Monday, February 16, 2015

Poet Philip Levine dead at 87: Home and far from home

Philip Levine

I didn't know the poet Philip Levine. I never met him, and I never heard him read, except on the Bill Moyers show in 2013 on TV.
But I loved him from afar.
Called the working man's poet, Levine died Saturday of pancreatic and liver cancer in Fresno, Calif. He was 87.
Born in 1928 in Detroit to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine grew up in the midst of the Great Depression. His heroes were the ordinary folks who worked at hopeless jobs simply to stave off poverty. Noted for his interest in the grim reality of the blue-collar worker, Levine resolved "to find a voice for the voiceless" while working from age 13 in the auto plants of Detroit. A former U.S. Poet Laureate, Levine won the Pulitzer Prize, twice the National Book Award, and in 2014, the $100,000 Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement.

Here's one of my favorite of his poems.


Sixteen years ago, in the high meadows
on the French side of the mountains, a clear
April morning, a warm wind slowing
through the young grains and grasses, the sun
touching everything with yellow light, I called
to my son Teddy, then fifteen, to come see,
and he left the car to stand beside me. He spoke
first, in a voice the wind half-swallowed, to say
something about the sweetness and the air
at this height. I had been asking a farmer
if he knew was the pass to Adorra open. Yes,
of course, on a day like this, and he laughed
his great laugh, a thickly built man
sweating in the open wool shirt high above
me on the tractor seat. I felt my wife's hand
in mine, squeezing, and turned in time to see
her holding back the tears for a moment before
they overflowed. Just the three of us, home and far
from home, a tiny family on so vast a plain,
with forty miles to go, yet were there.


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American poetry needs this kind of advocacy more than ever—with Levine’s death, it’s lost one of its most intense, elegantly strident voices.