Philip Levine, an emeritus professor of English at California State University, Fresno, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, has been appointed poet laureate of the United States.
The announcement was made Wednesday, Aug. 10, by James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress. www.loc.gov/today/pr/2011/11-143.html
Levine, known for his self-deprecating humor and humility, said being appointed poet laureate was an honor he didn’t seek and thought might have passed him by at age 83. He said it wasn’t the greatest honor in a career that has brought him many awards.
“The single greatest reward was the writing of the stuff itself, the poetry,” he told The Fresno Bee. “And the second biggest one had to do with my students, mainly here at Fresno State. I had some amazing students here who went on to wonderful careers as poets. Many became very good friends of mine.”
Fresno State President John D. Welty said, “Phil Levine is an icon both in the literary world and at Fresno State, where he taught and inspired our students. The prestige of his appointment enhances his Fresno State legacy, which includes our Master of Fine Arts creative writing program, known for its distinguished faculty and the accomplished writers it has produced.”
His Fresno State teaching legacy includes Roberta Spear, Sherley Williams, Lawson Inada (the former Oregon poet laureate), Ernesto Trejo and Gary Soto. And since retiring from Fresno State, Levine has inspired other poets when he taught at Columbia, Vanderbilt, Princeton, Brown, Tufts, the University of California and New York University.
His legacy for readers includes “The Simple Truth,” the 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winner for poetry, and “The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography” (1994), “Don’t Ask” (1981), “So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews” (2002) and “Breath” (2004).
He has won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, Frank O’Hara Prize, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1997 Levine was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Upon hearing of his longtime friend and former faculty colleague’s appointment, poet Charles Hanzlicek wrote, “Philip Levine has received almost every prize or award available to a poet, culminating in his winning the Pulitzer Prize. Can you follow a culmination with another culmination? If so, then being named poet laureate fills that bill.”
Dr. Vida Samiian, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities that houses the Department of English where Levine taught at Fresno State from 1958 to 1992, said “Levine’s impact on American literature is not easy to calculate, but it is profound.
“He inspired literally hundreds of Fresno State students when he was on campus and in the years since,” she added. “The Levine Prize, presented annually from Fresno State’s Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program to a promising poet, is just one way he continues to nourish literature in the United States.”
And Levine is closely identified with Fresno, where he lives seven months of the year when he doesn’t reside in Brooklyn, N.Y., or at a university where he’s in residence. Samiian said, “Everyone in American Literature knows and respects him and identifies Fresno with Phil Levine. So many times, at conferences and literary events, when I mention Fresno, the reply is, ‘Home of my favorite poet, Phil Levine.’
“He has surely put Fresno on the map and brought immense honor to our community and our campus throughout the years,” Samiian said.
In making the one-year appointment, Billington told the New York Times Levine is “an extraordinary discovery because he introduced me to a whole new world I hadn’t connected to in poetry before.
“He’s the laureate, if you like, of the industrial heartland,” Billington added. “It’s a very, very American voice. I don’t know that in other countries you get poetry of that quality about the ordinary workingman.”
Formerly more of an honorific title, poets laureate recently have undertaken projects. While Levine told the Times he would like to promote poetry’s lighter side of poetry, he likes to give broader exposure to those poets who are underappreciated.
“I don’t want to overextend myself, but at the same time I would like to use the ‘bully pulpit,’ as they call it, to bring attention to some of my concerns,” Levine told the Associated Press www.sfexaminer.com/entertainment/2011/08/philip-levine-named-countrys-poet-laureate. “There’s a great deal of American poetry that’s hardly known and that should be known. As a poet who didn’t get published for a long time, I know what it’s like to not to be read.
“The other thing I’d like to do is reach out to readers. I would like to bring attention to the kind of people I’ve written about,” added Levine.