In Memory of Larry Levis
Hearing of the death of Larry Levis this past May, Jane Cooper, one of my oldest (and surely my dearest) friends in poetry, wrote me a consoling letter, one that touched me deeply and helped as much as such letters can. "I think this must almost be like losing a son for you," she wrote. Perhaps once, thirty years ago when I first met Larry and got to know and love him, I might have thought of him as a son, but it was not long before we became simply friends and brothers in the impossible art of poetry. What many who knew us well failed to realize was that I took from Larry, from his advice and from the poems he wrote, more than I ever gave him. It was easy to take from Larry, for his whole vision of why we are here on this earth had to do with giving. One sees it clearly in a little essay he wrote about teachers who mattered and didn't matter to him: "to try to conserve one's energy for some later use, to try to teach as if one isn't quite there and has more important things to do, is a way, quite simply, of betraying oneself."
In this same letter Jane goes on to describe the year she spent at Iowa teaching alone with Larry. "There was a gentle mysteriousness about him which was very attractive but which at the same time I respected as a kind of boundary." Amazingly, without believing she knew him well, Jane put her finger precisely on a quality of his presence I could not have articulated, for from the moment I met him Larry struck me as that rare person who knows exactly who he is and finds the mere fact of his particular existence both just and cosmically funny. That a ranch boy from Selma, California, the raisin capital of the universe, "a kind of teenage failure, an unathletic, acne-riddled virgin who owned the slowest car in town, a 1959 Plymouth sedan that had fins like irrelevant twin sharks rising above the taillights," should at age sixteen decide to become a poet always struck him as both outrageous and perfectly right. He tells us in a brilliant and hilarious autobiographical essay the decision was made on the basis of one line in a single poem, all the other lines of which were awful. As a junior at Selma High he had been reading Eliot, Stevens, and Frost on his own and decided he would try to write a poem. He did this one night in his bedroom, turned out the light, and told himself that if in the morning he found one good line he would try to become a poet. And then he took back "try." "You will either be a poet," he told himself, "and become a better and better one, or you will not be a poet." The next morning he found in the awful poem one good line. "All the important decisions were made in that moment."
From the moment I met Larry I was aware of that gentle mysteriousness that Jane wrote of. In mid-September of 1964 this tall, slender, loose-limbed country boy entered my office at Fresno State and asked if we might discuss the possibility of his taking my beginning poetry writing class even though he was only an entering freshman and lacked all the prerequisites. I asked him to take a seat, and he did so, sprawling in a chair before me, and then he asked permission to smoke, which--being a smoker myself--I granted. I described the course to him, the fact that I required the students to write poems in specific forms before they were released into the chaos of free verse, which by then they might discover was not so free after all. He smiled and nodded his approval. I wondered had he read any modern poetry, for the experience might be a richer one for him if he had. "Oh, yes," he said, he'd been reading Eliot, Frost, and Stevens for two years now. He still had trouble with some of Stevens. At the moment he was struggling with Hart Crane and Rimbaud. He wondered if I might help him understand some of Rimbaud. Not knowing French, I couldn't, but perhaps I could help him with Crane. He collected himself, and rose and began to walk slowly around my small office, his mouth fixed, nodding his head up and down. A minute passed or perhaps what seemed like a minute during which he was seriously thinking, and then he leaned back against an empty desk across from mine with his arms fully extended, a stance I would become familiar with as the years passed. He looked me full in the face, his gray eyes under long lashes staring into mine, and I was for the first time struck by his physical beauty of which he seemed totally unaware. "Might I enroll in your class?" he said. "I believe it is exactly what I want." At that moment I knew without the least doubt that the coming semester would be a triumph.
And a triumph it was. It was probably the best class I was ever privileged to be a part of, for week after week Larry presented us with poems. They were not perfect poems, sometimes they were not even good poems, but they were always poems. Imagine getting this description of a small town pharmacy from an eighteen-year-old beginner six weeks into his first college semester (from "The Town"):
In the town of 20 pool cues of noses broken over the feel of pussy, among the bottles of grease and candy lining the shelves, the men laughed, they stole cars and left them in ditches, smoldering. Their wives, spitting at irons, never looked up. They grew older.
He may have hated Selma. ("You could die in a town like that without lifting a finger.") But he was already Selma's one poet. The true miracle of that semester was not, astonishingly enough, the poems Larry handed in, it was what happened to five other students, for they too sensed someone rare and remarkable was in their midst. These five caught fire from Larry and from his poems and began to write utterly surprising things that struggled with the agony and humor of coming of age in the little valley towns that gave birth to them. This was my seventh year of teaching creative writing, but it was the first time I discovered how much one genius can give to those around him or her when that genius has an unquenchable need to give.
