Larry Levis—The Poet & His Prose
    reprinted from New Virginia Review, Vol. 11, published in memory of Larry Levis in 2001

By now, anyone even remotely interested in contemporary American poetry has learned of the loss of one of our best and brightest poets—not yet fifty, and Larry Levis died of cardiac arrest in May, 1996. I had talked to Larry only two weeks previously. He was doing well and had just finished the new book of poems, Elegy(University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997). We talked maybe ten minutes; he had called to say he would write some prose for the new Levine book I was helping to publish. I love and admire Larry’s poems; he was always showing us the next range of possibility for our imagination, our lives in poems, the best and freshest sources for our imaginations and humanity. And while my own experience is only my own experience, I can say with some confidence that “we” loved his poems; for over the last twenty-five years at conferences, readings, anywhere a few poets gathered, Larry’s work was admired without exception—this in a world as concentrated and contentious as the world of poetry.

But also, I found my friends and fellow poets knew his prose as well—his essays on poetics for Field, his piece on war poetry in The American Poetry Review (APR), his award winning book of what he chose to call fiction, Black Freckles published by Peregrine Smith Books in 1992. Larry’s prose, like his poetry, was brilliant and poignant, arresting in its inventiveness and imagination, and all of that served an essential human subject. His voice was powerful and modest—profound and casual all at once. He had managed early on to master a directness and candidness of psyche that compelled a reader no matter how he broke the line—poetry or prose.

One of the great characteristics of his work is its elegiac quality. He treasures the past in its commonplace detail and through the intensity of his vision he holds a moment or scene or life there for us, brings it closer to the small light of our individual lives, lets it resonate and makes it matter, rescues it from an unappraisable dark so it might be cherished, however briefly.

Back in 1989 he had written an essay for the volume I was editing on Levine, On The Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger To Nothing (University of Michigan Press, 1991). That volume is more than worth its price for Larry’s essay alone. As much as anything I’ve ever read, Larry’s essay not only pays homage—with great humor, sincerity, and precise memory—to his teacher Philip Levine, but it says directly what it means to be given the gift of poetry, to realize at an early age how important a life of art can be, and then to follow through with that gift. It is an eloquent tribute to the value of good teachers. Larry writes poignantly about Levine’s achievement, his importance as a poet and teacher and friend; at the same time he is able to take a clear view of his own formation as a young poet, and is characteristically modest, giving credit to others as he always seemed to do. (In the autobiography he wrote for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 23, he writes almost as much about others—his parents, all the workers on his father’s farm in Selma—as he does about himself.) In poetry or prose, Larry’s work had an intimate sense of detachment—a voice or stance that allowed him to examine himself as an objective character in the world he knew and was making there on the page, and yet to write of the most personal events and aspirations in an objective, factual style. This combination avoids sentimentality, and at the same time allows his poems to carry great and immediate emotional weight. In his essay on Levine, he talks about his high school friend Zamora, managing to deflect the spotlight from himself and focus it on the moment and ideas he is writing about. Zamora is almost a guardian angel, a guide, but one sure to keep a young hopeful poet’s feet on the ground:

For two years, largely in secret, I read and reread Eliot, and I told no one of this. But finally one afternoon in journalism class, while the teacher was out of the room, Zamora stretched out, lying over three desk tops, and began yelling at the little evenly spaced holes in the plyboard ceiling: “Oh Stars, Oh Stars!” The others around us talked on in a mild roar. Then Zamora turned to me and said: “I saw that book you always got with you. Once again, guy, I see through you like a just wiped wind-shield.” There was this little pause, and then he said, “What is it, you wanna be a poet?” I said, “Yeah. You think that’s really stupid?” His smile had disappeared by the time he answered, “No, it isn’t stupid. It isn’t stupid at all, but I’d get out of town if I were you.”

Zamora would resurface a few years later in one of Larry’s most brilliant poems from The Widening Spell of the Leaves (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), “Caravaggio, Swirl and Vortex.” He was an important friend, a down to earth muse who supported a young poet in taking the main risk he would need for his life. Larry knew early on that his life would be given to poems, and he gave it without qualification. For him, there was no other course, and he writes compellingly of this in the conclusion of his essay on Levine:

Whenever I try to imagine the life I might have had if I hadn’t met Levine, if he had never been my teacher, if we had not become friends and exchanged poems and hundreds of letters over the past twenty-five years, I can’t imagine it. That is, nothing at all appears when I try to do this. No other life of any kind appears. I cannot see myself walking down one of those streets as a lawyer, or the boss of a packing shed, or even as the farmer my father wished I would become. When I try to do this, no one’s there; it seems instead that I simply had never been at all. All there is on that street, the leaves on the shade trees that line it curled and black and closeted against noon heat, is a space where I am not.

One of Larry’s main gifts, I think, was his intense and specific imagination—his power to conceptualize, to go out into the unlikely realms of imagination and then bring it all back to an accessible and experiential base, an emotional and human level that moved you and made sense. Every image or vision from the imagination was there to serve the rush and resonance of experience. He brought the feeling home with an authenticity that convinced a reader that Larry had seen it, knew it first hand. There is a particular street in Fresno with its shade trees closed against the noon heat where, without the life of writing, Larry never was.

