blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Larry Levis in Syracuse

Only four would-be poets were admitted into Syracuse University’s graduate writing program in 1969. Actually there were five of us, but one was Larry Levis, who was a poet. Larry was 22, fresh out of Fresno and already with pedigree, having studied with Philip Levine and Robert Mezey. I was 29, relatively new to poetry (I had been a history major as an undergraduate and hadn’t been to a school in many years), fresh from a year of living and trying to write in Spain. Though I may have had some ability, there seemed an enormous initial gap between me and the other admittees, especially Larry. Larry seemed full-blown, perhaps even an original.

I think we were able to become friends—from my side of the equation—because Larry was immensely likable and apparently devoid of ego. But also because I felt no competitiveness toward him, as I did toward some of the others. He already had a voice; he was in another category. He was tall, gangly, off the farm. And attractive; his overall manner and carriage, not to mention his mustache, made him James Dean leaning toward Burt Reynolds. My wife liked him (women were always drawn to Larry), and he was frequently a visitor at our apartment. Until his second or third Fellowship check arrived—sometime after Syracuse winter had commenced—the warmest clothing he owned was a dungaree jacket and a rubber raincoat. He was our Californian, and some of us even confused his drawl, his slow delivery and curious accent, as Southern Californian. We were wrong; it was peculiarly Levisonian.

We had come to study with Philip Booth, Donald Justice, W.D. Snodgrass, George P. Elliott, arguably the best group of writer-teachers that existed at the time. In Philip Booth’s small workshop that first semester in 1969, I kept silent most of the time. There was a very brilliant Fellowship student (I’ll not name him) from the South who held forth every class. None of us was articulate, certainly not Larry whose speech was hesitant, at worst sprinkled with “you knows,” a kind of punctuation for him, sometimes annoying, like “like” these days. The brilliant student’s poems, however, were convoluted. We soon learned that his brilliance, his apparent brilliance, was overly convoluted too. Much elaboration and ranginess, little touching down. In a month or so, it was clear who was the most interesting and able poet. Booth clearly knew. When that year Larry won The Academy of American Poets Award for best poem, no one was surprised.

It took longer to realize that Larry was a good thinker as well. Together, we took a course called The Modern Imagination from William Wasserstrom, a formidable and curmudgeonly professor. In it, among other books, we read The Tin Drum, several Beckett plays, Konrad Lorenz’ On Aggression, Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, a wonderful and eclectic range of texts. Larry and I were the only creative writers in the class; the rest were scholars, PhD candidates. Wasserstrom had little patience with students whose analytical skills weren’t sharp. He had no patience with the unprepared or the foolish. Frequently he’d stop a student in mid-sentence, cut him off. But an amazing thing started to happen by mid-semester. Larry would start to speak, again slowly, lots of “you knows” and “sort ofs,” and Wasserstrom let him speak. By this time professor and class had learned that if you gave Larry some room, some slack, that the end of his drift or sentence was going to click-in, that he was going to say something very smart. Any other student verging on the inarticulate would be (and was) interrupted. Larry had more acute things to say than anyone in class, especially, as I remember, about Beckett.

In our second year at Syracuse, Larry, with the help of Don Justice’s translation class, was turning to the Latin American and French poets that would prove so important to his work. Neruda, Reverdy, Baudelaire, Follain, Vallejo. He found models in them and others for how to blend his politics with his aesthetics. It was 1970. Larry’s politics were more than fashionably leftist; they arose of something essentially proletarian in his make up. The war and Nixon preoccupied many of us, and Larry in particular. It seems comic to say so, but if he hadn’t been such a gentle man he might have been a violent one.

One Christmas break, he returned from California with a beautiful woman, Barbara. He had only casually mentioned her to us, but here she was, his wife. They’d just gotten married. She was his first wife, and the one dearest to us. Many good times together, pot and booze oiling the laughter. He was a husband now, and to bring in more money he took a job at a steel mill. Hard work, but work that wholly fit Larry’s romance of himself as a man of the people, a worker. On the back of his precocious first book, Wrecking Crew, he listed steelworker as one of his former occupations.

His best and often extraordinary poems were, of course, ahead of him. But in those two years at Syracuse the seeds of them were present. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, we drifted apart in the late eighties. Each of us had come far as poets, the only two Syracusans from that era to do so, but we also lived far apart and had cut out different paths for ourselves. I wished to see him again, and not long ago I invited him to read at my college. I felt instantly close to him, and I think he felt the same toward me. Five months later he’d be dead. What I’ll remember about him, beyond the poems, were his special brand of humor and his infinite sweetness.  end of text

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