The Simple Truth

Philip Levine

‘The Simple Truth’ by Philip Levine is a thoughtful narrative poem that explores life’s “simple truths” and how fundamental they are to our understanding of the world. 


Philip Levine

Nationality: American

Philip Levine was an American poet born in 1928 in Detroit.

He experienced the Great Depression of the 1930s and the wars of the mid 20th century.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: There are important simple truths in life

Themes: Identity, Nature

Speaker: Likely Philip Levine

Emotions Evoked: Contentment, Happiness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

The poet uses captivating images of simple scenes to emphasize how important "simple" truths are to our identities.

The poem uses direct lines and easy-to-understand syntax to reflect its themes of simplicity and honesty. Levine chose not to use complex poetic techniques in favor of a direct and unadorned style that is far more effective. While little is revealed about the speaker’s identity, his friendship, and the Polish woman, readers will likely feel a connection to one or more elements of the poem’s depiction of simple truths. 


‘The Simple Truth’ by Philip Levine reflects on the significance of the mundane experiences that shape readers’ lives.

The poet’s speaker describes buying a small number of red potatoes from a Polish woman, cooking them simply with butter and salt, and then walking through the fields at sunset in the first half of this poem. 

In the second half of the poem, he argues that these experiences are so simple and true that they require no embellishment or artifice to be communicated. The poem concludes with a nostalgic reference to a friend from the speaker’s past and an assertion that the unspoken truths of our everyday lives are what sustain us.


The main theme of this poem is universal, fundamental truths and how powerful they are. This poem is a meditation on the enduring power of simple truths and personal experiences and the way that they are able to sustain humanity through loss and change. 

The poem emphasizes the importance of these truths and how they don’t require elegance, meter, or rhyme to be expressed. Instead, they can be laid on the table beside the salt shaker, standing for themselves, naked and alone. The poet also chose to celebrate the beauty and power of the natural world, which serves as a constant reminder of the deeper experiences that underlie our everyday lives.

Structure and Form 

‘The Simple Truth’ by Philip Levine is a free verse poem. This means that it has no set rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem consists of one long stanza with no formal breaks (known as block form). 

However, the poem has some internal structure as the speaker moves between different thoughts and images. For example, there is a very clear break between the first 18 lines and the final half of the poem. 

The poem’s form is primarily narrative, as the speaker recounts personal experiences and memories. 

Literary Devices 

In this poem, the poet uses a few different literary devices. These include: 

  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly effective images. The poet uses vivid sensory descriptions to create a picture of the fields at sunset, the taste of the potatoes, and the appearance of the Polish woman who sold them.
  • Metaphor: a comparison between two things that don’t use “like” or “as.” The potatoes and onions are used as a metaphor for the simple, unadorned truths that shape our lives.
  • Repetition: can be seen when the poet repeats the same literary element multiple times. The repetition of the phrase “they must” emphasizes the importance of the simple truths the poet is describing.
  • Allusion: a reference to something outside the poet’s text. The poet alludes to his past and the pain of lost love through his reference to his friend Henri, who began to “kill himself” and betrayed their love.
  • Personification: The light is personified in the poem when it is described as “hanging on” in the furrows.

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-6

I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,

took them home, boiled them in their jackets

and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.

Then I walked through the dried fields

on the edge of town. In middle June the light

hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,

The first six lines of Philip Levine’s poem ‘The Simple Truth’ paint a vivid picture of a simple meal and a walk through the fields. The use of imagery is prominent, with the speaker describing buying a “dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes” from a Polish woman (who appears later on in the poem) and then boiling them “in their jackets.” Here, the poet uses personification to depict the potatoes as “in jackets.” 

This description not only conveys a sense of simplicity and humility but also evokes the idea of nourishment, sustenance, and the pleasures of the everyday. These are feelings that are maintained throughout the poem and are connected to Levine’s interest in the simple truths of life.

The speaker then describes eating the potatoes with a little butter and salt (two food items that appear again later in the poem), again emphasizing the idea of simplicity and the importance of basic elements for survival. 

The description of walking through the dried fields on the edge of town, with light hanging on in the dark furrows, creates a sense of calmness and tranquility, as well as an appreciation for the natural beauty that surrounds us.

