Philip Levine died Feb. 14 at age 87. This interview originally appeared in Tablet on April 16, 2012. To read a selection of verse by the poet, including “Library Days,” “The Seventh Summer,” and “Growth,” scroll below the interview.***This year, 83-year-old Philip Levine, poet of the working class, was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. Tablet book critic Adam Kirsch once pointedly noted that Levine “goes out of his way to tell us that he is essentially a peasant. … In his poetry he returns again and again to his pre-academic life as a manual laborer.” Having grown up in a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Detroit, Levine worked in factories until the age of 30, when he began teaching English and creative writing.Here, Levine talks to Tablet contributor Jake Marmer about his writing, ethics, being Jewish, and more.You’re best-known as the poetic voice of the blue-collar experience. Do you feel enriched or limited by this qualification?I’d say I’m indifferent to it. I don’t embrace it fondly. Robert Frost wouldn’t write just because he was a nature poet. It’s something that’s there, and it’s obvious—and it’s limiting. I think I write handsome poems about a great range of subjects.James Billington, the librarian of Congress, who picked you for the Poet Laureate award this year, called you a “very, very American voice.” Perhaps more than any other ethnic group in the United States, Jews have struggled with their dual identity. To what extent do your Jewish and American identities overlap and where are they disparate?I think I’m a typical example of a certain kind of an American Jew. That is: liberal, radically left, independent, big-mouthed, angry, proud. I know a lot of people like me. My family did not come to the United States for religious reasons: They came to survive. None of them were religious, not in the conventional sense. They didn’t keep kosher, they didn’t go to shul. They didn’t much care about that at all. What they cared about was being proud, raising their children to be like them—strong, proud. Detroit was a viciously anti-Semitic city. It was the home of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford, that’s all you need to know. A Jew in Detroit felt he or she was immersed in a non-friendly milieu. I have this poem called “Zeide”—do you know it?I don’t think so—it’s about your grandfather?Certainly not about my grandmother! Of course it’s about my grandfather—or somebody’s grandfather. And I have another poem about my grandmother—who I identify as Polish. I don’t call her Jewish, because she regarded herself as Polish and became a Christian Scientist—how do you like that? Born in a little shtetl in what was then part of the Russian Empire, and is now Ukraine. I didn’t care much for my bubbe. But my grandfather, Zeide, I loved. He was lecherous, often drunk—but fun. Great to be with. A gambler. Made money and lost money. And you could never tell—he’d never show it.What has changed about your approach to writing and what remained the same—you’ve been writing for 50 years now?Seventy years. My earliest poems were not written with the benefit of the knowledge of poetry. Poetry was not particularly well taught in my school. My inspiration was largely based on the Old Testament, the King James version. I was also fascinated with Southern Baptists and that they used the biblical language and biblical rhythms. I never paid attention to the content, but I just loved the words themselves and the cadences.Once I discovered poetry—and my first discovery was English war poet Wilfred Owen—he had an enormous impact. In college I found modern poetry. I had never seen poetry about the urban world. Everything we read in class was poetry about the natural world, bucolic. And then I see T.S. Eliot, and his “Preludes.” There’s the city, beautiful images of the city. I said, “Wow, I don’t have to fake this nature-love, I can write about what I want.” My early poems ignored the place I lived in—maybe it was an effort to remove myself, I don’t know. That was the first big change.The second big change came about when I began to discover Dylan Thomas, the sudden musicality of his work. He at the time was touring the United States, and giving readings. His behavior was outrageous, which only endeared him to young poets like me. Unfortunately, he drank himself to death at the age of 40, but I forgave him that. And then, when I was 26 or 27, I studied with John Berryman. His standards were very high, and he had a huge impact on me. For one thing, he liked what I did, he liked the idea of the guy writing about Detroit. I never had a really terrific poet read my work and really admire it.Berryman, of all the people I ever studied with, was the one who gave me insight into how to become a better poet, and I saw the ferocity with which he pursued poetry. I thought: “I’m going to have to be that ferocious if I’m going to make it.” And I became that ferocious. Poetry right at the center. The way Rafael Nadal, a great tennis player, puts tennis right at the center of his life. If he’s doing something that doesn’t contribute to his becoming a better tennis