From "Wrecking Crew" to "Maturity" in American Poetry: Larry Levis #2

by on Dec.28, 2012

I was intrigued a few weeks ago when in response to my first Larry Levis post, Milford gave a little history lesson of late 60s early 70s poetry: How supposedly Merwin had influenced a lot of poets to write deep image poetry, generating a “glut” of surrealist-ish poetry, which was then abandoned as those very same poets moved on to write personal narratives of interiority and sentimentality. Milford suggested that Levis’s own writing trajectory follows this path.
I was intrigued by this not just because I liked Wrecking Crew – the Levis book I quoted from – but also because I wondered what would make somebody abandon this very lively, spasmodic poetry in favor of the type of personal narratives that so much of American poetry seemed to be about when I started writing poetry (in the late 80s).

I’m also interested in how that “glut” (too many poets, writing too much poetry etc) reflects our own current “glut” of excess, our “plague ground” as Joyelle put it way back when this debate began. There are of course tons of similarities – the expansion of the number of authors (through MFAs, GI bill etc), an interest in translation, an interest in “surrealism” (by which it might just mean non-American-based poetry).

So I’ve been doing a lot of literary historical research and lineage thinking – exactly the kind of stuff I don’t like to do, the kind of ways I don’t like to read poetry… Nevertheless I’ve become obsessed over this and I don’t really want to be so I’m going to write a fairly shallow post about it and get it out of my system! I just need to stop thinking and reading about this.

First off, I think Milford is largely correct – though it should be pointed out that he was told this narrative by a mentor who I think was referring to “common wisdom”, that most pervasive and so seldom studied manufactured consent that so powerfully influences how we view poetry – that Levis’s trajectory seems to follow this general trajectory of American poetry. Even in his introduction to the Selected Poems, David St John makes the same argument:

In the five books of poetry from which this collection is drawn, Levis had charted a course that itself reads somewhat like a precis of poetic endeavor in American poetry since the mid-sixties. His early work – the first three collections were all award-winning volumes – moves from a deep image lyricism to a more highly reflective and meditative mode. His mature style… exhibits an even more relaxed, discursive and wry philosophical style.

I think this is largely correct. If you look at the “Wrecking Crew,” which I quoted in my first post, you get a lot of play with masks, energized by a violently spasmodic energy. It is certainly not “reflective” – it does the opposite, jerking personas and masks around in a desperate and often hilarious engagement with our spectacular age.

I get a gun and go
shoot an airplane full of holes,
and stare at the thing on the runway
until its covered with rust.
This takes years.
I turn forty somewhere, waiting
for the jet underneath me to
clear its throat of burned


from For the Country
You are the sweet, pregnant,
teenage blonde thrown from the speeding car.
You are a dead, clean-shaven astronaut
orbiting perfectly forever.
You are America.
You are nobody.
I made you up.
I take pills and drive a flammable truck
until I drop.
I am the nicest guy in the world,
closing his switchblade and whistling.

But I have to make an important revision of the Common Wisdom causality of this poetry. It’s obviously not exactly Merwin that is the Daddy of this poetics – his poetry tends to be very low key, little ever happening, mystical. I see much clearly a poet Merwin (and others) frequently translated in the 1960s, Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, great writer of “anti-poetry” – austere in diction yet quick, mobile, spazzy, violent.


I give no one the right.
I worship a piece of rag.
I transport coffins.
I transport coffins.
I give no one the right.
I look ridiculous
In the sunlight,
Scourge of the soda fountains
I am dying of fury

(“Rompecabezas”[Puzzle]) (trans. Edith Grossman)


I don’t know how I wound up here
I was running happy and content
With my hat in my right hand
After a phosphorescent butterfly
Who drove me wild with joy

When suddenly pow! I tripped
And I don’t know what happened to the
The landscape changed completely!

My mouth and nose are bleeding.

Really I don’t know what happened
Save me once and for all
Or shoot me in the back of the neck.

(“Socorro!” [Help!])

