The Darkening Trapeze: The Uncollected Poems of Larry Levis

The poems by Larry Levis included in this issue are drawn from The Darkening Trapeze: The Uncollected Poems of Larry Levis, a collection I have been editing for the past two-and-a-half years. After Larry Levis’s death in May 1996, his sister, Sheila Brady, asked Larry’s oldest friend, former teacher, and mentor Philip Levine if he would be willing to edit a posthumous collection of Levis’s poems. Levine agreed, and also asked me if I would help him look through what he’d been told was a significant amount of unpublished work. This posthumous collection became, of course, the book published as Elegy.

I had known Larry Levis since I was eighteen years old (when he first introduced me to Philip Levine), and he had become my closest friend in and out of poetry. Except for Levine, who knew Larry’s work more intimately than anyone, I felt that I had an unusual perspective on these unpublished poems, as Larry was in the habit of sending copies of his poems to me for comment, long before they would appear in journals or in books. He would also send us copies of each typescript manuscript as he finished it. Often, with the individual poems, Larry would have specific questions about the work in general, or about lines. I agreed to help Phil in whatever way he needed and, not long after, we both received identical boxes filled with copies and drafts of Larry’s poems. For the most part, this work had been pulled from Levis’s computers (at home and in his office at Virginia Commonwealth University) or found among his papers in his home office. Mary Flinn and Greg Donovan, Larry’s close friends and colleagues, as well as his former student and friend Amy Tudor, all worked to find every unpublished poem available. What we found, as Levine mentions in his introduction, were multiple drafts of many of the poems, some of which were clearly unfinished; yet others seemed remarkably finished. Larry’s friends at VCU had been, in my view, heroic in assembling the most complete and final versions they were able to find or construct from his many drafts; at times, they had even tried to include the revisions they’d found scrawled on scattered Post-its and other notes left on his desk.

I recognized a few of the poems in the box as having come from the period that Larry lived in Utah, and they’d clearly been pulled off the computer he’d brought with him from Salt Lake City to Richmond. A few other poems were originally part of a manuscript he’d sent me called Adolescence, but were later dropped as that manuscript became the book Winter Stars. Yet, to me, the most astonishing thing about looking at these poems gathered in their huge cardboard box was that the great majority—nearly two hundred pages—had been written since The Widening Spell of the Leaves. This was almost entirely new work.

The process of working on Elegy was difficult for Levine and for me; it felt emotionally charged and—to me, at least—psychologically daunting. I believe that Larry was the poet Levine admired most of all other contemporary poets, yet he was also as much a son to Phil as he was a protégé, as much an irreplaceable friend as an admired poet. For the first few months, every time Phil and I tried phoning one another to talk about the poems we’d been reading, well, we simply couldn’t do it; we couldn’t talk about this impossible task. In order to talk about some selection of Larry’s poems, we had first to admit that Larry was dead. It took almost five months before we could actually have our first conversation about the work itself. Finally, over that next nine months, Elegy took shape.

Levine had a clear idea of how he wanted to present Larry’s work, and that was to include a group of the shorter, more lyrical pieces and to set them alongside the sequence of longer “elegy” poems, which were somewhat similar in style to Larry’s late work in The Widening Spell of the Leaves. Yet, as we looked through the poems, it was clear that there was also a group of longer poems that were distinct from the “elegy” poems, and which stood apart from that sequence. Since it was impossible to include those poems also, we set them aside and, with two exceptions, included only those nine poems that were clearly meant to be part of the “elegy” sequence.

It is a group of those longer, operatic, and at times wildly ambitious longer poems held back from Elegy that are offered here in this issue. A few years after Elegy was published, Sheila Brady asked Phil if he would also edit Larry’s Selected Poems, but the editing of Elegy had been a profound emotional expense, and he suggested to Sheila that she ask me to edit the Selected Poems, and I did. Then, in the fall of 2010, at the Larry Levis: American Poet conference held at VCU, Sheila asked me if I would consider editing a collection of Larry’s uncollected poems, as she knew I felt strongly that there was an enormous body of astonishing work by Larry still left to be published—work that only a few people had ever seen. At first, however, I said no, admitting that I felt it would be too wrenching a project. I suggested a few poets who might take on the editing of Larry’s uncollected poems, but Sheila wrote back to me saying that she would wait until I was ready, as she knew at some point I would be. Of course, she was right. I’ve titled the collection The Darkening Trapeze, and in this issue, you have at your fingertips some of those previously lost poems.  end

David St. John is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently The Auroras (HarperCollins, 2012). His collection Study for the World’s Body: New and Selected Poems (HarperPerennial, 1994) was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. He is the editor of Larry Levis’s The Selected Levis (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000) and the coeditor of American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (W.W. Norton, 2009). He teaches at The University of Southern California.