On Valentine’s Day 2015, Philip Levine, former poet laureate of the United States and longtime English professor at California State University, Fresno, passed away from pancreatic cancer. The New York Times obituary characterized his work as “vibrantly, angrily and often painfully alive with the sound, smell and sinew of heavy manual labor.”
Levine told Bill Moyers in 2013 that he was cautious about writing from a place of anger, but that the emotion nevertheless informed some of his writing. When Moyers asked Levine what made him most angry, Levine answered plainly: “American capitalism. Its heartlessness. And American racism. The conditions that are imposed upon the poor by the rich . . . you never get over it.”
Moyers asked him if he thought there was “a class war fought against working people” in the United States. “Of course!” came the reply. And the people waging it were “those who live off the labors of those who work.”
Levine’s career lasted for nearly sixty years and produced more than twenty collections of poetry. His work won some of the top accolades in the United States: a Pulitzer Prize (The Simple Truth), a couple of National Book Awards (What Work Is; Ashes: Poems New and Old), and a designation as the nation’s top poet. As a professor, he opened his classes to nonpaying students. His final collection, The Last Shift, came out posthumously in 2016.
Over the expanse of Levine’s life, his choice of subjects and the style with which he treated them was largely unwavering. He focused primarily on the American working class, often in the postwar Midwest. His work was imbued with autobiographical aspects, and on one or more occasions, he made reference to his “gritty Detroit childhood; the soul-numbing factory jobs he held as a youth; Spain, where he lived for some time as an adult; and the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s, a personal passion since he was a boy.”
And yet his politics rarely resulted in didactic or moralizing work. Though poems like “Our Reds” express Marxist ideas, and later essays like Class With No Class display a clear hostility toward the rich, his poetic mode was, generally, journalistic. He recorded the voices and lives of American workers. And in doing so, he afforded them dignity, often connecting their feelings and experiences with the conditions of their labor.