Hayden's Ferry Review


Not Be Forgotten: Larry Levis

“Sometimes, remembering those days,
I watch a warm, dry wind bothering a whole line of elms
And maples along a street in this neighborhood until
They’re all moving at once, until I feel just like them,
Trembling & in unison. None of this matters now,
But I never felt alone all that year, & if I had sorrows,
I also had laughter, the affliction of angels and children.
Which can set a whole house on fire if you’d let it.”

The above is from the poem, “My Story In A Late Style Of Fire,” by Larry Levis (1946-1996). It's the poem that made me love Levis, and the book it's from, Winter Stars, is the book that made me want to be a poet. I didn’t just want to write like Levis, I wanted to be Levis, to see the world as he did, to feel what he felt, love like he loved, with passion and with attention to and for the details that can make a meaning for the living. I had my first poet/man crush. Other man crushes in the past included Flea, Johnny Cash, Dostoyevsky, Camus, and Kierkegaard.

Last semester I was a junior studying under the poet Norman Dubie, who was and still is one of my favorite poets, and I also knew he was Larry Levis’s old drinking buddy from his poem “A Genesis Text for Larry Levis Who Died Alone.” But what I didn’t know is what matters now. On the first day of class Dubie asked us to name our favorite poets. I said Larry. Dubie started talking. A great poet he was, he said, “He was the smartest poet I’ve met, ya know I used to be his teacher out at Iowa” (here, I am paraphrasing from memory). So there I was, a junior studying under the teacher who taught my favorite poet. Lucky? Destiny sounds better to me. If I wrote a good poem in class, Dubie would say, this is something Larry would have liked, or this reminds me of Levis, which would make me feel as if I had reached some subliminal point on the hierarchy of needs scale. To be studying under Dubie was too real for me, I believed in it, really; I could have believed in astrology at that point, the alignment of planets making things like this possible.

Levis’s best poems are exhibited in his last three works, Winter Stars, Widening Spell of The Leaves, and Elegy—which was published posthumously. I recommend starting out with Winter Stars; it is accessible, stunning, and less heart-wrenchingly exhaustive than the others are. Though Levis is largely unknown--due to his unexpected early death--his work has been highly respected by other established poets such as Charles Wright, Tony Hoagland, Philip Levine, David St. John, and many others. Hoagland has this to say about Levis’s work, “In comparison as a device whose goal is logical coherence, or persuasion, or concentration; rather, [Levis's] practice is to use image as a form of inquiry, as a kind of tentative, speculating finger poking into the unknown." So do yourself a favor, read and listen to some of his poetry here, and then go buy one of his books and find out why he is considered by many to be a forgotten god of the contemporary poets.