The use of alliteration in “little butter and salt” and the use of the “o” assonance sound in “boiled them in their jackets” adds to the sensory experience of the poem. 

The personification of light, “hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,” also contributes to the peaceful, natural imagery that pervades the poem.

Lines 7-17 

and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds


“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”

The following lines continue to paint a vivid picture of the speaker’s experience in the fields and with the Polish woman. The focus shifts from the sensory experience of the potatoes to the natural beauty surrounding the speaker. The imagery is again prominent, with the speaker describing the light in the dark furrows at their feet and the birds gathering in the mountain oaks overhead.

The birds are described in detail, with the jays and mockers “squawking back and forth” and the finches “darting into the dusty light.” Using onomatopoeia with “squawking” further emphasizes the liveliness of the natural world surrounding the speaker. The contrast between the active birds and the stillness of the fields creates a sense of balance and harmony.

The speaker’s nostalgic tone becomes more prominent in these lines, with reference to a woman from the poet’s childhood who sold him the potatoes. The woman is described in detail, wearing a “pink spangled sweater and sunglasses,” and her accent and insistence that the speaker tastes her fruits and vegetables add to the personal and nostalgic quality of the poem.

Whether she was actually from his childhood is up for debate but seems unlikely. Her presence likely only reminded him of someone he knew in his youth. 

The woman’s exhortation to “eat, eat” and her assurance that she would say he did so, even if he didn’t, adds a touch of humor to the poem. The speaker’s observation that “some things you know all your life” suggests that the speaker has carried this memory with them for a long time, emphasizing the importance of small, personal experiences in shaping our lives.

It’s at this point that the poem takes a turn, and the poet focuses on discussing the speaker’s feelings more generally, moving away from the potato and bird-specific imagery. 

Lines 18-29

Some things

you know all your life. They are so simple and true


of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,

In these lines, the speaker reflects on the power of universal truths that we carry with us throughout our lives. The repeated use of the words “they must be” (an example of anaphora) emphasizes the importance of these truths, and the speaker’s assertion that they must be “naked and alone” and “stand for themselves” suggests that they are so fundamental that they need no embellishment or explanation.

The reference to the speaker’s friend Henri and their shared discovery of these truths adds a personal and emotional dimension to the poem, and the later reference to Henri’s suicide and the betrayal of their love suggests the fragility of human relationships and the importance of holding onto the simple truths that sustain us.

In the following lines, the image of the truth “staying in the back of your throat” suggests that it is something that is felt rather than articulated, and the comparison to “onions or potatoes” and the “wealth of melting butter” emphasizes the physical and sensory nature of the truth.

Lines 30-34

it stays in the back of your throat like a truth


in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

The poem’s final lines suggest that the truth the poet is so interested in is elemental and enduring, made of “that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,” and that we “live on it” even when we are not consciously aware of it.

Overall, these final lines underscore the poem’s theme of the power of simple truths and the importance of personal experience and memory in shaping our lives. 

The speaker’s personal reflections on loss and the fragility of human relationships add depth and emotional resonance to the poem, while the sensory language and vivid imagery bring the natural world to life.


What is the tone of ‘The Simple Truth’ by Philip Levine? 

Philip Levine’s tone of ‘The Simple Truth’ is contemplative and nostalgic, as the speaker reflects on the power of simple, universal truths and personal memories.

What is the style of ‘The Simple Truth’ by Philip Levine? 

The style of ‘The Simple Truth’ by Philip Levine is straightforward and unadorned, emphasizing the poem’s theme of the power of simple truths and the importance of personal experience.

Why is ‘The Simple Truth’ by Philip Levine important?

‘The Simple Truth’ is important because it celebrates the power of simple truths and personal experience to sustain us through loss and change. The poem reminds us that even in the midst of great tragedy and upheaval, there are truths that remain constant and enduring.

What is the theme of ‘The Simple Truth’ by Philip Levine?

The theme of ‘The Simple Truth’ by Philip Levine is the power of simple, universal truths and personal experience to sustain us through loss and change. The poem emphasizes the importance of these truths and the memories that shape us and celebrates the enduring power of the natural world to connect us to our deepest selves.

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider exploring other Philip Levine poems. For example: 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question about the poem? Ask an expert.x

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Share to...