Philip Levine, Pulitzer Prize winner and former US Poet Laureate, passed away on Saturday at the age of 87.
“It had started before I went to college. I think I was about fourteen when I fell in love with—I didn’t call it poetry, it was just composing,” said Levine.
As a young man, he worked in a soap factory and then in a transmission factory at Cadillac in Detroit. Levine recited poems on the assembly line where no one could hear him above the noise. He wrote for nearly a decade without submitting his work for publication. “I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own,” he said.
His writing speaks to me because much of it is a narrative about people and their work, their relationships with work, and the effects of work. Regarding work, Levine said, “It never ends. And for God’s sake, try to get a job that you like. Because if you have a job that you like, it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t end.”
He studied at the University of Iowa Workshop, where he met John Berryman and credits this friendship as an inflection point in his practice. “Berryman…was the one who gave me insight into how to become a better poet, and I saw the ferocity with which he pursued poetry. I thought: “I’m going to have to be that ferocious if I’m going to make it.” And I became that ferocious. Poetry right at the center,” said Levine. If something didn’t make him a better poet, he didn’t do it.
My own lesson learned from Levine’s ferocity – either do things that serve your writing or don’t write at all. Commit fully.