Joanne Barkan, Jon R. Friedman, and Michael Walzer March 4, 2015
Colleagues, critics, and obituary writers have described Philip Levine as “poet of the American working class,” “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland,” the poet who explored “his gritty Detroit childhood; the soul-numbing factory jobs he held as a youth; Spain, where he lived for some time as an adult; and the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s, a personal passion since he was a boy.” He was both one of American poetry’s “most intense, elegantly strident voices” and “a thoroughbred moral comedian.” In 1968 he was also “among the writers who vowed not to pay taxes until the Vietnam War ended.”
When Phil died, flags flew at half-mast at Fresno State, the university where he taught hundreds of students over more than thirty years—many of them with backgrounds like his own, children of immigrants and the first in their families to attend college. The tribute from Fresno State might have pleased him more than any other.
Phil published twenty volumes of poetry, received every major literary award to be won, and was named poet laureate of the United States for 2011–12. He had a large circle of friends who loved him dearly, including me and my husband Jon Friedman. And to love Phil was, and is, to love Franny Levine, his wife. They were constant companions, and their rapport looked as fresh and joyful after more than sixty years as it must have looked when they met at the University of Iowa in the early 1950s and fell in love.