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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.

It’s fitting, then, that at Levine’s final public appearance as poet laureate, he’ll 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.

“They’re very different poets,” Levine said, but “there’s 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 he’ll 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 weren’t 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, he’s looking forward to getting back to life as usual. It has been “a distraction” from his everyday work, he said.

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

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