Just what will Philip Levine do as poet laureate?

Philip Levine
Personal Photo

(CBS/AP) NEW YORK - When you heard that Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine was appointed America's new poet laureate, you probably wondered just what a poet laureate does.

Well, for starters, he - or she - receives $35,000 and is known officially from October through May as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for the U.S.

The laureate has few official duties and poets before Levine have used the job to pursue a range of personal projects. For example, Billy Collins (2001-2003) started the Poetry 180 program which encourages the reading of verse in high school. The 180 refers to the 180 poems Collins selected for the program.

Collins also wrote a poem to commemorate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and read it aloud at a special joint session of Congress on Sept 6, 2002.

Another previous poet laureate, Robert Hass (1995-1997) went around the country lecturing on poetry and ecological awareness and organized a nationwide "Watershed" conference on nature writing. He also wrote a column about poetry for the Washington Post.

What is Levine planning?

"I don't want to overextend myself, but at the same time I would like to use the 'bully pulpit,' as they call it, to bring attention to some of my concerns,'' the 83-year-old poet told the Associated Press.

"There's a great deal of American poetry that's hardly known and that should be known. As a poet who didn't get published for a long time, I know what it's like to not to be read. The other thing I'd like to do is reach out to readers. I would like to bring attention to the kind of people I've written about."

A Detroit native who as a young man worked in automobile plants, Levine has for decades chronicled, celebrated and worried about blue collar life

"I'm a fairly irreverent person and at first I thought, "This is not you. You're an old union man," Levine said in a telephone interview with the AP from his home in Fresno, Calif.

"But I knew if I didn't do this, I would kick myself. I thought, 'This is you. You can speak to a larger public than has been waiting for you in recent years.'"

Levine has received virtually every literary honor, including the Pulitzer in 1995 for "The Simple Truth" and the National Book Award in 1991 for "What Work Is."

"Philip Levine is one of America's great narrative poets," Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in a statement. "His plainspoken lyricism has, for half a century, championed the art of telling 'The Simple Truth' about working in a Detroit auto factory, as he has, and about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives."

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