player, he doesn’t do it. He saw all those young girls were taking his energy away—he stopped fucking all those young girls—which actually I think was a mistake.And the same thing with me—not the young girls part, because none were clamoring for me—but I just put poetry at the center, and I realized that everything else in my life was secondary. Until I started having kids. And then I realized these things were equal. My love for my wife and my children, and my love of poetry. I somehow had to work out a way to be a good husband, and a good father and yet save enough time and energy to be a good poet.Speaking of family, you seem to write more often about your parents and siblings than about your kids—is that accurate?You got the ratio right. The past is much larger. The source of my poetry is my memory. I have a very good memory, and I remember a great deal. Coleridge commented that imagination has only the present and the past to work off of. Where else will it get its imagery? From things you actually see and remember. And I think much more from what you remember—what you heard, what you felt in the past. In the present, you’re just trying to write the fucking poem.Even as you began teaching English and creative writing, for many decades you continued writing about Detroit and those early factory days. Did you ever feel compelled to write about your university life and career?Who the hell wants to read about the life of a professor? Do you? I don’t.The Poet Laureate award is one of the great many tokens of recognition you have under your belt—Pulitzer, National Book Award, etc. Have any of these influenced or altered your life in any discernible fashion?Financially, that’s all. My editors love me because I sell lots of books. And I now charge a lot of money for readings. Ever since I got the National Book Award for What Work Is, my books started selling. It sold over 40,000 copies—that’s rare. And it’s still selling.I have a copy!Hang on to it! So, financially this award influenced me, yes, but in no other way. I have seen—I’ll leave this guy nameless—a classmate at one time who got a Pulitzer when he was 29 or 30. It went to his head in an appalling way. He became a Mr. Important. He wrote one other decent book, and after that everything he wrote was shit, and there wasn’t that much of it anyway. He had let the prize tell him he was significant. No prize tells you you’re significant, that’s just horse-shit. By the time I got these things, I’ve seen a lot of these prizes go to people who were unreadable but were politically in the right place at the right time. Because there’s a lot of corruption in everything—why not in poetry? By the time I got it, I said, “Great, I’ll enjoy it, but I just got to get back to work.”What have you done over the years to grow as a poet, to improve your writing?I stopped drinking to excess. I stopped smoking dope altogether because it’s bad for your memory. Because that’s where my poems-to-be are waiting, in my memory. I stopped lying, because I’m very superstitious. I have this feeling that I’m misusing language when I lie, and language is my medium—I can’t betray it. If I start lying, my poems won’t come to me.But what about the craft itself?I’ll go back to tennis here. Once you learn to hit a certain shot, you can hit it every day. And I constantly read poetry: often for pleasure, but also for obligation—students, fellow poets, etc. And I go back to some of the poets whose influence was powerful with me. I re-read the “Song of Myself” probably every year. I read William Carlos Williams almost every week. I read the 16th-century poet Thomas Wyatt constantly, studying how he handles the line, how he shifts in tone. And the contemporaries whose work I love—Galway Kinnell. I read some stuff for inspiration and also to see how they do it, I’m just constantly reading.Are you excited about anybody in American poetry now?Larry Levis. Book called Winter Stars. He thrilled me. Tony Hoagland is terrific—he’s funny, disrespectful, constantly surprises you. A young woman named Matthea Harvey and another one, Daisy Fried and another guy who just got picked for an award, Louis Asekoff—his last two books were terrific.You were talking about getting that perfect “tennis shot” down and using it daily. And I think that very musical, fluid, free verse is your shot. Have you had any interest in the avant-garde?No, I don’t enjoy reading it. They throw away the narrative, coherence. They throw away a lot. I have surreal elements in my work due to the influence of [César] Vallejo, a Peruvian poet I translated. In 20th-century English there was so much experimentation that proved successful but we didn’t follow through on. Like Williams and [Wallace] Stevens, their free verse feels so authentic to me. My first two books had rhyme and meter—I was a very disciplined writer because my life was so chaotic. But once my life got a real form and I knew where the next meal was coming from and I was teaching, then I got looser.\nLibrary Days\nI would sit for hours with the sunlight\nstreaming in the high windows and know\nthe delivery van was safe, locked in the yard\nwith the brewery trucks, and my job secure.