It also has a more than a wiff of Vasko Popa, the great Serbian poet who mixed folklore and surrealism, and whom Ted Hughes had been championing since the early 1960s:

You get kewpie doll notions

I bathe them in my blood

Dress them in the rags of my skin

Make swings out of my hair for them

Toy carts from my vertebrae

Gliders from my eyebrows

I make them butterflies from my smiles

Wild beasts from my teeth

To hunt to kill time

What kind of game is this anyway

(from “Give Me Back My Rags”, translated by Charlie Simic)

Again we see a similar a kind of saturative irony coupled with fiercely affective imagery, which invokes political violence.


Another influence I think is -as in Plath’s late poetry – film. The flat, violent, saturative image of cinema, its trick photography, its chaplin-esque slapstick bodies (which Henry Parland and many avant-gardists loved in the 1910s and 20s). The book includes a sequence called “Magician” which makes connection between the trickery of film and poetry, and invokes Ingmar Bergman’s film The Magician (which draws similar parallels between film and magic) (Called “Ansiktet”, “The Face” in Swedish).

Just now
I noticed my arms,
how they act without even telling me anymore,
their preference for rain and razor blades,

or for simply dropping off,
like forgotten two-by-fours falling off
half built houses.
Now they grab at me like stubborn interns.

I turn quickly, mirrored
in the dark glass of the ambulance,
where already
my face is wood and painted to a doll’s
astonished whites and red.

Outside even the sky is shocked and darkens.

Here’s the climax from the movie (complete with New Criterion style commentary):

I think the commentator here is a little wrong: afterall, the magician comes off as bogus and ridiculous, nothing but kitsch and trickery. Another key is of course the sense of art as violence, as an attempt to shatter the sure self of the scientist. But it’s not as binary as the commentator suggests; there’s a sense of connection between the two (they both have “tools” so to speak, they do their stuff).

But we have the same sense of violence and trickery, the body exposed as flawed and spasmodic, cinematic.

Levis’s next book, Afterlife (at least as represented in the Selected Poems) begins “after” this “life” of “wrecking”:


Winter has moved off
somewhere, writing its journals
in ice.

But I am still afraid to move,
afraid to speak,
as if I lived in a house
wallpapered with the cries of birds
I cannot identify.

Wow! Suddenly it’s all about interiority, the personal, sadness. And perhaps most importantly, the poetics of immobility. While in the first book, the speaker – moving through personas and masks – does a whole bunch of stuff (shoots up an airplane for 40 years! kills people! Etc!) in this one he is utterly immobile, almost dead. The violence has been absorbed into a kind of traumatized persona, which seems mainly capable of reflecting on its own impotence. There is still some flashy language, but it’s very much subdued compared to the first book

The third book – The Dollmaker’s Ghost – may sound like it’s going to promise a return to the doll-cinema-body of the first book, but it’s even more restrained than the second book.

It begins:

Picking grapes alone in the late autumn sun –
A short, curved knife in my hand,
Its blade silver from so many sharpenings,
Its handle black.
I still have a scar where a friend
Sliced open my right index finger, once…

But in this poem he’s gathering grapes and recollecting. The style is even more restrained, with very little in the way of metaphors, very unspectacular descriptions of mundane objects.

Another poem called “Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931” begins:

The young woman is just sitting on the bed,
Looking down. The room is so narrow she keeps
Her elbows tucked in, resting, on her bare thighs,
As if that could help.

And outside this room I can imagine only Kansas:
Its wheat, and blackening silos, and beyond that,
The plains that will stare back at you until
The day your mother, kneeling in fumes
On the hardwood floor, begins to laugh out loud.
When you visit her, you see the same, faint grass
Around the edge of the asylum, and a few months,
White and flagrant, against the wet brick there,
Where she has gone to live. She never
Recognizes you again.

Many of the poems in this book feel ekphrastic in the worst sense of the word: as if they are merely describing an image, in a very low-key way. Here’s the image:

In a lot of the poems, he seems to be merely describing real or imagined Edward Hopper paintings. Life seems really empty and the people don’t move.

