Philip Levine: America’s New Poet Laureate

Philip Levine - Poet Laureate of the United States

Philip Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and started writing poetry at 13.  He hated the “prissy” stuff he learned in school and modeled the language of his early work on preachers heard on the radio.  Levine wrote many of the poems that fill his 16 books in the evenings, after working by day in the auto plants. He has been called the “poet of the proletariat.”

In announcing Levine’s appointment, James H. Billington, of the Library of Congress, called Levine

“one of America’s great narrative poets. His plainspoken lyricism has, for half a century, championed the art of telling ‘The Simple Truth’—about working in a Detroit auto factory, as he has, and about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives.”  http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/08/10/139348573/philip-levine-named-as-americas-new-poet-laureate

Levine’s collection of poetry, The Simple Truth won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

Here is the title poem:

The Simple Truth by Philip Levine

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat,” she said,
“even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

When he first heard of the appointment, Levine was skeptical.  “I’m fairly irreverent,” he said, “and an old union man.”  In the end he realized this was his chance to reach a wider audience than he has had in years, and he accepted.  Levine will hold the office of Poet Laureate for the coming year.

***

Learning of Levine’s appointment was not just exciting in the sense of finding a new author to read, but exciting because the central passage of “The Simple Truth,” contains a compelling challenge.  What are those things, the poem seems to ask, in my life and in yours, that are so simple and true they can stand by themselves, unadorned, beside the salt shaker and a glass of water in evening light as it falls across the table:

Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

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2 Responses to Philip Levine: America’s New Poet Laureate

  1. Brenda Fortna says:

    Your love of words comes through once again. Thank you for including Levine’s entire poem in your post and then the excerpt for greater reflection. Beautifully done.

    Like

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