Acclaimed poet to visit PSU

Poet Philip Levine, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, will be at Portland State on Wednesday, April 5. Levine will meet with PSU students and faculty for an informal question-and-answer session.

The English department will host the session in the Neuberger Hall conference room, Room 407, from 11 a.m. to noon. All members of the PSU community are welcome to attend.

Levine has written 16 books of poetry, including his Pulitzer-winning “The Simple Truth” (1994) and “What Work Is” (1991), the winner of the National Book Award.

Born in Detroit in 1928 to working-class Jewish immigrants, Levine was educated in the local public schools and later held a series of industrial jobs in his hometown, including running a jackhammer for Detroit Transmission and a stint in the local Chrysler factory.

During high school, Levine developed an interest in fiction writing and poetry and initially imagined himself as a novelist. He soon realized that his temperament was much more geared to writing poetry.

“Now, I have a lot more patience,” Levine said in a 1999 interview with Guy Shahar for The Cortland Review. “But back then, it was totally off. I realized poetry was the thing that I could do ’cause I could stick at it and work with tremendous intensity.”

Encouraged by his mother, Levine attended night school at Detroit’s Wayne University (now Wayne State University) and began writing poetry. At 26, he was admitted to the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he studied poetry with John Berryman and Robert Lowell.

“While at Iowa, he found his subject in the working class, the disenfranchised and the dispossessed – the men he’d worked alongside of and the people he’d grown up with,” said Michele Glazer, assistant professor of poetry in the department of English at Portland State.

Levine became known as a poetic voice of the Midwest working class. A large part of his poems focuses on his hometown of Detroit and on the brutality of factory work and the problems of blue-collar workers.

Levine married and, after finishing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, began teaching technical writing in Iowa. After his second son developed a severe case of childhood asthma, physicians recommended that Levine get the boy out of the Midwest and take him to California.

Without a Ph.D., Levine could not access positions at major universities, and his job search came down to a choice between teaching literature at Fresno State or technical writing at Los Angeles State. He chose Fresno State and spent four decades there, mentoring generations of poets.

Although Levine would eventually teach at Princeton, Brown, Tufts, Columbia and New York University, he claims to never have enjoyed a group of students as much as those at Fresno State.

In the 1999 interview with Shahar, Levine said, “For me, they were the rural counterparts of the same young people I had gone to school with at Wayne University in Detroit. They came out of the same social classes. They had the same lack of sophistication that I had, the same needs to write, the same kind of anger, motivation, doubt.”

Through the years Levine spent periods of time living in Spain, and another aspect of his work explores the Spanish Civil War, giving voice to his affinity for the leftist, antifascist revolutionaries.

Besides writing poetry, Levine has edited books of essays and translations. In addition to the Pulitzer and National Book Award, his accolades include two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships, a term as chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Chancellorship of The Academy of American Poets in 2000.

Levine’s most recent collection of poems is “Breath,” published in 2004.

Levine’s Wednesday visit represents a partnership between the Literary Alliance at PSU and Literary Arts, Inc. In addition to the PSU question-and-answer session, Levine will also give a reading on Tuesday, April 4, at 7:30 p.m. at the First Congregational Church. The reading is part of the Literary Arts Poetry Downtown series. For ticket information, call 503-227-2583.