March 31, 2015 SIGN IN | REGISTER

The Leftist Laureate

Gary Kazanjian/Associated Press
Philip Levine, poet of the working class, wraps up his tenure as the nation’s official literary voice.

Its fitting, then, that at Levines final public appearance as poet laureate, hell talk about a few of the writers who shaped his distinctive poetic voice.

On May 3, he will give a public lecture in the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium. His talk, The Forgotten Poets of My Youth, will focus on the lives and works of four poets Demetrios Capetanakis, Alun Lewis, Keith Douglas and Naomi Replansky who inspired him as a young writer.

Theyre very different poets, Levine said, but theres a political relevance in all four. 

All wrote poetry that resonated with the generations that lived through World
War II. They created poetry that expressed what Levine described as the ugliness of colonialism, the folly of war and the tyranny of American corporate capitalism.

Levine acknowledged that the poetry that inspired him as a young writer, with its political themes, has hardly made a dent in American consciousness. The four poets hell talk about in the lecture have also been largely ignored by the literary canon. 

Levine discovered the writers while attending Wayne State University in the late 1940s. 

At the time, I knew nothing about any of them, Levine said, adding that it was his classmates, not his professors, who introduced him to their work.

We had no classes in poetry writing, he said. So he and his friends studied the work of contemporary poets particularly the ones who werent in fashion to learn the craft. We taught ourselves and talked about the structure we created. 

The forgotten poets, though largely unknown, influenced the work of one of the most celebrated American poets.

Levine, who is 84, said that while he has been delighted to serve as poet laureate, hes looking forward to getting back to life as usual. It has been a distraction from his everyday work, he said.

Im not really outfitted psychologically for being a public figure, he said. I can do it ... but Im so used to isolation and silence. Ill be glad to get back to it.

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