Suite: Larry Levis
I believe that we learn against
something, perhaps indeed against someone, and quite definitely
One of the first classes Larry Levis taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, back in the spring of 1993, was a creative nonfiction workshop in which I was fortunate enough to be enrolled. Among the first reading assignments Larry gave us was Joan Didion's The White Album. I had never read any of Didion's work, so the experience of encountering her for the first time will always be intertwined in my memory with my earliest impressions of Larry. Over the course of those gradually warming Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I began to appreciate each of their perspectives on California, and recent history, and the way writing, any kind of creative, meaningful writing, gets done. Larry had a great deal to say about Didion's journalistic preeminence, about how he respected her eye for the telling detail, and about how he enjoyed her quirky, moody delivery. And he was quick to opine that it was a certain discernible inflection of the Self in Didion's work, a willingness on the part of the author to be implicated in her subject matter that rescued her essays from the banality of mere reportage. I listened and read carefully. Something in Joan Didion's (and Larry's) hip, sardonic tone appealed to me. I was learning.
But, to be quite honest, the slightly antagonistic
quality of all the iterations of "against" in the epigraph to
this essay comes pretty close to capturing my initial reaction (as a student)
to Larry's attitude and methods as a teacher. I remember going into his
classroom for the first time, sitting down, taking out some paper and
a pencil. Larry hadn't prepared a course syllabus, but on the chalkboard
he had written his name and some basic information about the location
of his office, his office hours, and his phone numbers. He also had written
down the titles of the required texts for the class, as well as the first
twenty or so entries on a list of titles he strongly recommended to us
for further reading. (This last group of titles is hereinafter referred
to simply as The List). The List continued to grow throughout
the semester as titles of this or that work occurred to Larry as we responded
to each other's essays and discussed the assigned reading. And although
it became more and more unrealistic as an actual expectation for a semester's
work, The List communicated quite effectively Larry's hope that
we would forage widely in the language and take away more than he could
guide us through in the allotted three hours per week.
My favorite piece in The White Album is a little memoir titled "On the Morning After the Sixties." In this essay Joan Didion reminisces about her years as a student at Berkeley, wondering at how remote her college days seemed to her from the vantage point of the early seventies. From the far side of the abyss that the sixties had come to represent for Didion, a decade of "reconstituted" classes and campus barricades, her own experiences began to take on a strange tinge. At one point the author muses, "Reconstitution would have sounded to us then [at Berkeley, in the fifties] like Newspeak, and barricades are never personal. We were all very personal then, sometimes relentlessly so, and, at that point where we either act or do not act, most of us still are." She goes on to tell us about reading Heart of Darkness, and living in the Tri-Delt sorority house for a while, and walking in the evening beneath the glowing cyclotron and bevatron on the hills above the school. And, as her story meanders, we witness Didion embracing her identification with the Silent Generation, casually, as if in shock. But she pauses to point out: "We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed, to many of us, just one more way of escaping the personal . . ." Some observers of the times (like Joan Didion and Larry Levis) seemed to have a gut feeling that, no matter what the new theorists of history and literature might say, there was no such escape.
On the morning after the sixties, Larry was busy chauffeuring Zbigniew Herbert around Los Angeles and trying to figure out his own way to break the silence. Larry describes his experiences of that time in an essay of his own titled "Strange Days: Zbigniew Herbert in Los Angeles." In this piece, Larry describes 1970 as "a Present dressed in so many distracting styles that it was possible, in the boundless vanity of the moment, to believe that history was irrelevant. To many history meant the literature of failure. Some welcomed its erasure. Some were boasting of having become post-literate." Erasing history? Escaping the personal? Getting beyond literature? Could such maneuvers actually be accomplished? Why would anyone try? Larry seems to have been considering these very questions on all those long afternoons as he and Zbigniew and Zbigniew's wife Katrina whizzed by Shell stations and Taco Bells and 7-11's. At one point in the essay, Larry, the poet at the wheel, takes the time to tell us a personal story. He explains how, as he and his passengers rode along, contemplating the death of Charles De Gaulle and discussing arson as a reasonable response to the sprawling suburbanity of Rosemeade and San Gabriel and the thousand subdivisions of Angeleno futility, just as they passed the small roadhouse near the freeway interchange with the marquee advertising Live Sex on Stage, something amazing happened. Larry recalls:
Beyond the impeccable sensitivity of such remarks and the viciously droll note they add to the complex chord of the writer's empathy, this passage sheds a fascinating light on a characteristic movement of Larry's mind, an intellectual gesture that an attentive reader may recognize time and again in his poetic texts. It is indicative of the sort of scrupulousness that Larry demands of himself, both in terms of his dedication to his craft and in terms of the imaginative liberties he takes in its name. At moments like this we witness the Gazer as he considers the imprecision of his own perceptions, weighing the manner in which the very subjective act of perceiving alters the objects of his gazing, no matter how careful the observer nor how mindful he might be of the sanctity of simple facts.
