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Philip Levine Is Awarded $100,000 Poetry Prize

09/13/2013 04:58 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2013

Philip Levine, the former United States poet laureate who spent his formative years writing poetry between shifts as an autoworker in Detroit, has been awarded the Academy of American Poets' Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement.

The prize, which comes with a $100,000 award, is given annually for "outstanding and proven mastery of the art of poetry." Mr. Levine's collections include "What Work Is," which won the 1991 National Book Award; "The Simple Truth," which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize; and, in 2009, "News of the World."

I read Philip Levine's poetry, for years before I met him. I slipped a catalogue of my paintings under his door in Brooklyn then called him. He said poets love paintings and I said this artist loves your poetry. We corresponded for years and a few times when I asked to paint him the answer was How long would it take? and then No. So we became friends and I persisted in asking until one time by the river, where Walt Whitman left his mark, I said to Phil that I have given up on asking him, at which point he said Why don't we do it!

When I called to congratulate Phil he gave me permission to reprint his poem They Feed They Lion along with the portrait of him.

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.

Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
They Lion grow.

Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.

From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

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