Philip Levine: A Remembrance

by January Gill O'Neil

This past weekend we lost Philip Levine. He was our 18th U.S. Poet Laureate (2011–2012), and the recipient of many accolades and awards, including the 2013 Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry by the Academy of American Poets. Known as a poet of the working class, his poems honored the dignity and grit of ordinary people. 

Phil was my thesis adviser in the graduate program at NYU. He was a tough critic with a terrific ear for language. But for me, he was a model for how I wanted to live in the world as a practicing poet. Many years later, it was my great pleasure to extend an invitation to read at the 2014 Mass Poetry Festival.

There was talk that Phil and Carol Ann Duffy were looking for an occasion to read together, so it was fortuitous that the scheduling worked out. It was one of the best readings we’ve ever produced at the festival. These two poets laureate complemented each other very well. The affection between the two was genuine. Phil, of course, was as engaging as ever. Vibrant, witty, self-deprecating, honest—exactly what we’ve come to expect from him. The audience was enthralled by his voice, serious and powerful, beautiful and gentle. You could not help but be changed in some way that night.

I’m so thrilled Phil was able to share his work with our community that night. And for me, spending time with him before and after the festival was priceless. What a gift.

January Gill O'Neil directs the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and is the author of Underlife  and Misery Islands (CavanKerry Press). She is an assistant professor of English at Salem State University.