Simple facts? Like the names of people and places he loved. These constitute a basic, even primal, lexicon in Larry's work.
Some point to such features in Larry's texts as evidence of self-referentiality and judge the result "anti-poetic." "Anti-referential" may be the more correct term. For, under the gaze defined by much current critical discourse, the overt subject of the above text has, quite simply, ceased to exist, thus making any broadly meaningful referential mode impossible. In Critical Theory and Poststructuralism: In Search of A Context, Mark Poster describes this predicament of Postmodernism as follows:
Poster goes on to describe how, as these processes of manipulation and depoliticization progressed, at least in the writings of the theorists with which he concerns himself, "both the working class subject and the bourgeois subject began to disappear from history." I can almost hear Larry replying with an arch "Oh, really?" to such assertions. His poem is very tender but vehement in its determination to preserve the figure of the worker here, not merely as an artifact to be consumed like "the little / Snacks & white wine of the opening . . ." Larry memorializes the man in the photograph here just as he did the migrant workers on his father's ranch, like Ignacio Calderon, Ediesto Huerta, and Señor Solo, all of whom Larry mentions in his "Autobiography." He does this, not out of some vacuous impulse to tell us about his own life, but to point out that friendship is a numinous thing in this world and because, as Larry argues, "oblivion has no right to claim them without my respect, without their names written down, here and elsewhere." The simple fact that these people lived is significant for Larry, to say nothing of the macrocosmic implications of such lives in Larry's (and Didion's) California, their sheer numbers altering the landscape like rainfall or gravity. Not in theory, but in fact.
One fact I can't recall now is whether Gaston Bachelard's name, or the titles of any of his works, ever made The List. But they came up a number of times later on, in poetry workshops that I took with Larry, and in our thesis meetings. Larry encouraged me to spend some time reading around in Bachelard, adding that he himself had studied The Psychoanalysis of Fire and The Poetics of Reverie closely. Looking back, I wonder if Larry's initial impulse to put me onto Bachelard was, to some degree, a practical joke. Once, when one of my poems was up for discussion in workshop, Larry made the observation that he could discern two very distinct dictional modes competing for attention in my text, adding descriptively that the poem on the table sounded to him like "Marlin Perkins channeling Georg Trakl." A scientist and a poet. Bachelard. Myself.
I start with some stories about myself and hope they work their way outward and manage to reach something beyond the perimeter of my direct experience, where they begin. It's only by reflecting on my own personal experiences that I can begin to explain why I always associate Larry & Joan Didion. It has to do with geography, with the California landscape they share. But I began to sense how they also seemed to share certain generational concerns, concerns which grew more stark and urgent for each of them as the seventies progressed. There are a number of commonalities in their points of view with respect to post-structuralism and the schools of thought that were taking root in the academy and in the broader culture around them as they began their professional lives. Levis and Didion both shared a healthy suspicion of any ideology that could attain the status of foregone conclusion so quickly across so many fields of discourse. They both perceived the endangered status of the Self, and of all things merely personal, in the wake of the societal upheavals of the Sixties, and they strove, in their creative lives, to illustrate the ontological significance of the individual in the face of various collectivities which, however well-intentioned and however attractively packaged in the theory du jour, could not, in actual practice, distinguish the baby from the bath water. It's as if they were both standing at the edge of the same freeway, watching the same traffic pile up, wondering when the wrecking crews would finally come to tear down the old theater and the last abandoned houses.
Eventually Didion broke her own personal silence, though she couldn't speak for a whole generation. Still, millions of people heard her. And, some of themstartled auditors of the language like Larrytook the time to tell a bunch of us who hadn't been paying attention (or who simply hadn't been there) to take a minute or two and actually listen to what she was saying. In her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion comments, "I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening. . . ." There is, after all, a difference between hearing and listening. Two people standing in a crowded room hear the same waves of conversation breaking against the walls, but each may choose to listen to very different pieces of that conversation, interspersed as it becomes with snippets of music, feet shuffling, the tinkle of ice hitting the bottom of a Collins glass. Maybe this explains why the feedback that inundated Didion upon publishing Slouching Towards Bethlehem seemed, to the author herself, to be so "universally beside the point"?
