(February 15, 2015) – Philip Levine, an emeritus professor of English at California State University, Fresno and former poet laureate of the United States, died from pancreatic cancer in his Fresno home Saturday at the age of 87.
An icon in both the literary world and at Fresno State, Mr. Levine’s accomplishments included a Pulitzer Prize for his collection “The Simple Truth” in 1995 and National Book Awards in 1980 and 1991. He served as poet laureate from 2011 to 2012.
“Levine’s impact on American literature is not easy to calculate, but it is profound,” said Dr. Vida Samiian, former dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State that houses the Department of English where Levine taught for more than 30 years.
“He has surely put Fresno on the map and brought immense honor to our community and our campus throughout the years,” she said.
Many of his poems explored the lives of working class Americans, often drawing on themes of loss and regret.
“He is one of those poets whose work is so emotionally intense, and yet so controlled, so concentrated, that the accumulative effect of reading a number of his related poems can be shattering,” Joyce Carol Oates said of Mr. Levine in the “American Poetry Review.”
Born in Detroit to immigrant parents, Mr. Levine worked in industrial factory jobs while attending high school. When Mr. Levine was 5, his father died, and that, plus his experiences living through the Depression and his factory work deeply influenced his work as poet.
He was a first-generation college student, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from what was then Wayne University. Mr. Levine also earned a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Mr. Levine’s connection to Fresno started in 1958 when he joined the Department of English at Fresno State. He retired in 1992, but remained deeply connected to the program.
“He inspired literally hundreds of Fresno State students when he was on campus and in the years since,” Samiian said. “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.”
Dr. Corrinne Hales, Fresno State English professor and coordinator of the Levine Prize in Poetry, called Mr. Levine “an extraordinary poet, teacher, colleague and friend, and one of the most big-hearted people I have ever known.”
“Most of us have many funny stories about Phil being a very blunt and tough teacher, but what sometimes gets overlooked is how absolutely generous he was with his expertise, his time and his energy with students, colleagues and friends,” Hales said.
Known for his self-deprecating humor and humility, Mr. Levine said his appointment as poet laureate was an honor he did not seek. “The single greatest reward was the writing of the stuff itself, the poetry,” he told The Fresno Bee in 2011. “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.”
He 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, Mr. 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.
“Phil Levine was a gifted poet and teacher whose legacy is clearly seen in his many Fresno State students who themselves went on to be teachers and published poets,” said Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro. “As a plain speaking, working class poet, his sensibility resonated with Valley students, who gravitated to him as a teacher and mentor. We cherish his memory and will miss his poetic voice.”