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Patrick Pressl

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Getting to Know Philip Levine, Poet Laureate (VIDEO)

Posted: 12/14/11 01:43 PM ET

Back in September, I wrote a piece covering the National Poetry Slam and mentioned a poet named Philip Levine, a Detroit native and former industrial worker who just so happens to be the current U.S. Poet Laureate. And for what many believe to be the highest honor a poet can receive, you would think more recognition would accompany the position -- enough, anyway, to allow those with just a passing interest in poetry to know at least the name of the current Poet Laureate, if not their actual work. (To some degree, I must admit my own ignorance here as well -- as I scoured YouTube for Levine's work, the first clip I came across was titled "Headism by Philip Levine" and I thought it was the poet, when in fact it turned out to be something else entirely...more on that in the last slide).

Once you familiarize yourself with Levine's poetry, however, it becomes clear why he is deemed worthy of such a position. As Levine himself mentions, when he started writing poetry his work covered "a whole world...that no one's touched," the experiences of the industrial worker living in Detroit during tough economic times. The content of his poetry is somber -- not sad, but real, and imparts an emotion made almost tangible by the accessibility of Levine's free verse. There is very little fuss over structure and rhythm, yet the poems are not less refined as a result. Rather, they are free of the technical entrapments that often make poems unwieldy or stiff, and so Levine's work invites us to listen not only to a poet performing his poetry, but also a man talking about his life. These are the qualities, I believe, that make Levine's work so compelling -- they are simple, yet impart a history and emotion that very few of us would ever experience otherwise. Or, perhaps, that statement rings false given the current state of the economy, but even so Levine's poetry then works to provide a voice for a sentiment that nearly all of us harbor. In either case, Levine's work is relevant, representative, and truly deserving of a laurel.

"Starlight"
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Philip Levine reads his poem "Starlight" from his book Stranger to Nothing: Selected Poems .
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