Former United States poet laureate Philip Levine dies

CNN  — 

Former United States poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine, whose work reflected the voice and soul of 20th century blue-collar America, died Saturday in his home in Fresno, California, at age 87.

The cause of death was widely reported as pancreatic cancer.

Born in 1928, Levine was one of the leading poetic voices of his generation, “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland,” in the words of poet Edward Hirsch.

Levine served as poet laureate from 2011 to 2012. He won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Simple Truth” in 1995 and two National Book Awards for “What Work Is” (1991) and “Ashes: Poems New and Old” (1980).

Poet Philip Levine in 2006

The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine was born and raised in Detroit. He was 14 when he began working in auto factories, a formative experience that would inspire his work even after he left Detroit in the 1950s to pursue writing. He began attending writing workshops at the University of Iowa, as an unregistered student, in 1953, and earned an MFA from the school in 1957, according to the Poetry Foundation.

He went on teach at at the University of California, Irvine, for decades, as well as Columbia, Princeton, NYU, Brown, the University of California at Berkeley, and Tufts. His first book of poetry, “On the Edge,” was published in 1961.

Detroit and the struggles of the working class were persistent themes in his work as he aspired to “find a voice for the voiceless.”

“You grow up in a place and it becomes the arena of your discovery,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 2011. “It also became the arena of my discovery of the nature of American capitalism and the sense of how ordinary people have no choice at all in how they’re going to be formed by the society. My politics were formed by the city.”

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