I think it’s also important that he moves from the first book, in which male speakers are kind of out of control and hysterically cinematic, to this book in which the sane, calm, masculine man describes and contemplates, while the mom goes nutso. Things happen “after” “life”, or rather after the trauma, the “wrecking,” when the persona has come back together, become whole, in a way that has been criticized by disability theory.


OK, I guess I won’t be able to finish this discussion right now. But let me finish with some opinionating. If you agree with my analyses here, it follows that to “mature” in American poetry means that you begin to write more “reflectively”, that you’re writing about interiorty (which is “grief” and anomie, immobility), make the writing less spectacular, more restrained, and to create a sense of unified speaker (as opposed to cinematic mask-wearer).

It also seems to mean: to move away from foreign influences, and from the cinematic. I think this is really crucial, because the ethos of this is still with us: poetry must be separate from its spectacular age by giving us interiority, authenticity. I would hypothesize that this comes largely out of a real disapproval of the society of the spectacle, but it’s misplaced in a number of ways, largely caused by a form of iconophobic anxiety about the dynamics of the cinematic image, the cinematic body. Steve Shaviro writes about this quite engagingly in his great book The Cinematic Body:

“Behind all these supposedly materialist attacks on the ideological illusions built into the cinematic apparatus, should be not rather see the opposite, an idealist’s fear of the ontological instability of the image, and of the materiality of affect and sensation?… Images are condemned because they are bodies without souls, or forms without bodies. They are flat and insubstantial, devoid of interiority and substance, unable to express anything beyond themselves… They [images] are suspect, unreliable, and “ideological,” because they presume to subsist in this state of alienation, and even perpetuate it by giving rise to delusive “reality effects,” ritual s of disavowal, and compensatory fantasies of plenitude and possession.But is it really lack that makes images so dangerous and disturbing? What these theorists fear is not the emptiness of the image, but its weird fullness; not its impotence as much as its power. Images have an excessive capacity to seduce and mislead, to affect the spectator unwarrantedly.”

Shaviro defends this cinematic image persuasively throughout his book:

“Visual fascination is a passive, irresistible compulsion, and not an assertion of the active mastery of the gaze. And it is linked with the delegitimation of violence, its dissocation either from the demands of social order or from the assertion of virile (stereotypically male) power and control, for Eugene “catches” violence as one catches an infection, more than he inflicts it as a willful expression of a warped self. His Phallic, aggressive fantasies are decentered and unhinged in the very movement by which they are intensified. He is less an independent character than a hysterical figuration of the destabilizing excessiveness of Turner’s own desire. And Blue Steel as a whole celebrates this excess.”

(Susan McCabe has also written about this in her fascinating book Cinematic Modernism. Maybe I’ll bring that up in another post. She does more with the gender aspect of the whole thing – hysterical women and hysterical TS Eliots etc.)

The foreign influence I think is maybe even more key here. The reason we get a “glut”, a state of excess is because there’s too much poetry written, too similar to each other, too influenced, too under the sway of dark forces.

What you don’t get is “lineage.” Lineage redeems art, renders glut into a narrative. But the problem is, these poets were not following in the lineage of the New Critics, or even Pound/Eliot/Williams. They were in fact writing under the influence not just of foreign poets but under the influence of the stilted “translatese” of translated texts. They were making US poetry more a part of Chilean literature than “US Literature.”

As in Ron Silliman’s dismissals of “soft surrealists” for not belonging to the American Traditions, and for their “softness” – their image-ness – many critics also attacked these poets for not presenting arguments, for not offering up poetry that one could close-read, could make theses out of. The critics repeately refer to them as “inhuman” and “shallow”, criticizing them for creating “ambience” or “mood” over arguments.

OK, I’m done for today, I’ll continue later…

28 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Its funny I thought of you as someone who didnt “mature”… You had st geroud who died… What did you think caused this change?


