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?
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