooklyn.

The important thing for the Fresno poetry scene was that he would always come back, said C.G. Hanzlicek, a close friend and colleague who for 15 years headed the Fresno Poets’ Association.

“He found peace in his house on Van Ness,” Hanzlicek said. “He was very superstitious about poetry. There were fountain pens that had poems in them, and there were fountain poems that didn’t. He gave those away.”

Mr. Levine was the most disciplined writer Hanzlicek ever knew, he said.

“He went into his study and didn’t come out until after lunch,” he said. “Everyone who knew him knew you didn’t call the house in the morning. That was his work time.”

When it came to poetry, Mr. Levine was known for being blunt — both with his students and his friends. But that was because he had so much respect for the art of poetry, said fellow poet and close friend Peter Everwine.

“If he was blunt, it was because he wanted them to understand that it wasn’t a game,” Everwine says. “It wasn’t a matter of vocabularly or being fashionable. It was a matter of integrity, passion, interest and awareness of the audience that poetry spoke to.”

Certain themes intrigued him: working people. Spain. Jazz. Oh, yes, he loved jazz.

The earliest photo that Everwine has of Mr. Levine shows him as a young man in a kind of zoot suit ‘playing’ a saxophone – which he didn’t know how to do. “But there he was,” Everwine said, “standing there as if he were Charlie Ventura.”

A memorable fusion of jazz and poetry took place in March 2012 when Mr. Levine joined the Benjamin Boone Jazz Quartet on the stage of the Tower Theatre. Paired with the soft musings of saxophone, keyboard, percussion and bass, Levine launched into his poem “Our Valley,” which gives a nod to the mountains east of here:

They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,

a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls

slowly between the pines and the wind dies

to less than a whisper and you can barely catch

your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

Critics called him “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland” for his emphasis in his poems on the lives of factory workers trapped by poverty and the drudgery of the assembly line. Joyce Carol Oates once called him “a visionary of our dense, troubled, mysterious time.”

Mr. Levine wrote more than 21 collections of poetry, and in 1995 received the Pulitzer Prize for “The Simple Truth.” He won the National Book Award in 1991 for “What Work Is” and in 1980 for “Ashes: Poems New and Old.”

When Mr. Levine was given the poet laureate honor in 2011, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington declared him one of America’s great narrative poets.

“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,” Billington said.

Mr. Levine’s name had been kicked around for years in connection with the title.

“Actually, because of my age, I just assumed that I had been found wanting some years ago,” Mr. Levine joked at the time.

There was one more major poetry honor to come: the Wallace Stevens Award in 2013, which is given annually to recognize “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.”

Hanzlicek said Sunday that he couldn’t think of anyone who enjoyed life more than Mr. Levine. “He threw himself into everything with a passion,” he said. “He just had this gusto for life that you don’t often encounter. If I could say it of anyone, I would say it of him: It was a life well lived.”

Perspectives on Philip Levine

"We've lost a great presence in American poetry." Levine captured the ways "ordinary people are extraordinary."

-- Edward Hirsch, a friend of Levine and president of the Guggenheim Foundation.

"Levine's impact on American literature is not easy to calculate, but it is profound. He has surely put Fresno on the map and brought immense honor to our community and our campus throughout the years."

-- Vida Samiian, former dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State.

Levine was "an extraordinary poet, teacher, colleague and friend, and one of the most big-hearted people I have ever known. Most of us have many funny stories about Phil being a very blunt and tough teacher, but what sometimes gets overlooked is how absolutely generous he was with his expertise, his time and his energy with students, colleagues and friends."

--Corrinne Hales, Fresno State English professor and coordinator of the Levine Prize in Poetry.