  2. Bill Knott

    his untimely death was tragic . . .

    but in a sense his poetry had already died, ie “matured”——

  3. MB

    I agree with all this except that this notion of maturity is limited to the SOQ poetry of the 90’s. Nobody really writes that poem anymore nor cares much about the poets who wrote it (excepting Levis who died early.)

    Now the dominant aesthetic seems to favor a “project.” One that has the poet explicitly interacting with another either canonical text(s) or with texts that are irreverently non-canonical or pop-culture. So you write an erasure, or a book that acts as a kind of commentary on or appendix to a novel or philosophical argument or pop album. These projects are easily thematized and digested. Everyone can see what’s happening and why and how it’s significant. It’s easy to talk about in a classroom or describe on a back cover.

    The really great and important thing about what you and Silliman have done since the rise of the internet is to make these aesthetic disagreements more visible and to make it clear that these are not just battles between people who write poetry and people who are wrapped up in fashionable movements. It’s all fashionable movements. That much is clear when you can see the arguments.

    Levis is a great example of the SOQ way of thinking about this. To people like St. John, Levis didn’t just switch from an unfashionable aesthetic to fashionable one, he “matured” and started writing poetry.

  4. Johannes

    No I totally agree with you, it’s not just some 90s phenomenon, I think it’s much deeper than that. If I get some time over the next few days I’ll talk about the academic rules and regulations for example. A lot of scholars have written scathing attacks on this era/group of poetry, and it follows this line of attack: “inhuman,” ambient, does not forward a cohesive argument (pretty much like Knott’s quotes in his comment), “stunted”. I asked Bill about his experience because I haven’t read enough to get the word from the street at the time, what caused these changes. Breslin, in his Psychopolitical Muse, claims it’s part of the defeatism of the New Left, but that doesn’t account for it to me – especially seems Breslin himself attacks the “deep image” poets of the alte 60s in the same fashion as I’ve stated above… Anyway, I would love for you to share your experiences on this topic since you’ve obviously thought about it more than I have.


  5. Johannes

    One thing though: People do write like the “mature” style still! Pretty much every award goes to “mature” writing, most people running Creative Writing programs write “maturely.” It is true that it has changed a bit (the exact incarnation of “maturity” has changed), but it’s still a leading paradigm for looking at poetry.


  6. Bill Knott

    caused this change? your thoughts about it seem pretty much on the mark . . . I’d only add that the political swing of the country rightwingwards, was partly to blame . . .

    Me personally, fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t mature, which is why reviewers of my last so-called legitimate book (no one reviews the self-published books I’ve put out since then) used the word “adolescent” to describe me:

    “[Bill] Knott’s work tends today to inspire strong dismissal. . . . [He’s] been forced to self-publish some of his recent books. . . . [B]ad—not to mention offensively grotesque—poetry. . . . appalling . . . . maddening . . . . wildly uneven . . . adolescent, or obsessively repetitive . . . grotesqueries . . . . [His] language is like thick, old paint . . . his poems have a kind of prickly accrual that’s less decorative than guarded or layered . . . emotionally distancing . . . . uncomfortable. Knott . . . is a willful . . . irritating . . . contrarian.”
    —Meghan O’Rourke, Poetry Magazine, Feb 2005

    “[Bill Knott’s poetry is] queerly adolescent . . . extremely weird. . . personal to the point of obscurity. . . his idiosyncrasy has grown formulaic, his obscure poems more obscure, his terse observations so terse they scoot by without leaving much of a dent in the reader. . . . There is a petulance at work [in his poetry]. . . . [H]is style has grown long in the tooth. . . . In fact, [Knott is] unethical.” —Marc Pietrzykowski, Contemporary Poetry Review, 2006

  7. Johannes

    Wow great review quotes, great evidence for my post!

  8. Bill Knott

    They were in fact writing under the influence not just of foreign poets but under the influence of the stilted “translatese” of translated texts. They were making US poetry more a part of Chilean literature than “US Literature.”