I received a sabbatical that semester, and my wife and I decided to try Spain for the following year. In late August, the night before we left there was a quiet knock on the door, and when I answered it Larry stood shyly there in the ferocious heat with a six-pack in hand and asked if it was OK for him to come in and say goodbye. I welcomed him into the heat of our un-airconditioned house. The kids were in bed, and all the living room furniture--save for one kitchen chair--had been stowed in a back bedroom so that the family renting our house could enjoy their own possessions. The place looked like a venue for a ping-pong tournament. I offered Larry the one chair, and he sat upright before my wife who sat crosslegged before him.
After some minutes of stilted conversation, the three of us finally exploded with laughter at the stupidity of this arrangement, and for half an hour we swapped places as Larry entertained us with a series of wonderful riffs on the theme of the one chair. When in full flight he was the funniest man I have ever known, for his humor was totally spontaneous and always took off from the elements at hand the way a jazz musician might walk out into a series of variations on a musical theme.
By this time Larry had written many of the poems that appear in his first book, Wrecking Crew, which won the 1971 U.S. Award of the International Poetry Forum and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press the next year. Those poems were written in his late teens and early twenties and give only a hint of the power to come. His second book, The Afterlife, which won the 1976 Lamont Award, shows the expanding range of his fascinations and his style. In the stunning long poem "Linnets"--written when he was twenty-eight--one hears for the first time the voice that is distinctively Levis:
one morning with a 12 gauge my brother shot what he said was a linnet. He did this at close range where it sang on a flowering almond branch. Any- one could have done the same and shrugged it off, but my brother joked about it for days, describing how nothing remained of it, how he watched for feathers and counted only two gold ones which he slipped behind his ear. He grew uneasy and care- less; nothing remained. He wore loud ties and two tone shoes. He sold shoes. He sold soap. Nothing remained. He drove on the roads with a little hole in the air behind him.
By this time he'd earned an MA from Syracuse, where he worked with Donald Justice, and a PhD from Iowa, where with the help of his friend the Mexican poet Ernesto Trejo he explored the great twentieth-century poetry in Spanish. By this time certainly he was no longer a son to me. Indeed he had come into himself. Or perhaps I should say he had created himself, the self of which he would later write: "Driving a tractor, furrowing out a vineyard of muscats for my father one day, I was for some reason immediately impressed by how lucky I was to have been born at all, especially to be born as a human rather than, as I wrote later in a poem, 'a horse, or a gnat.'" This was the Larry Levis to whom I mailed my new work each month--if there was work to send. He would return my poems with praise when they merited it and something else when they didn't, and I tried my best to do the same for him with an equal measure of tact and honesty.
Looking back now I can see that it was during my first year in Spain that my relationship with Larry began to change, for that was the first year of what became the crucial correspondence of my life. I was the only American poet I knew within driving distance, and so when Larry first sent me a poem for my approval or criticism I answered with one of my own. I had learned even during that first year as his teacher how sensitively and shrewdly he could read poetry, but it was only in the letters that I discovered what a resourceful and brilliant practical critic he was, and as the years passed I grew to need him in more ways than I can describe.
I heard of Larry's death in Athens, Ohio, where I was scheduled to give a poetry reading within a few hours. My hosts, knowing of my loss, were extraordinarily considerate. The meaning of Larry's death had not begun to dawn on me, and by putting it on hold--simply by refusing to believe it--I was able to read. At a certain point in the reading I faltered, for I realized that the very lines I was reading were lines Larry had either given me or urged me to write in order to rescue a poem. The first time this happened I was able to pass over it with only a word to myself, but when a few minutes later I entered the conclusion of a poem I had years before struggled with I realized these final lines I was reading were lines designed by Larry. I had to stop and tell the audience what I had to tell myself, that my brother in poetry, my dear friend, had died, and that I owed the lines I had just read to Larry Levis. I did not tell them that for thirty years his fierce devotion to his art had served as my inspiration and model. I did not tell them that I found in his poetry an originality and daring that urged me to risk more in my own writing. I did not tell them that when I am weary of the mediocrity and smallness of so much that passes for poetry I go to Larry's work and revive my belief in the value of the art we shared.
No, I never told Larry that either, nor did I tell him that I thought he had become the finest poet of his generation as well as a better poet than his old teacher. I wouldn't have dared--though I truly believe it--for he would have shambled out of the room, bobbing his head up and down, and then gone off on a series of wonderful riffs on a theme such as "the most embarrassing things ever said in Fresno" or "why it is important not to drink after dark" or "how vitamin deficiency turned Levine into Edgar Guest." The Dollmaker's Ghost, Winter Stars, and The Widening Spell of the Leaves, his last three books, are collections of poetry that will last as long as our language survives, and it's likely that my greatest contribution to literature is the small part I played in shaping them.
This essay originally appeared in the fall 1996 issue of American Poet, the quarterly journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 1996 The Academy of American Poets and Philip Levine.