\nI chose first a virgin copy of The Idiot\nby Dostoyevsky, every page of which confirmed\nlife was irrational. The librarian, a woman\ngone gray though young, sat by the phone\nthat never rang, assembling the frown\nreserved exclusively for me when I entered\nat 10 a.m. to stay until the light dwindled\ninto afternoon. No doubt her job was to guard\nthese treasures, for Melville was here, Balzac,\nWalt Whitman, my old hero, in multiple copies\neach with the aura of used tea bags. In late August\nof 1951 a suited gentleman reader creaked\nacross the polished oaken floor to request\nthe newest copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships\nonly to be told, “This, sir, is literature!”\nin a voice of pure malice. I looked up\nfrom the text swimming before me in hopes\nof exchanging a first smile; she’d gone back\nto her patient vigil over the dead black phone.\nOutside I could almost hear the world, trucks\nmaneuvering the loading docks or clogging\nthe avenues and grassy boulevards of Detroit.\nOther men, my former schoolmates, were off\non a distant continent in full retreat, their commands\nand groans barely a whisper across the vastness\nof an ocean and a mountain range. In the garden\nI’d planted years before behind the old house\nI’d long ago deserted, the long winter was over;\nthe roses exploded into smog, the African vine\nstolen from the zoo strangled the tiny violets\nI’d nursed each spring, the mock orange snowed\ndown and bore nothing, its heavy odor sham.\n“Not for heaven or earth would I trade my soul,\nrather would I lie down to sleep among the dead,”\nPrince Myshkin mumbled on page 437,\na pure broth of madness, perhaps my part,\nthe sole oracular part in the final act\nof the worst play ever written. I knew then\nthat soon I would rise up and leave the book\nto go back to the great black van waiting\npatiently for its load of beer kegs, sea trunks\nand leather suitcases bound for the voyages\nI’d never take, but first there was War and Peace,\nthere were Cossacks riding their ponies\ntoward a horizon of pure blood, there was Anna,\nher loves and her deaths, there was Turgenev\nwith his impossible, histrionic squabbles,\nChekhov coughing into his final tales. The trunks—\nwith their childish stickers— could wait, the beer\ncould sit for ages in the boiling van slowly\nmorphing into shampoo. In the offices and shops,\nout on the streets, men and women could curse\nthe vicious air, they could buy and sell\neach other, they could beg for a cup of soup,\na sandwich and tea, some few could face life\nwith or without beer, they could embrace or die,\nit mattered not at all to me, I had work to do.Excerpted from News of the World by Philip Levine. Copyright © 2009 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.\nThe Seventh Summer\nHow could I not know God had a son?\nthe biggest kid asked. I considered.\nNo one told me. Did I ever go to church?\nYes, but they spoke a language I didn’t\nactually understand. The three stared at me.\nI could have answered that it was possible\nGod did not have a son and that this picture\nover what was to be my bed was a fake—\nfor one thing it wasn’t a photograph,\nfor another it looked like an ad for Life,\nbut I was already sorry I’d said, “Who\nis he?” referring to the figure displayed\nbehind glass in a plain wooden frame.\nWhat I truly wanted to know was why God\nhad let anyone do such a thing to his son,\nnail his hands and feet to a huge wooden cross\nfrom which he sagged in what appeared\nto be less discomfort than I would have felt.\n“The Jews done it,” the biggest one said, as though\nreading my mind. I felt a chill run through me,\nsure that once more I was going to be blamed\nfor what I had not done or what I’d done\nbut done without meaning to, but the boys\n—the oldest was sixteen, over twice my age—left\nme to myself, for it was early to bed for everyone.\nI lay awhile in the silent dark of the farmhouse\nwondering if it could be so, that God had\na son he had let die, and if this were so why\nno one had told me so that I might understand\nwhy life could be so puzzling for all of us.\nDays passed before Lars, the fourteen year old,\ntold me that it was OK, this Jesus had died\nso that all of us could be saved, in the end\nthings turned out for the best. That was Sunday,\nafter the boys had returned from church—\nto which I did not go—, and before we walked\ninto town to swim in the big public place.\nI remember best how sweet was the lake water\nwe swam in, how I could even swallow\nlittle gulps of it and not feel ill and how large\nthe bodies around me were, Lars and Sven thrashing\nafter the girls in their dark wool suits, the girls\nsquealing with mock hurt when they would catch\nthem up in their pale arms, for though their faces\nwere deeply browned their bodies were ghostly.