Many of the critical responses to Larry's poems that I've read over the years seem to be, similarly, beside the point. Academics have, in near unanimity, assessed Larry's poetry as a body of work that becomes, more often than not, too personal in its revelations. In his article for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Steven M. Wilson argues that Larry "came to symbolize the self-referential writer pampered by the academic ivory tower and spending his writing career in endless exploration of himself." Wilson goes on to quote another critic, Jeff Schiff, who claims Larry's poetry affords the reader "a view of some masturbatory relationship the poet has with himself." Larry's fellow poets generally have been kinder. Diane Wakoski comments that Larry "is a master of the brief moment of recognition where the personal is imbedded in the generic." While David Wojahn's response is to praise, it is tempered by the idea that Larry's poems do exhibit an unhealthy self-absorption. Discussing the posthumously published Elegy, Wojahn observes, "The sweep and breadth of the poems causes them to rise above mere tawdry abjection, and to avoid the self-pity which characterized a fair percentage of Levis's earlier work."
Such assertions are symptomatic of a fundamental misapprehension of what lies at the core of Larry's poetics, a poetics that is, ultimately, not grounded in unmitigated solipsism. I think we should risk taking Larry at his word when he admits that his poems are personal, but adds the following caveat: "By personal I do not mean confessional at all. I mean the creation of a private, familial mythology which intends to be representative rather than idiosyncratic." In workshop, Larry was wont to observe that poetry is a technology of memory. Memory is personal. But the word technology implies instrumentality and manipulation in some direction. Do we manipulate memory or does it manipulate us? As the poet quite literally handles the material that becomes the poem, various levels of representation are rendered inherent to the language that results. Images are put into play, and narrative, and, to some extent, a persona which, ultimately, subsumes the speaker. This figurative matrix of the text creates a space within which words accrue meaning, over time. Even if the figures derive in large part from the accidental raw material of the poet's autobiography, the idiosyncratic significance they possess for the poet is just a starting point.
In a lecture delivered at Warren Wilson College in 1993, while analyzing the work of a number of poets including Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell, Larry makes some fairly general observations about this process and concludes that "Poetry seems to need both the persona (the artifice of persona) and the great weight of the past, of history, to speak out of. . . . [I]n its descriptive terms . . . it is most adequate and fulfilling when it is talking about a past, a past that has a sense of completion about it." Where could such convictions leave a poet like Larry, a definitively literate figure in an age so eager to erase history and to label itself "post-literate"? Where does it leave any of us who still believe, however naively, in the centrality of the Self as subject, as the originating site of linguistic enunciation, however contingent that subject position is rendered by a history it did not write or a culture it did not choose or a society it did not construct? Some have argued that Larry became nihilistic. To me this seems like an odd inversion of actual circumstances. It's like seeing someone (let's call her Barbara) come in from a storm, shivering, soaked to the skin, and then making a remark to the effect of "Barbara is raining." The effect. Larry's poetry may be an effect of the nihilistic atmosphere in which he found himself, but that does not make Larry a nihilist any more than it makes Barbara a thunder shower. Larry's poetry may, in fact, be more like a well-made, inexpensive little umbrella carried by the lucky few who happened to check the forecast before they left home. Larry's dogged commitment to the poetry of self-exploration becomes an expression of great hope for better weather to come. In his foreword to The Gazer Within, David St John notes how the essays in that collection engage readers with "the most subtle and disturbing questions of the self to be found in the prose . . . of any contemporary American poet." These questions follow Larry into his poems where he seems to begin the process of working out a number of remarkable, moving answers.
But Larry's poetry, even in its flattest, most declarative moments retains, somewhat, the quality of a question. The interrogative. The way a dream is interrogative as it unfolds beneath the unconscious gaze of the dreamer. And the intellectual sophistication of Larry's point of view is balanced by a firmly rooted humanism. Larry's humanism, like his concept of the image and the manner in which it functions, was deeply informed by his reading of Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard was not, despite his scientific orientation, a rationalist. He considered imagination and reverie as well as reason to be creative forces in knowing. In reference to the image, Bachelard argues: "The image, in its simplicity, has no need of scholarship. It is the property of a naive consciousness; in its expression it is youthful language. The poet, in the novelty of his images, is always the origin of language." In these respects, Bachelard's philosophy can be viewed as a systematic argument in favor of Surrealism. Many have noted how, especially in his early work, Larry ends up on the surreal side of the street more often than not. But Larry, reading Breton through Bachelard, apprehends that "surreal" does not imply a state of affairs somehow at odds with our "naive consciousness." Rather it denotes a more absolute and complete synthesis of this consciousness with its objects through what Larry might have termed our conscientious "gazing" at the world. The eye of the poet, turned inward, attempts to reconcile the spheres of dream and conscious thought and reverie. So much light pours into the vulnerable lens of the eye, lens of the self. The images we see cast their shadows in language.
