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August 10, 2011

Librarian of Congress Appoints Philip Levine Poet Laureate

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington today announced the appointment of Philip Levine as the Library’s 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2011-2012.

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

"Philip Levine is one of America’s great narrative poets," Billington said. "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."

Philip Levine 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.

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, Mich., 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 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’s nonfiction books include "The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography" (1994); "Don't Ask" (1981); and "So Ask: Essays, Conversations, and Interviews" (2002). He also has edited "The Essential Keats" (1987) and translated collections of Spanish poet Gloria Fuertes and Mexican poet Jaime Sabines.

Additional awards include the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the Frank O’Hara Prize, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (for which he served as chair of the Literature Panel). In 1997 Levine was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2000-2006.

For more information on Levine, including downloadable photos and video, visit www.loc.gov/pressroom/. (New visitors to the site will need to establish an account to receive the user name and password.

Background of the Laureateship

The Poet Laureate is selected for a one-year term by the Librarian of Congress. The choice is based on poetic merit alone and has included a wide variety of poetic styles.

The Library keeps to a minimum the specific duties required of the Poet Laureate, who opens the literary season in October and closes it in May. Laureates, in recent years, have initiated poetry projects that broaden the audiences for poetry.

Kay Ryan launched "Poetry for the Mind’s Joy" in 2009-2010, a project that focused on the poetry being written by community-college students. The project included visits to various community colleges and a poetry contest on the campuses. For more information, visit www.loc.gov/poetry/mindsjoy/.

Earlier, Rita Dove brought a program of poetry and jazz to the Library’s literary series, along with a reading by young Crow Indian poets and a two-day conference titled "Oil on the Waters: The Black Diaspora," featuring panel discussions, readings and music. Robert Hass sponsored a major conference on nature writing called "Watershed," which continues today as a national poetry competition for elementary- and high-school students, titled "River of Words." Robert Pinsky initiated his Favorite Poem Project, which energized a nation of poetry readers to share their favorite poems in readings across the country and in audio and video recordings. Billy Collins instituted the website Poetry180, www.loc.gov/poetry/180/, which brought a poem a day into every high-school classroom in all parts of the country via the central announcement system.

More recently, Ted Kooser created a free weekly newspaper column, at www.americanlifeinpoetry.org, that features a brief poem by a contemporary American poet and an introduction to the poem by Kooser. Donald Hall participated in the first-ever joint poetry readings of the U.S. Poet Laureate and British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion in a program called "Poetry Across the Atlantic," also sponsored by the Poetry Foundation. Charles Simic provided tips on writing at www.loc.gov/poetry/ and taught a master class for accomplished poets at the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress’ Poetry and Literature Center is the home of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a position that has existed since 1936, when Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library. Since then, many of the nation’s most eminent poets have served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and, after the passage of Public Law 99-194 (Dec. 20, 1985), as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. The Poet Laureate suggests authors to read in the literary series and plans other special events during the literary season.

Consultants in Poetry and Poets Laureate Consultants in Poetry and their terms of service are listed below.

  • Joseph Auslander, 1937-1941
  • Allen Tate, 1943-1944
  • Robert Penn Warren, 1944-1945
  • Louise Bogan, 1945-1946
  • Karl Shapiro, 1946-1947
  • Robert Lowell, 1947-1948
  • Leonie Adams, 1948-1949
  • Elizabeth Bishop, 1949-1950
  • Conrad Aiken, 1950-1952, the first to serve two terms
  • William Carlos Williams, appointed in 1952 but did not serve
  • Randall Jarrell, 1956-1958
  • Robert Frost, 1958-1959
  • Richard Eberhart, 1959-1961
  • Louis Untermeyer, 1961-1963
  • Howard Nemerov, 1963-1964
  • Reed Whittemore, 1964-1965
  • Stephen Spender, 1965-1966
  • James Dickey, 1966-1968
  • William Jay Smith, 1968-1970
  • William Stafford, 1970-1971
  • Josephine Jacobsen, 1971-1973
  • Daniel Hoffman, 1973-1974
  • Stanley Kunitz, 1974-1976
  • Robert Hayden, 1976-1978
  • William Meredith, 1978-1980
  • Maxine Kumin, 1981-1982
  • Anthony Hecht, 1982-1984
  • Robert Fitzgerald, 1984-1985
  • Reed Whittemore, 1984-1985, Interim Consultant in Poetry
  • Gwendolyn Brooks, 1985-1986
  • Robert Penn Warren, 1986-1987, first to be Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry
  • Richard Wilbur, 1987-1988
  • Howard Nemerov, 1988-1990
  • Mark Strand, 1990-1991
  • Joseph Brodsky, 1991-1992
  • Mona Van Duyn, 1992-1993
  • Rita Dove, 1993-1995
  • Robert Hass, 1995-1997
  • Robert Pinsky, 1997-2000
  • Stanley Kunitz, 2000-2001
  • Billy Collins, 2001-2003
  • Louise Glück, 2003-2004
  • Ted Kooser, 2004-2006
  • Donald Hall, 2006-2007
  • Charles Simic, 2007-2008
  • Kay Ryan, 2008-2010
  • W.S. Merwin 2010-2011

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. It seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections, programs and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its website at www.loc.gov and via interactive exhibitions on a personalized website at myLOC.gov.

More information on the Poet Laureate and the Poetry and Literature Center can be found at www.loc.gov/poetry/.

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PR 11-143
08/10/11
ISSN 0731-3527

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