blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


PIVOT POINTS  |  Third Generation Poet

Joshua Poteat

Phil Levine once said that Larry Levis was "the most gifted and determined young poet I have ever had the good fortune to have in one of my classes." Larry, I'm pretty sure, did not say that about me during the two years of workshops and literature classes I took of his. For good reason, mind you. I’m no Larry.

That, however, is not quite the point. The point is: I have learned more from Larry's lingering presence (not a ghost, really, but a subtle wind easing through town, cleansing the air) and poems than from any other teacher/writer I have had in my somewhat short life as a student of language. This is about influence, I know . . . the white light of inspiration, of instilling a newfound beauty in the world et al., which is true in many ways. The thing is . . . there is a slight problem with influence and it falls under the category of fear. Especially in the case of Larry Levis, a poet who died at the height of his powers and became even more "otherworldly" through his death (no biblical references intended).

Part of this fear is that, as an influencee, one cannot transcend the influencer. . . cannot move beyond the weight, force, and history of the influencer to a realm of one's own. Maybe transcend is not the word I’m looking for. Such an act is not usually possible, except in special cases. Fear could be wrong, too. Why be afraid of the most wonderful gift? What I must be trying to say is that to be influenced is to be challenged in quite a unique way, and to overcome this challenge, one must accept the gift, but unwrap it slowly, over time, let it age a little. . . not like a cheese or wine, but a memory of a field of wheat at twilight, and the whir of sparrows in the eaves.

Whir of sparrows . . . field of wheat . . . perhaps I'm taking all of this too seriously. Larry once told me to "stop trying so hard . . . you're making me nervous. . . ." So forgive me. I guess I want to be as clear as possible. Unfortunately, clarity is something I failed to learn from Larry or anyone else for that matter. I cannot define the influence of Larry on my own work. All I can offer here is abstraction: Larry is the poet I wish I could be. Beyond all the discussions, meetings, readings, classes and walks I had with Larry that shaped my knowledge of poetry and of the world, his greatest influence is that of history, of the past, because that is all there is in the end. That we existed.

I shouldn't forget about the living, though. It's an easy mistake to make. Greg Donovan is a living influence, a vital and supportive soul who literally saved me from the abyss of Larry's death. Greg showed me the intricate processes of a fine craftsman, from synapse to ink, and helped me to swim through the dark, unyielding days that come with such processes. He is of the present, and contains a history that will hopefully continue to reveal to me the weight of stars and the scent of earth.  

 People Who'd Kill Me 
(Spain, 1939)
 For the Aviaries
 Para las Jaula

   Notes and Acknowledgments
   Levis Reading Loop