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Chicagoist Weekend Theater: Remembering Philip Levine

By Chuck Sudo in News on Feb 15, 2015 9:00PM

America lost another of its poetry giants with the passing Philip Levine Saturday at age 87. The Detroit native's cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Levine's poetry was heavily influenced by the blue collar work ethic of his Midwestern youth—he began working in Detroit's auto factories at age 14 during the Great Depression and his free verse writing reflected that upbringing in stark, unvarnished detail.

Mr. Levine won two National Book Awards, for his 1990 collection Ashes: Poems New & Old and 1991's What Work Is; the title poem a reflection on looking for work in Detroit's auto factories.

You know what work is—if you’re old enough to read this you know what work is, although you may not do it. Forget you. This is about waiting, shifting from one foot to another. Feeling the light rain falling like mist into your hair, blurring your vision until you think you see your own brother ahead of you, maybe ten places. You rub your glasses with your fingers, and of course it’s someone else’s brother, narrower across the shoulders than yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin that does not hide the stubbornness, the sad refusal to give in to rain, to the hours of wasted waiting, to the knowledge that somewhere ahead a man is waiting who will say, “No, we’re not hiring today,” for any reason he wants.

Mr. Levine taught at Fresno State University from 1958 until 1992. In 2011, he was named the 18th Poet Laureate of the United States. Below is his inaugural reading as Poet Laureate.