Rest assured. Philip Levine readied himself for his inaugural Monday night gig as the poet laureate of the United States. “I bought a suit,” Levine said. “It almost fits.” The 83-year-old Levine remains comfortable in his own skin, whatever epaulets are added. His former students at California State University, Fresno, still know him as Phil. He answers his own phone; he sets strangers at ease. This poet laureate business? It’s already a kick, though it’s only just begun.
“I’m loving it,” Levine said. “By the time I get used to it, it’ll probably be over.” Monday night marked the formal beginning of Levine’s yearlong stint as what’s technically called the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Congress, in the 1986 bill establishing the title, explained that “this position is equivalent to that of Poet Laureate of the United States.” But don’t worry. Levine is not obliged to write O, Congress! odes. His official duties are limited, starting with the fall reading and book-signing Monday night at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. “I do these all the time,” a relaxed-sounding Levine said a few days before his Monday reading, though allowing that “I’ll probably be a little more serious than I usually am.” Beyond the inaugural reading Monday, and a follow-up reading next spring, being poet laureate is largely what Levine makes of it. He’ll help pick other writers for public readings, and introduce them. He has a small office on the third floor of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building. He’ll be paid $35,000 and have at hand another $5,000 for travel, from a private fund established in the 1930s by arts benefactor Archer Huntington. Previous poet laureates have undertaken projects that ranged from Joseph Brodsky’s push to infiltrate poetry into supermarkets and hotel rooms to Rita Dove’s combining children’s poetry with jazz. Levine has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and is the author of 20 books of poetry.