    What detractors of this “stiltedness” wouldn’t and won’t allow is its vitalizing influence, and indeed its virtues. I think of the great Hagiwara Sakutaro, his Selected Poems translated by Hiroaki Sato,

    especially when I read in his intro to that book about the concept and practice of


    a favorite mode of Hagiwara, according to Sato, who defines it as “Translation style . . . writings that read like clumsy translations.”

    I won’t claim that all poetry is


    but translation and its clumsiness is an essential part of the process of writing any poetry . . . perhaps.

  9. Hugh Behm-Steinberg

    I wonder if the changes in Levis’ poems, his “maturity” are typical of what happens to poets when they get older, regardless of aesthetic community. What we write about/how we write changes as we get older; what we’re passionate about as 20 somethings are less interesting when we’re in our forties and fifties. Maybe interiority is code/social practice for writing about our own mortality.

  10. Johannes

    It’s possible, but I object to naturalizing this “maturity” concept (which is indeed what the maturity concept does): Nicanor Parra is still writing in his wild, immature style and he’s like a 100 years old! And he can write about mortality in that style. Bill Knott writes immaturely still. The “mature” style, interiority – these things have political dimensions beyond maturity – for example, is maturity always the turning away from the foreign, the locating the madness in the woman, and most of all the model of the “whole” person, the complete self. I should say that I think his last book – which I haven’t blogged about – is pretty interesting as well, though I still prefer the first one. And Nicanor Parra!

    No, I think this has to do with aesthetic shifts, though I do think the appeal to maturity does have an effect. In essence, the Parra-style, deep image etc was called “stunted” by a lot of critics. It was called immature.

    Sorry, no time. Will write more later.


  11. Janet

    Thinking of Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, George Oppen, many others…

  12. adam strauss

    Alice Notley fits weirdly here: she’s not short on prizes, or at-least not on siginificant praise, institutionally sanctioned praise, but she’s also perhaps been cast as a “culture of one”; C D Wright may constellate as well. But, yep, two figures don’t necessarily prove anything macro. Too, Jorie Graham, from Region of Unlikeness to The Errancy, is workin’, at times,a nutso melee somewhat antipodal to her first two books, which are somewhat dainty, so long as dainty is not read as diss.

  13. adam strauss

    I really like these lines:

    I get a gun and go
    shoot an airplane full of holes,

    The line break is perfect! And the first line is totallym fly!

  14. James Pate

    Super interesting post.

    This poetry from the late 60s/early 70s reminds of me Frank Stanford’s work too. The surrealist turn, the austere diction, the emphasis on action instead of reflection, and the influence of Parra. Up until now, I’d imagined Frank Stanford as a sort of lone wolf. Just as I always imagine Bill Knot as a lone wolf too. I had no idea there were many other poets working in the same territory. That it had a larger cultural swath. James Tate strikes me as similar, though he never “matured” — rather, to me at least, his work became more conventionally narrative. Fewer jump cuts and more openly thematic.


  15. Johannes

    Yes, I want Milford – or whoever else – to actually name some names! Who are all these poets of the 70s? Tate, Simic, Mark Strand, Merwin – those guys seem a little older.


  16. MB

    I can’t find my copy of it, but I remembered the name of the anthology with all the poets in it. It’s Daniel Halpern’s _The American Poetry Anthology_. I believe Halpern, in the introduction, notes the influence of Merwin and poetry in translation on the poets in the book.

    The thing about the period we’re talking about is that many poets you’re already familiar with were writing in this style at the time. They just got out of it before it was unfashionable.

  17. Michael Leong

    I just saw this back cover blurb of Lawrence Raab’s _The Collector of Cold Weather_ (1973) (written by Donald Justice): “As one of the coolest of a new breed of surrealists, he represents, I think, the generation of poets now about thirty at its best…”

  18. Johannes

    Ill check it out. Thats exactly the kind of thing im interested in.

  19. Johannes

    Could you please post a poem from this book? The stuff im finding on line must be his matire verse…

  20. Michael Leong

    This is a poem from Raab’s _Mysteries of the Horizon_ (1972)–the title, of course, comes from Magritte.

