In an August 2011 interview conducted just after he was named Poet Laureate, Philip Levine described his work:
Mark Levine recalls taking a seminar with the former Poet Laureate:
He seemed uninterested in interpreting poems, which was at first mystifying to a student like me, who had been trained to believe that the most valuable response to a poem was finding something clever or unexpected to say about it. He thought that the right words in the right sequence held a power that was magical and instantaneous. He read poems to us — W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Elizabeth Bishop — with a passion I had never before encountered. His voice was rough and magisterial. Words were alive in him. He read with a clenched jaw and his body almost shaking. He described John Keats’s letters and made clear his sense that the imagination was a sacred place breeding authenticity in words. He insisted that the poem be lived. One student turned in a poem that used the word “lion” a single time, to symbolize power. Levine almost blew up. “Goddamn it,” he shouted, “if you’re going to put a poor lion in your poem, I want that lion to be there.” He seemed to hunger after the texture of reality, which took many forms, but which was instantly recognizable to him.