This brief lyric illustrates the surrealistic impulse in Larry's early work. The will of the "I" in this couplet becomes the ground, the essential foundation of a world. The deep ambiguity of the preposition here is amplified by the two possessive pronouns, which raise the issue of ownership without emphasizing it. Obviously the sky belongs to winter ("its sky"), but a small rag is somehow torn or taken from the sky by some mystical agency of the speaker. There is a difference between meeting a perfectly nice Season just hanging out, minding its own business, carrying around its sky like a big gray sack stuffed to overflowing with little whitish rags and then harmlessly filching one of these irresistible swatches as a memento of the encounter. But if Winter is decked out in its sky like a majestic woman in a cloudy white dress and you walk up to her and rip off a big chunk of fabric right at the hemline, well, that just seems rude. It's the difference between assault and petty theft. The genitive of possession and the genitive of origin. The literal and the metaphorical. And what exactly is going on forever? Is it the process of stuffing that will take place endlessly here, or is the act of stuffing accomplished somehow, instantaneously, and the rag of sky completely secreted, laid to rest in the speaker's pocket till the end of time?
The end of time? I began this essay musing about how I met Larry and how he introduced me to Joan Didion. I wanted to discuss something I perceived about that coincidence, that accidental arrangement of three people in space and time. Maybe the arbitrary distinction of having known Larry near the end of his life somehow gives my memories of him and all he taught me an eschatological cast. As if he were among the last surviving witnesses to something significant about which he was still, in many ways, inarticulate. As time has passed and Larry's absence has sunk into my psyche, my sense of the talks we had and the ongoing dialogue I find myself engaged in with his poems bring me time and again to a consideration of whether Larry (and Didion and the generation of writers they represent) might represent the last of the Modernists. Or are they more correctly labeled the first Post-modernists? Are such designations important? Maybe such questions are inconsequential and the theorists are correct. Maybe the individual has become a meaningless cipher held together by the frailest threads of delusion and desire.
Larry himself had some fairly cut-and-dried opinions about what separates the Modern from what comes after. In one essay he observes:
He goes on to argue, "If the Post-Modern sensibility retains a desire for permanence, the mode of accomplishing it has changed. . . . [I]n much Post-modernist work . . . only the unadorned frailty of the voice sounds convincing. . . ." The If Larry deploys here is a pregnant one, and it begs a number of questions that seem to underlie a great deal of his poetic work. Have we overcome, in any essential way, the anxiety which Larry characterizes here as so definitively Modern? Or have we merely become more accomplished in the art of repression?
I never thought to ask Larry how he perceived himself in terms of such categorizations. He probably would have laughed and changed the subject. But Larry seemed endlessly fascinated by the way written language allows us to reenter a moment in the past and alter it in meaningful ways through poetry, the imagination, vision. For Larry these three exist inextricably, in concert, each always already modifying and complicating the other as the poet takes up his pen to write. Poetry. Imagination. Vision.
In a poem from Elegy titled "In 1967," Larry observes somewhat wryly how, in 1967, "Anybody with three dollars could have a vision." But it's not enough to get the joke here, and chuckle, and hurry on. By the time we reach the beginning of this poem's second stanza, where the speaker observes how "Some people spent their lives then, having visions," it's not as easy to interpret the deadpan tone, even though the humorous note from the earlier stanza still echoes clearly in the mind. It is as if laughter itself becomes a contested zone that Larry attempts to negotiate with an eye towards a more serious goal. It is easy enough to recuperate the text's subtle references to Vietnam and the drug culture of that era. Still, the speaker spends some time in the poem's opening lines explaining how, "Some called it the Summer of Love," and telling us a story about dropping mescaline and feeling like a cedar waxwing, about flight and ecstasy and a growing numbness that is not merely a symptom of coming down. The knowing, jaded quality of the poem's closing lines relies on the clipped, telegraphic gesture of the appositive, "In the Summer of Love, in 1967," to intimate the speaker's growing awareness of just what's at stake at a time and place where "riot police waited beyond the doors of perception, / And the best thing one could do was get arrested." By the end of the poem it would appear that the moment when explanation might have proved useful has passed. No alibi suffices. You had to be there.
