Philip Levine speaking at the Unitarian Universalist

Philip Levine: As I Remember Him

By Alex Vavoulis

Philip Levine came to Fresno in 1958 with his wife Francine to join the English faculty at Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno) and retired in 1992. During his tenure at Fresno State, he witnessed the firing of his colleague, poet Robert Mezey, and the lockdown of the English Department office by the Falk administration and the Campus Police. In addition, the removal of his colleagues Eugene Zumwalt and Roger Chittick as chair and co-chair of the department.

These and other equally destructive events were then reported in a book written by an English colleague, Kenneth Seib, with the title, The Slow Death of Fresno State. In 1968, Levine joined with other faculty members and formed the Fresno Free College Foundation (FFCF) to support Mezey, whose firing they saw as a violation of free speech and academic freedom. The first president of the FFCF was Levine’s colleague, Russell Leavenworth.

In 1973, Levine received the American Academy of Arts Award. In the 1973–1974 annual report of the FFCF, his poem, “This War” (written in May 1972), was published. The Vietnam War ended in 1973. In 1977, Levine won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. On Feb. 20, 1980, the FFCF sponsored a concert featuring music by music professor and flamenco guitarist Juan Serrano followed by Levine reading six of his poems. The program emcee was English Professor Gene Bluestein. The front cover of the1979–1980 annual report of the FFCF was a black-and-white drawing by Fresno artist Pat Moore and included Levine and Serrano. (The FFCF annual reports are posted on the FFCF’s Web site.)

In 1978, Levine received the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, in 1979 the National Books Critics Award and in 1980 a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. On May 5, 1987, Levine presented a reading of his poems that benefitted KFCF and the Fresno Poets Association. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1995 and was named a U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011.

Levine grew up in Detroit and was able to actualize his potential in the face of environmental obstacles to live a full and active life. As Nobel Laureate George Seferis said of the death of a Greek poet: “The death of a poet is the consummation of a birth.” Levine will live because of poems that he left for the living.

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Alex Vavoulis is professor emeritus at Fresno State and for 20 years was president of the Fresno Free College Foundation.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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