I think Larry’s essays on poetics truly deserve to be read and re-read. They are brilliant and yet practical, and, in that, helpful to those interested in writing poetry, in reading it. Larry was very well read and very well educated, but he wore all that very lightly—he was a writer who never came across as “superior.” In his essay for Field (Spring 1982, no. 26) “Eden and My Generation,” he demonstrated that he was very current with aspects of theory from Bachelard and Lacan, but this is not an essay of theory about poetry or language. It is a very well-developed essay about landscape, exile, and the subject of loss in poetry. He explains his generation’s break from the moderns and earlier contemporary poets, how they, Larry’s immediate generation, admit a more abstract language and imagery into their poetry. The essay contains the best and most complete explication of Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” that I have ever read. Larry makes use of Freud, Edward Hopper, Huck Finn, and the full cast of modern and contemporary poets to explain the methods and sources of his younger generation of poets—St. John, Anderson, Hass, Lux, et al. His essay is at once comprehensive, exact, and personal; and Larry’s own work, far less abstract than much of the poetry of the late '70s, needs no apology. But one of the essay’s strongest points is the way it explains sources for poetry and how those sources may differ even among poets in the same generation. Larry points out that Gary Soto’s San Joaquin Valley is not the same landscape as his San Joaquin Valley. Here is most of the last paragraph:

What is it, then, that one loses? That everyone loses? Where I grew up, the specific place meant everything. As a child in California, I still thought of myself, almost, as living in the Bear Flag Republic, not in the United States. When I woke, the Sierras, I knew, were on my right; the Pacific was a two-hour drive to my left, and everything between belonged to me, was me. I was astonishingly sheltered. It was only gradually that I learned the ways in which place meant everything, learned that it meant 200 acres of aging peach trees which we had to prop up, every summer, with sticks to keep the limbs from cracking under the weight of slowly ripening fruit. It meant a three-room schoolhouse with thirty students, and meant, also, the pig-headed, oppressive Catholic Church which, as far as I could determine, wanted me to feel guilty for having been born at all. . . . I rejoiced when I read that Rimbaud (at fourteen!) called his home town of Charlesville a “shit-hole”—even when the desire to get away was strongest, I was dimly aware that my adolescent hatred of the place was transforming it, was slowly nurturing an Eden from which I was already exiling myself. After I had left for good, all I really needed to do was to describe the place exactly as it had been. That I could not do, for that was impossible. And that is where poetry might begin.

The wealth of example connected to his own development and that of poets of his generation makes this a truly helpful essay to younger poets working out their sense of the poetic and personal landscape. Also, I think it is a valuable historical document regarding the evolution of letters in America.

Two years earlier, Larry had written another essay on poetics for the people at Field in their, A Field Guide To Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Longman, 1980). “Some Notes on the Gazer Within” is a wonderfully lyric essay about the process of writing poetry. There are very close examinations of Levine’s “They Feed They Lion” and Ted Hughes’s “Thrushes” as well as support and examples from many major poets. But we learn most here about the source of poetry, about poetics, from Larry’s examination of his own sources in landscape. Early on he says, “What interests me here is a deeper poetics, one that tries to grasp what happens at the moment of writing itself.” A little later he explains, “To really look inquiringly inward as Sidney advises or as the most well-intentioned guru advises, is to encounter, at least on some very honest days, my own space; it is to discover how empty I am, how much an onlooker and a gazer I have to be in order to write poems.” And speaking about the landscapes in his new poems (then from The Dollmaker’s Ghost, E.P. Dutton, 1981) and his poems as landscape he said, “I did not, of course, praise the place in my poems. But it was human, a human landscape. I confess that the gazer inside me had a great affection for the fire glaring in those furnaces from evening until midnight.” A bit further on he adds, “Therefore, the asylum, the steel mill, the cemetery, the ghost on the riverbank, the dying resort beside the unfading Pacific are locations, for me, of a human fertility within time.” To write is to gaze back, to stop time in order for the elegy to be heard. For the reader interested especially in Larry’s poem “Linnets,” the end of this essay offers a real insight into its composition. The scholarship, the immediacy, the clear thinking in these essays makes them especially valuable to young writers and readers. The unsentimental and wide-ranging humanity of Larry’s essays on poetics makes them invaluable. His last paragraph says this eloquently:

Gazing within, and trying to assess what all this represents, I find I’ve been speaking, all along, about nature, about the attempt of the imagination to inhabit nature and by that act preserve itself for as long as it possibly can against “the pressure of reality.” And by “nature” I mean any wilderness, inner or outer. The moment of writing is not an escape, however; it is only an insistence, through the imagination, upon human ecstasy, and a reminder that such ecstasy remains as much a birthright in this world as misery remains a condition of it.