Larry revisits this particular moment in one of his late, masterful compositions titled "Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It." This poem, the second of a pair that closes the middle (second) section of Larry's last collection (the final arrangement of which was completed by Philip Levine and David St. John) quite poignantly sets the tone for the book's third and final section, which consists entirely of elegies. In theme and figure it recollects both "In 1967" and "Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967." The re-presentation of the material here is signal; and the poet relies on the autotelic charge of his tropes to orient the reader within the space of his longer narratives and to illuminate any moments of heightened abstraction or opacity of tone. The poem in question gives us our bearings in time and space rather quickly:
We recognize the familiar scene from Larry's father's orchard, and the name of his fellow worker is equally familiar, as is the self-conscious gesture of the speaker who places Huerta before us in the grit and heat of not-quite-memory. The merely realistic detail of the tractor exhaust becomes, in this context, a metaphor for everything that renders memory approximate and tentative, an excuse if you will, for the necessary incompletions of the text. But, when the poet's gaze comes to rest upon the hourglass on the belly of a black widow, the poem shifts gears, gaining traction on the slippery surface of memory by reaching through it to grasp history and the endless ramification of the universe out beyond the orchard, just over Ediesto Huerta's left shoulder. "It's the hourglass on her belly I remember, & the way the figure of it, / Figure eight of Time & Infinity, looked like something designed. . . ." But a design implies a designing will, and the speaker, in these latter days, seems determined to resist the seductiveness of such easy logic in order to enunciate his mantra of the inexplicable. This is elegy with an attitude, one part pure sorrow, one part rage. In such a mood, the deliberate consideration of the deadly spider's hidden eggs as metaphor collapses inward, like a star finally consumed by its own gravity. At this crucial moment the poet is still detached enough to ask that we consider the absolute scale of the objective correlative he has chosen. We are stardust. . . . And these eggs, "smaller than the o in this typescript // Or a handwritten apostrophe in ink," these precisely packaged bits of DNA are so small they are almost nothing at all. And what is an apostrophe if not a symbol for an elision that we've all agreed upon, something left out for convenience, or by habit. Something absent but significant in its implication of some design, some pattern.
What do they represent . . . ? As the speaker calls our attention to the most primitive raw material of written language, the ink and paper and the poet's hand hovering above the page, the literal surface of the poem seems to bleed toward metatextuality. But the blood is Larry's, and, aware as he is of the dangers of reducing his subjects to mere props for supporting his abstractions and his philosophical and literary musings, he returns to them repeatedly, unapologetically, lovingly, in the simplicity of their names.
On July 29, 2001 the headline of the lead story for the New York Times Arts & Leisure Section read, "Beyond Multiculturalism, Freedom?" Assuming we could ever reach an agreement as to what multiculturalism means, the rhetorical question of the headline seems to imply that the -ism in question is already a thing achieved, its significance fully pillaged and about to be abandoned like a fallen city, sacked, about to be left behind in smoking ruins. The author of this article quotes a woman named Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, describing the "Freestyle" exhibition which she curated in 2000 as a "showcase of Postblack art." Even if we can theorize a point of view from which art can be said to be "post-ethnic" or "post-Black," does it make sense on a personal level for the artists themselves, at the surface of their skins? Or is the surface of the skin just something else we'll have to escape, erase, leave behind? Like history and literature? I don't know what all this might portend, but two facts become clearer and clearer as the days go by. I need to dig out my old class notes and keep plugging away at The List. And, no matter how many years go by, and no matter how many miles I travel on the Contemporary American Poetry Expressway, I don't expect ever to reach a destination that might be called Post-Larry. That's an exit I never want to take.
Cotter, Holland. "Beyond Multiculturalism, Freedom?" New York Times 29 July 2001, Arts & Leisure Section: 1+.
Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Noonday Press, 1990.
---. Preface. Slouching Toward Bethlehem. By Didion. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968.
Levis, Larry. Elegy. Pittsburgh; University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
---. The Gazer Within. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.
---. "Not Life So Proud to be Life: Snodgrass, Rothenberg, Bell, and the Counter-revolution." American Poetry Review v 18 (1989). Note: I was working from a text prepared for inclusion in The Gazer Within and so my page numbers do not correspond to the APR orginal.
---. Untitled lecture delivered at Warren Wilson College, 1993. Transcript, prepared by J. Randy Marshall, as yet unpublished.
---. Wrecking Crew. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.
"Levis, Larry." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series 80 (1999): 235-237.
McAllester Jones, Mary. Gaston Bachelard, Subversive Humanist: Text and Readings. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Poster, Mark. Critical Theory and Poststructuralism: In Search of a Context. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.
St. John, David. Foreword. The Gazer Within. By Larry Levis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. xv-xvii.
Wilson, Steven M. "Larry Levis." Dictionary of Literary Biography, 3rd ser. 120 (1992): 189-195.
Wojahn, David. "Survivalist Selves." Kenyon Review ns XX 3/4 (1998): 180-190.