Former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine is Dead at 87

Posted on February 15, 2015

Photograph of Philip Levine in front of tree

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine has died from complications of cancer at the age of 87. Levine died at his home in Fresno, California. Levine's wife, Frances, told the San Francisco Chronicle that her husband had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer less than one month ago. The Levines had been married for 60 years.

Mr. Levine was renowned for his poetry which examined the life of the American worker. He was raised by Jewish immigrants from Russia during the Depression in Detroit. He had his first factory job at the age of 14 and began writing poetry in his off time. He saw the exhaustion and despair that plagued low-wage workers and found a passion in himself to share their story with the world.

After being chosen for a Stanford Writing Fellowship, his career took off. He published his first collection of poems On the Edge, in 1963. In addition to teaching and publishing numerous books of poetry, he also wrote nonfiction articles and essays, and served as the chair of the literature panel of the National Endowment of the Arts.

Levine escaped the life of a factory wage earner, but his vow to speak for the workers remained a driving force in his life. He graduated Wayne University in Michigan and earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workship. His mentors were Robert Lowell and John Berryman.

After being chosen for a Stanford Writing Fellowship, his career took off. He published his first collection of poems On the Edge, in 1963. In addition to teaching and publishing numerous books of poetry, he also wrote nonfiction articles and essays, and served as the chair of the literature panel of the National Endowment of the Arts.

Mr. Levine was a professor at California State University at Fresno, New York University, Columbia and many other institutions. He gave generously of his time to mentor young poets. His most recent work is News of the World which was published by his long-time publisher Knopf in 2009.

Mr. Levine won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1995 for The Simple Truth. He won the National Book Award for Poetry twice: in 1980 for Ashes: Poems New and Old, and in 1991 for What Work Is. He also won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. Mr. Levine served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2011 to 2012.

Here is a video of Mr. Levine reading two of his poems at the 2013 Poets Forum. First he read one of his early poems called "On the Corner" which is about the blind jazz musician Art Tatum. He then read a more recent poem called "The Future." He joked that he doesn't usually read his older works because he sees all the things he's stolen and how much worse he got as a poet. Take a look:

Photo: Frances Levine