I want to mention also a wonderful and again comprehensive essay Larry published in APR in the January/February 1983 issue, “War as Parable and War as Fact: Herbert and Forché.” This is a very politically astute look at war poetry as well as an aesthetic one. The range of knowledge and reference is quite amazing, spanning early WWI to the war in El Salvador. Larry makes a strong argument against those—critics and readers—who would not allow the wealth of specific detail in a war poem, who would push for more “allegiance to art.” He makes the case, I think, for a poem of true witnessing and against a kind of censorship of war poetry. Larry focuses a great part of his essay on the poetry of Forché and her El Salvador poems. He concludes by asking the important question, “What should a poet do in such a world?” His answer is a poet’s answer, a good one, probably the only one: “To write poetry, even in the most hopeless of situations, is an act of faith—not only in poetry itself, but in the world. And who knows? maybe someone will even read you someday, awaken to his or her own life, and live it with a little more laughter and sanity, more dignity and passion.”

In 1992 Larry published Black Freckles (Peregrine Smith Books, 1992), a collection of eight prose pieces he labeled stories. The book won the Western State Book Award for short fiction. I think anyone who knows and loves Larry’s poems will want to read this book. Strictly speaking, these are not stories. They are not character or plot driven. And while some of the elliptical pieces cling latterly to elements of some postmodern fiction, the best pieces are really creative nonfiction. In these, the writer is the focus, the protagonist; the pieces are about ideas, textures, emotions. They have the same compelling voice and vision as the poems, perhaps just a few degrees more discursive and direct. Call them what you will, they are marvelous, soul-making, inventive, and painfully accurate and observant about our lives. They show again the compelling range of voice that was Larry’s. One or two of the pieces lean more toward the fabulistic and surreal, and perhaps a case for “fiction” could be made more strongly for them. But the most compelling writing in the book is a direct, lyric and theme-centered prose. Compare “A Divinity in Its Fraying Fact” to the autobiography he wrote and which I mentioned earlier. The title is composed, in fact, in the same manner that most of the titles of The Widening Spell of the Leaves and Elegy are. Indeed, try these lines—put in line breaks and you have Larry’s poetry, pure, and anything but simple:

If your name was Ramon or Coronado or Xavier, or if they simply called you Dead Rat (pronounced Debtrat, y rapido), and if you had just stepped onto the high rung of a ladder to pick early Santa Rosa plums, and if you happened to peer out, over the trees and into the Pool, you would not know exactly what to do because you would believe that you had just seen a woman hosing down a patio while a dead man lay beside her. And each time you glanced over at them again, he would be slightly bluer in hue, and, as the afternoon wore on, he would slowly become paler and bluer until he seemed mottled, like a trout.

The incident is the same one—a priest visiting his parents’ house, diving into the pool of very cold water and suffering a heart attack—that he relates in his autobiography. In Black Freckles he adds a poetic flourish or two to the facts, but tells the truth finally, for Larry is first and foremost interested in a truth he has learned about the people and places he has lived. In section seven of “The World Beneath the Word” he tells us that it is a true story, that even the address is correct, but that he added the ants and exaggerated how long his mother had to wait with the body. But there is a candor here directed only at interpreting the parade of existence as he has seen it. Section eight, “Grapes,” gives it to us in a prose too naked and knowing to be fiction:

Still, why have I admitted all this? Because, although the altering of facts and the justification of any fabrication because it is “art” is permitted everywhere now, it is not permitted on the East Side of the San Joaquin valley, not without the restoration of fact. And there are some taboos which I am unwilling to transgress, no matter what the consequences.

There is of course, no Sedan of Death and no Ferris wheel. Nor was there ever a passing bankrupt carnival. But the dark row of walnut trees, and the hum of the engine beneath it, are real, and still there, the motor running even as I write this . . . .

And the water? Was it really that cold?—you might ask.


This is of course much closer to poetry in its rhythms, imagery, economy, and thematic focus. In most of these pieces, nothing really “happens.” The lyric impulse of the writer to respond to the past, to the emotional traffic of his life and make some sense of it, make some peace with it, is the driving factor. This is Larry speaking to you, the same voice as in the poems, as in the autobiographical piece. It’s his unique voice that makes for the writing in whatever form. As readers, we’re drawn in by that particular vision, that response that shrugs off the worst of events and cherishes the dignity of each life it encounters.

In an interview I conducted with Philip Levine for Quarterly West’s 20th Anniversary Issue, (No. 43 Autumn/Winter 1997), Levine said in part:

He had a huge voice. I think there’s so much invention, vitality and imagination in his work. There are so many different landscapes in the work, there’s such an intensity—emotional intensity—so many surprises, not finding your niche and getting cozy in it. In these new poems once again Larry was journeying out, trying to create a kind of poem that didn’t exist until that moment. The daring, the sheer inventiveness, the power of these poems is going to shock a great many people. There was no one quite like Larry as a poet or person. I think he was easily the best poet of his generation, at times I truly believe he was writing the best poems in the country. Many of the poets I’ve talked to since his death feel the same way. But even greater than the loss of the poems he would have gone on to write is the loss of Larry. Being with him was a feast, he was so honest and brilliant and funny.

We have lost more than a great poet; we have lost an important and original man of letters. Poetics, critical analysis, fiction/nonfiction, and poetry, Larry’s was a singular and amazing voice and life. Our literature is richer for what he gave us. We are poorer without him.