    Voices Answering Back: The Vampires

    Rising in lamplight dying at dawn
    grim burials in sheds and cellars
    the rats scuttling through holes
    and the days following in their tracks
    exiled here we named the hours
    since you first forgot to be afraid
    once departed we became
    only ourselves
    with the salt on our tongues
    and the cold for company
    so deft in escape so practiced in dying
    you might have learned from us
    but each time the easiest trick worked
    the brandished cross the empty mirror
    you could not see us our steps upon the stairs
    and while you stumbled after bats in the garden
    we climbed quietly
    from the upstairs window down the drainpipe
    and through all the parties
    you never heard what we were saying
    it was something about desire
    what we had in common even then
    in your silence you feared us
    always winning at the end but do you think
    nothing lingered past dawn
    shadowed among the gathered elms
    do not be mistaken
    we heard you walking through our dreams
    we felt death moving between your hands
    now we are waking early
    practicing with sunlight
    now we pass unharmed beneath your terrible star
    eyes covered hands in our pockets
    for the rules have always said
    if you stop believing is us
    we inherit everything

  21. Michael Leong

    Typo in the penultimate line above– “if you stop believing in us”

  22. Michael Leong

    And here are two sample sections from the title poem of _The Collector of Cold Weather_ (and probably more to the point of the D. Justice quote):


    In the Black Museum
    the Doctors invented a formula
    for the solution of sleep.
    I read their advertisement:

    It Pays to Cheat Death
    Fantasies Fulfilled
    Dreams Rewarded

    Weeks after the bearers
    abandoned us, we were reminded
    of former lives,
    the sweet predictable adventure
    plotted out to the end.
    It might be this one, we thought.
    And then again it might not.

    Some doubled back without warning.
    The sparkling rings twisted from our fingers.


    “I merely record the fact that I saw
    something blacker than the trees
    pass along the path toward the lake.”

    Followed by a ringing of bells
    and the smashing of the china.
    In the Blue Room a single table lay
    on its side.
    “It moves!”

    “It rises!”
    (The villagers claim to see a light,
    but can they be trusted?)

    Considering the lateness
    of the hour, all was not
    as it should have been.
    (The villagers will not cross this spot after dark.)

    The investigators noted:
    1) The disappearance of the keys,
    2) The incident of the jumping soap,
    3) The curious occurrence in the cat’s cemetery.

  23. adam strauss

    This poem in sections strikes me as interestingly contemporary–cld easily imagine it being written and published in 2013.

  24. Johannes

    It’s interesting that the poets who didn’t “mature” from this moment – Charles Simic (and his translations, I read his Popa translations in college and never recovered), James Tate – have had way way more influence than those who “matured”.


  25. Michael Leong

    Johannes–this is a fascinating line of thought…to throw out another name–you might want to think about Thomas Lux (who was born the same year as Levis and Raab)…One could compare his _Memory’s Handgrenade_ (1972) with his later work.

    And I agree, Adam, that “The Collector of Cold Weather” seems “contemporary”–it’s an interesting sequence.

  26. Michael Leong

    This is from the Poetry Foundation website: “Acclaimed poet and teacher Thomas Lux began publishing haunted, ironic poems that owed much to the Neo-surrealist movement in the 1970s. Critically lauded from his first book Memory’s Handgrenade (1972), Lux’s poetry has gradually evolved towards a more direct treatment of immediately available, though no less strange, human experience.”

    Interesting generational trajectory… and interesting to think of Andrew Joron’s later intervention in the discourse of “neo-surrealism.”

  27. Johannes

    Yes, I am interested in this development. Joron’s study I think is best as a study of 80s Bay Area surrealism, which I think is an interesting group/moment – but it’s very insular (ie totally American centered in its subject matter as well as understanding of surrealism) and also, I think, too puristic in its treatment of surrealism (ie it deals with these kinds of poety by claiming they are fake surrealists, and I think discounts the Rosemonts for the opposite reason). This insularity was very evident in the special issue of some internet journal you mentioned a while back.