Detroit native Philip Levine, former U.S. poet laureate, dies at 87



Philip Levine, a former United States poet laureate and Detroit native whose work encapsulated the life of blue-collar, manual labor work, died this weekend at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 87.

Poet Christopher Buckley, a longtime friend of Levine, told the New York Times the cause was pancreatic cancer. Levine served as poet laureate from 2011 to 2012, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his poetry collection "The Simple Truth." He won two national Book Awards for his 1980 collection "Ashes: Poems New & Old" and later in 1991 for "What Work Is." 

An example of Levine riffing on the theme of labor, and the treatment he and his colleagues endured during a hard day's work, can be found in his poem "Coming Home, Detroit, 1968":

Near the freeway
you stop and wonder what came off,
recall the snowstorm where you lost it all,
the wolverine, the northern bear, the wolf
caught out, ice and steel raining
from the foundries in a shower
of human breath. On sleds in the false sun
the new material rests. One brown child
stares and stares into your frozen eyes
until the lights change and you go
forward to work. The charred faces, the eyes
boarded up, the rubble of innards, the cry
of wet smoke hanging in your throat,
the twisted river stopped at the color of iron.
We burn this city every day.

Levine's rich work, however, wasn't appealing to everyone, as the New York Times noted on Sunday. With his "tendency to shun conventional poetic devices, some reviewers dismissed it as merely prose with line breaks," the Times wrote. "Others found monotony in his revisiting the same themes again and again. 

"But many admired his deceptively simple style," the Times continued, "which could belie the carefully worked out cadences beneath its colloquial surface." 

During a 2009 interview with Metro Times, Levine said he last visited Detroit in 2006, right before the Detroit Tigers lost the World Series. He offered a familiar description of the city at the time: a place that looked like the "aftermath of the London blitz." 

Detroit, he said, was identified in the media "with the stupidity and the collapse of the American auto industry, and it's more than that. Much of it has gone to ruin, but you can say that about so many American cities. The media has chosen Detroit to beat up on; it's an easy and cheap shot." 

Yet he always maintained a vigorous passion for his hometown. Levine was born in Detroit in 1928. He spent his early years working in an auto plant, a job that inspired him to write. He told the Paris Review in 1988 that he started working the factories at 14-years-old. At the urging of his high school teachers, he decided to enroll in college at what is now Wayne State University.

He told the Paris Review: "I stood in line at Wayne State University to enroll, and when I got up to the head of the line, this woman said, 'Can I help you?' I said, 'I’d like to go to college.' She said, 'Do you want a bachelor’s?' I said, 'I already have a place to live.' Because to me a bachelor’s was a small apartment. I had no idea that there was such a thing as a bachelor’s degree. The people at Wayne were incredibly savvy. Instead of laughing at me, she explained what my options were and what bachelor’s meant. They were used to us shlumps out of the city of Detroit. There, at college, I encountered modern poetry. And I loved it. Loved it."

That's why, when Levine spoke to MT, he said the city remained an integral part to his work: It's where he discovered his love for poetry.

"Detroit was the arena of my boyhood and young manhood; it was where I found poetry," he said. "I'll carry it with me as long as my memory lasts. It was also a very vital and turbulent place, and I truly loved it."

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Detroit Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Metro Times Press Club for as little as $5 a month.