Former Auto Plant Worker Is New U.S. Poet Laureate

August 12, 2011

“Poetic” is certainly not the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe what it’s like to work in an automotive plant. And that makes the naming of Motor City native and former Ford factory worker Philip Levine as the new U.S. Poet Laureate all the more intriguing.

Levine was born in Detroit in 1928. In his youth, he worked at the Ford River Rouge plant making car parts. Which ones? In an interview with PBS, he says he never knew: “Usually, five people would take an enormous piece of hot steel, which four of us would hold with tongs, and put it into a huge press. What it was, I didn't know.”

After getting his undergraduate degree from Detroit’s Wayne University (now Wayne State University), he moved out of Detroit and away from the assembly lines, getting his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa and then heading out west to teach in California.

His first book of poetry, On the Edge, was published in 1963. More than three decades later, in 1995, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book The Simple Truth.

On the announcement of his being named U.S. Poet Laureate, Librarian of Congress James Billington said, “Philip Levine is one of America's great narrative poets. His plainspoken lyricism has, for half a century, championed the art of telling The Simple Truth -- about working in a Detroit auto factory, as he has, and about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives."

[Detroit Free Press; image courtesy David Shankbone via Wikipedia]

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