\nSven, Lars, and Thomas, three boys as big as men,\nwho let me climb to their secret room beside\nthe hay loft, where they smoked and spoke of women,\nthe laughter rushing out of their great throats,\nthe strange words I had never heard before coughed\nout in sudden spasms, and such hopes uttered\nas they moved about the room in a half-dance,\nhalf-sword-fight, calling out the magic names\nof the absent girls as they stroked their own bodies\nat chest and crotch or rolled on the floor\nin mock death agony. August in Michigan,\nthe world spinning around me, my mother gone\nin the grief of final loss, from which one day\nshe would awaken in daylight, one year\nbefore the wars in Ethiopia, Spain, and China\ncould give me growing up its particular name,\nand yet I sat at their table that night, head bowed\nin the grace I did not say, thankful for corn,\nbeans, and poisonous pork, and understood it all.Excerpted from What Work Is by Philip Levine. Copyright © 1991 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.\nGrowth\nIn the soap factory where I worked\nwhen I was fourteen, I spoke to\nno one and only one man spoke\nto me and then to command me\nto wheel the little cars of damp chips\ninto the ovens. While the chips dried\nI made more racks, nailing together\nwood lath and ordinary screening\nyou’d use to keep flies out, racks\nand more racks each long afternoon,\nfor this was a growing business\nin a year of growth. The oil drums\nof fat would arrive each morning,\ntoo huge for me to tussle with,\nreeking of the dark, cavernous\nkitchens of the Greek and Rumanian\nrestaurants, of cheap hamburger joints,\nWhite Towers and worse. They would\nsulk in the battered yard behind\nthe plant until my boss, Leo,\nthe squat Ukranian dollied them in\nto become, somehow, through the magic\nof chemistry, pure soap. My job\nwas always the racks and the ovens—\ntwo low ceilinged metal rooms\nthe color of slick skin. When I\nslid open the heavy doors my eyes\nstarted open, the pores\nof my skull shriveled, and sweat\nsmelling of scared animal burst from\nme everywhere. Head down I entered,\nfirst to remove what had dried\nand then to wheel in the damp, raw\nyellow curls of new soap, grained\nlike iris petals or unseamed quartz.\nThen out to the open weedy yard\namong the waiting and emptied drums\nwhere I hammered and sawed, singing\nmy new life of working and earning,\noutside in the fresh air of Detroit\nin 1942, a year of growth.Excerpted from What Work Is by Philip Levine. Copyright © 1991 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.\n“Ode for Mrs. William Settle”\nIn Lake Forest, a suburb of Chicago,\na woman sits at her desk to write\nme a letter. She holds a photograph\nof me up to the light, one taken\n17 years ago in a high school class\nin Providence. She sighs, and the sigh\nsmells of mouth wash and tobacco.\nIf she were writing by candlelight\nshe would now be in the dark, for\na living flame would refuse to be fed\nby such pure exhaustion. Actually\nshe is in the dark, for the man\nshe’s about to address in her odd prose\nhad a life span of 125/th of a second\nin the eye of a Nikon, and then he\npolitely asked the photographer to\nget lost, whispering the request so as\nnot to offend the teacher presiding.\nThose students are now in their thirties,\nthe Episcopal girls in their plaid skirts\nand bright crested blazers have gone\nunprepared, though French speaking, into\na world of liars, pimps, and brokers.\n2.7% have died by their own hands,\nand all the others have considered\nthe act at least once. Not one now\nremembers my name, not one recalls\nthe reading I gave of Cesar Vallejo’s\ngreat Memorium to his brother Miguel,\nnot even the girl who sobbed and\nhad to be escorted to the school nurse,\ncalmed and sent home in a cab. Evenings\nin Lake Forest in mid-December drop\nsuddenly; one moment the distant sky\nis a great purple canvas, and then it’s\ngone, and no stars emerge, however\nnot the least hint of the stockyards\nor slaughter houses is allowed to drift\nout to the suburbs, so it’s deathless\ndarkness with no more perfume than\ncellophane. “Our souls are mingling\nnow somewhere in the open spaces\nbetween Illinois and you,” she writes.\nWhen I read the letter two weeks\nlater, forwarded by my publisher,\nI will suddenly discover a truth\nof our lives on earth, and I’ll bless\nMrs. William Settle of Lake Forest\nfor giving me more than I gave\nher, for addressing me as Mr. Levine,\nthe name my father bore, a name\na man could take with courage\nand pride into the empire of death.\nI’ll read even unto the second page\nunstartled by the phrase, “By now\nyou must have guessed, I am\na dancer.” Soon snow will fall\non the Tudor homes of the suburbs\nturning the elegant parked sedans\ninto anonymous mounds, the winds\nwill sweep in over the Rockies\nand across the great freezing plains\nwhere America first died, winds\nso fierce boys and men turn their backs\nto them and simply weep, and yet\nin all that air the soul of Mrs. William\nSettle will not release me, not even\nfor one second. Male and female,\naged and middle aged, we ride it out\nblown eastward toward our origins,\none impure being become wind. Above\nthe Middle West, truth and beauty\nare one though never meant to be.Excerpted from The Simple Truth by Philip Levine. Copyright © 1994 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Knpf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.