Philip Levine grew up in industrial Detroit, the second of three sons and the first of identical twins of Jewish immigrant parents. His father, Harry Levine, owned a used auto-parts business, his mother, Esther Priscol (Prisckulnick) Levine, was a bookseller. When Levine was five years old, his father died. While growing up, he faced the anti-Semitism embodied by Father Coughlin, the pro-Hitler radio priest.
Levine started to work in car manufacturing plants at the age of 14. Detroit Central High School graduated him in 1946 and he went to college at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) in Detroit, where he began to write poetry, encouraged by his mother, to whom he dedicated the book of poems, The Mercy. Levine earned his A.B. in 1950 and went to work for Chevrolet and Cadillac in what he calls "stupid jobs".
He married his first wife, Patty Kanterman, in 1951. The marriage lasted until 1953.
Levine and his wife live in Fresno and Brooklyn.
The familial, social, and economic world of twentieth century Detroit is one of the major subjects of Levine's life work. His portraits of working class Americans and his continuous examination of his Jewish immigrant inheritance (both based on real life and described through fictional characters) has left a testimony of mid-twentieth century American life.
Levine's working experience lent his poetry a profound skepticism in regard to conventional American ideals. In his first two books, On the Edge (1963) and Not This Pig (1968), the poetry dwells on those who suddenly become aware that they are trapped in some murderous processes not of their own making. In 1968, Levine signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
In his first two books, Levine was somewhat traditional in form and relatively constrained in expression. Beginning with They Feed They Lion, typically Levine's poems are free-verse monologues tending toward trimeter or tetrameter. The music of Levine's poetry depends on tension between his line-breaks and his syntax. The title poem of Levine's book 1933 (1974) is an example of the cascade of clauses and phrases one finds in his poetry. Other collections include A Walk with Tom Jefferson, New Selected Poems, and the National Book Award-winning What Work Is.