Nation's poet laureate to speak at Bread Loaf

MIDDLEBURY — Poet Philip Levine mentored scores of aspiring wordsmiths during the 1980s as a faculty member of Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

Levine, now 83, will return to the nationally renowned, 10-day conference in Ripton on Thursday, Aug. 18 — this time with a different role and some loftier credentials.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington last Wednesday announced Levine as the nation’s new Poet Laureate for 2011-2012.

Michael Collier, director of the Bread Load Writer’s Conference, confirmed Levine’s participation in Thursday’s proceedings as a “special guest.” Levine is scheduled to conduct a reading of some of his work beginning at 4:15 p.m. in the Little Theater at the Bread Loaf campus. The event is open to the public.

Levine is a Detroit native who taught for many years at California State University, Fresno, where he is professor emeritus in the English Department. He has also taught at New York University as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, as well as at Columbia, Princeton, Brown and Tufts universities, the University of California at Berkeley and elsewhere.

Levine is the author of 20 collections of poems, including most recently “News of the World” (2009), which The New York Times Sunday Book Review describes as “characteristically wise.” Levine won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for “The Simple Truth,” the National Book Award in 1991 for “What Work Is” and in 1980 for “Ashes: Poems New and Old,” the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979 for both “Ashes: Poems New and Old” and “7 Years From Somewhere,” and the 1975 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for “Names of the Lost.”

Born in Detroit on Jan. 10, 1928, Levine received degrees from Wayne State University and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and in 1957 was awarded the Jones Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford. As a student, he worked a number of industrial jobs at Detroit’s auto-manufacturing plants, including Detroit Transmission — a branch of Cadillac — and the Chevrolet Gear and Axle factory.

Levine has said about writing poems in his mid-20s during his factory days: “I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry, I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought, too, that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life — or at least the part my work played in it — I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.”

Levine will take up his duties this fall, opening the Library of Congress’s annual literary season with a reading of his work at the Coolidge Auditorium on Monday, Oct. 17.

He succeeds W.S. Merwin as Poet Laureate and joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served in the position, including Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Rita Dove and Richard Wilbur.

“Philip Levine is one of America’s great narrative poets,” Billington said in a press release issued by the Library of Congress. “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.”


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Addison County Independent