The inspiration for the title poem of Philip Levine’s A Walk with Tom Jefferson is not the founding father and third president of the United States that most readers would imagine upon hearing the name. Levine’s Tom Jefferson is quite different from his namesake: he is an African American living in a destitute area of industrial Detroit. But to Levine, he is “wise, compassionate, deliberate, honest…a great unknown American.” In A Walk with Tom Jefferson, Philip Levine reminds us why he is best known for his poems about working-class life in Detroit--and why so many people count a Levine poem among their favorites.
Philip Levine was born in 1928 in Detroit and was formally educated there, in the public schools and at Wayne University (now Wayne State University). After a succession of industrial jobs, he left the city for good and lived in various parts of the country before settling in Fresno, California, where he taught at the state university until his retirement. For twelve autumns he served as poet in residence at New York University. He has received many awards for his books of poems, including the National Book Award in 1991 for What Work Is and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth. In 2011 he was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. He divides his time between Fresno, California, and Brooklyn, New York.