Philip Levine: New U.S. Poet Laureate

Philip Levine has just been appointed the 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2011-2012. Here is a recent interview with him from his “home now,” Brooklyn Heights, New York, produced by the Cortland Review. Apparently he lives blocks from my daughter, and it was fun recognizing the landmarks. I hope you’ll enjoy this informal visit where he talks about work, writing, and his life in New York.


Levine brings to his poetry a working-class sensibility in a clear yet profound voice. I’m looking forward to what he’ll do during his term and, I hope, seeing more new work. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth (1994). His most recent collection, News of the World, and others will be part of the book fair at the first Santa Clara County’s Favorite Poems Reading, Sunday, September 18th at 1pm at the Stevens Creek Barnes and Noble.

Mark your calendars!

And while Levine writes of hard work and industry from his early days in Detroit’s factories, as well as poems of the streets of New York, he taught at California State University, Fresno, for many years. Here is one of his poems set in the central valley. Enjoy~

Our Valley
by Philip Levine

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
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.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

Source: Poetry (November 2008).

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2 Comments

Filed under Laureate's News, On Poetry

2 responses to “Philip Levine: New U.S. Poet Laureate

  1. Thanks, Sally, for giving us one more facet of Philip Levine’s poems.
    Mary Lou Taylor

  2. Lovely post! I’m glad to become acquainted with Levine, but I’m most grateful to him for introducing me to Galway Kinnell:

    A little bit about my discovery of Kinnell:
    http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/08/discovering-new-old-poets-galway.html

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