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Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, and educated in local schools and at Wayne State University. He is now Professor of English at California State University in Fresno. Levine has periodically lived in Spain, a country whose people, landscape, and history remain a strong presence in his poems.

A prolific poet, Levine has published collections at regular intervals since On the Edge appeared in 1963. His earliest poems were relatively formal in character, but Not This Pig (1968), his second book, marks the emergence of Levine's mature style, characterized by a haunting lyricism, an inward sense of the natural world (frequently invoked for symbolic purposes), and a strong identification with ethnic and working-class issues. There is an undertone of rage and defiance throughout this, and other, volumes. (In 'Animals Are Passing from Our Lives', for instance, a pig refuses to be butchered, crying in the last line: 'No. Not this pig.')

Levine is particularly well known for his poems set in Detroit, a blighted urban landscape about which he has written with visionary intensity. 1933 (1974) was his most explicitly autobiographical work, in which family members and the physical geography of Detroit were uniquely invoked. 'Letters for the Dead', 'Uncle', and ‘1933' are among the finest poems of his maturity, followed in The Names of the Lost (1976) by more poems set in Detroit, such as 'Belle Isle, 1949', which describes a young couple who 'baptize’ themselves in the polluted Detroit River with its 'brine / of cars parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, / melted snow'.

Levine's strong identification with the antifascist side of the Spanish Civil War has given his poetry a decidedly left-populist political slant, as in his elegy for a Republican soldier, 'To P.L., 1916-1937', which appeared in They Feed They Lion (1972), one of Levine's strongest collections. Another strong poem focused on this period is 'On the Murder of Lieutenant Jose Del Castillo by the Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936'--a vivid historical piece, published in The Names of the Lost. Here, as in Levine's best work generally, he re-creates a particular milieu with freshness and originality.

Though he has written well about Spain and Detroit, Levine has lived much of his adult life in northern California, and a number of his poems reflect the dry dust and hot climate of the Fresno Valley, as in 'A Sleepless Night', which begins: 'April, and the last of the plum blossoms / scatters on the black grass / before dawn'. Levine is, ultimately, a religious poet, and he invests whatever landscape he chooses to write about--geographical or mental--with a fervent spirituality. A volume called Ashes (1979) contains many of his most explicitly religious poems, many of which explore his Jewish roots, as in 'On a Drawing by Flavio', which summons the image of the Rabbi of Auschwitz, who 'bows his head and prays / for us all'.