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Poet Philip Levine to deliver Lowell Memorial Lecture

Philip Levine

In his poem A Theory of Prosody, Philip Levine writes: “When Nellie, my old pussy/ cat, was still in her prime/ she would sit behind me/ as I wrote, and when the line/ got too long she’d reach/ one sudden black foreleg down/ and paw at the moving hand/ the offensive one. The first/ time she drew blood I learned/ it was poetic to end/ a line anywhere to keep her/ quiet. . . ."

Levine’s approach to writing verse might be unorthodox, but it has yielded brilliant results: at age 77, he is the author of 16 books of poetry and the winner of nearly every major American poetry prize. He will read and discuss his work on Friday, October 7, at 7:30 p.m., as part of the Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture Series.

“Philip Levine is one of the most admired poets alive,” says CAS English Professor Robert Pinsky, “and one of the most electric, powerful, entertaining readers from his work.” Pinsky, two-time U.S. poet laureate, asked Levine to give this semester’s lecture.

Levine, a Detroit native, worked in a factory for much of his youth before attending the University of Iowa — where he studied with Lowell — and many of his poems reflect on his experiences with hard labor and hard living. He writes in What Work Is, “We stand in the rain in a long line/ waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work/ You know what work is — if you’re/ old enough to read this you know what/ work is, although you may not do it/ Forget you. This is about waiting/ shifting from one foot to another/ Feeling the light rain falling like mist/ into your hair, blurring your vision/ until you think you see your own brother/ ahead of you, maybe ten places.”

Levine won the first American Book Award for Poetry, for Poems New and Old, in 1979; the National Book Award, for What Work Is, in 1991; and the Pulitzer Prize, for The Simple Truth, in 1994. He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the Frank O’Hara Prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships.

Friday’s lecture is the second in the Lowell lecture series, which was created to celebrate the “idea of collegiality among writers,” Pinsky says, and to commemorate the BU poetry professor and the class in which he taught poets Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck in Room 222 at 236 Bay State Rd. Leslie Epstein, director of the University’s graduate Creative Writing Program, will introduce Levine, and in keeping with the tradition of the series, a recent graduate of the program — Olette Trouve (GRS’03), who writes under the name E. V. Slate — will also read. “She has been our finest fiction writer in years,” says Epstein, who selected Trouve to participate.

The lecture will take place in the School of Management Auditorium and will be followed by a book signing and a dessert reception.