Larry Levis

by on Dec.13, 2012

I’ve often heard the name Larry Levis but I haven’t read his until yesterday when I had 10 minutes to aimlessly wander around the contemporary poetry section of the library, and I just kind of picked a book at random, which I white liked.


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

I love the humorous compression of time! Also, I usually hate how in James-Wright-influenced poems there’s this poetic moment at the end, where it’s supposed “earned”; I tend to feel, why not just get the poem interesting from the beginning. But here I like the ending in large part because it seems so sudden and un-earned. I think what makes these poems good are that they are always on the verge of total tastelessness and the narrator is often obscene and bordering on losing control in a very tasteless, spectacular way.

I take my last paycheck
and walk out wondering, touching
the quiet, visible gears
that aren’t turning, that run
on oil and starlight and wait
The gears are
as still as heaven or 2 clear eyes
and the sky goes suddenly blue,
clean as a bullet hole.

Again, we’ve got this poetic ending but again it seems over the top in a way that strikes me as a whiplash, surprise-ending more than “earned.”

OK, one more:

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.

I love here how the ending is actually a kind of trick ending – he’s the killer afterall! And how the meta moment “I made you up” doesn’t feel distanced, doesn’t escape the sinister energies that the poem sets in motion, forces, it seems, the narrator/poet to take pills and drive a suicidal mission with flammable truck.

What I like about this one is that it goes further than the previous two – he doesn’t just drop a hot poetic moment but gets filthy with the poetic, fails to extricate himself, has to delve further and further into the violence/art connection. It doesn’t just end on the poetic moment. Art is never earned.

Anyway, short post today. If anybody knows anything about this guy, feel free to chime in and tell me what else to read. The book I got these from is “Wrecking Crew.”

10 comments for this entry:
  1. Matt Miller

    I remember hearing Levis read in Lincoln, Nebraska when I was a student there. This must have been in ’94 or ’95, shortly before his death.

    His reading was controversial at the time. He had this reputation as a kind of enfant terrible, as well as an IWW power player, a la Mark Levine. His poems were too dark and full of self loathing for the the Midwest barns and farms poets that ruled the roost in Lincoln. It was also controversial, because he had dated and maybe lived with this now largely forgotten Iowa poet named Marsha Southwick, who taught at UNL at the time. I learned through the grapevine that it was an ugly breakup. She showed up to the reading, and there was this amazing sexual tension in the room. Some of the poems he selected to read seemed to reflect it. It was a tense, uncomfortable, and memorable reading.

    My favorite poem of his depicted ants worshiping at the altar of a decaying corpse. The image walked the line between beauty and the grotesque. It stuck with me, and I can still recall it somewhat even now.

    I went on to buy and read one of his books, The Widening Spell of the Leaves, but it didn’t do much for me on paper. I was 23 or 24 and in this heavy Wallace Stevens phase at the time, and the flatness of his prosody left me wanting. Maybe I should go back and check him out.

  2. Elisa

    I like The Widening Spell of the Leaves. And Elegy. When I read Larry Levis I think there is good sentimental and bad sentimental, and he is good sentimental.

  3. JSA Lowe

    The must-read is Winter Stars. And I agree with Elisa—good sentimental, like Jack Gilbert, not like Mary Oliver. (Maybe.)

  4. MB

    I read Wrecking crew as an undergrad and really liked it and had a conference with mid-career poet soon afterwards who recommended I read Levis. When I told him I read Wrecking Crew he said it was Levis’ worst book.

    As I understand it, Wrecking Crew was regarded as a pretty unremarkable book of its era. If you read other books published around the same time, you’ll see how similar it is to them. It’s the post-Lice Merwin era. Everyone sort of sounds like this: influenced by surrealism and the translations of Eastern European poets, dark, brimming with violence and destruction, etc.

    Levis’s later, more well-regarded books (Widening Spell of the Leaves, etc.) are narrative with long, sloppy lines. They appear to have been written in a world where surrealism never happened. I never liked any of them as much as Wrecking Crew and thought they were just as much of their time as his first book, but this later era was just way less interesting.

  5. Johannes

    I guess for me it stood out because it doesn’t seem as well-adjusted as those books. I like Merwin’s The Lice OK, but it seems a little New-Agey while this one seems more startling, over-done. Well, I like surrealism and eastern european poets writing about violence and destruction, so maybe I’m the intended audience. But like I said, what I find a bit annoying in this book is this idea that the poetic line has to be at the end, that you have to “earn” the burning starlings so to speak. But at the same time in this one, they seem so whiplashy and overdone that I appreciate it. What other poets of this era are you thinking about?


  6. MB

    What other poets of this era are you thinking about?

    The local public library where I went to college had a really amazing contemporary poetry collection, but only for the mid seventies through the mid eighties. Obviously some poem-loving librarian was allowed to run wild. Many of these books sounded like Wrecking Crew. There was also this orange American poetry anthology I used to have, but can’t find anymore, from this period. Anyway, most of the poets writing in this style either disappeared or switched to the style of the late 80’s early 90’s.

    Aren’t books like Wrecking Crew why Harold Bloom compares Merwin to Longfellow? He created and wrote in the received style of the time. Much American magazine poetry of the 70’s and early 80’s sounded like this, until it went all personal narrative-meditative poems about finding wisdom in small moments of middle class life.

  7. Johannes

    Isn’t it Perloff who compared Merwin to Longfellow?

    Also, to what extent does Merwin become longfellow because he starts this style? There’s of course also Plath and Lowell lurking in that lineage as well. And I like Lowell most of all when he seems the most ridiculous, most tasteless (black children floating in bubbles and what have you) and I guess that’s what I liked about Wrecking Crew.


  8. Johannes

    Also, doesn’t it have to do with Bly and James Wright? But Wright is never so crude as this. Bly is only in “Counting Small Boned Bodies” and some of those war poems. And I think of Gerald Stern, whose first book I like b/c it also seems to over-the-top kitschy/crazy/surrealist. But whose poems from then on are really dull in that typical quietist style. Anyway, I’d like to know who some of those typical 1970s poets were. It would be interesting to go back and think about them.


  9. MB

    John Hollander in 1985:
    “Professor Harold Bloom of Yale compares W. S. Merwin to Longfellow interestingly with respect to two notions. One is that both of them based a large part of their work on translations. And, secondly, that both wrote–that is, helped create and then wrote–in what was the received style of their time. If you look at magazine verse from the 1860s and 1870s in America, in Godey’s Ladies’ Book, Peterson’s Magazine, and that sort of thing, all of it will be imitation Longfellow. And, similarly, if you look at poetry magazines today, a lot of it is imitation Merwin. Now the relation of that to translation I think is very interesting.”

  10. Janet

    Just to clear up fallacies in Matt Miller’s post: Marcia Southwick was married to Larry Levis and they had a son, Nick. Some years after the divorce she married Murray Gell-Mann, the physicist. She may be forgotten by Matt Miller, but not by those of us who were students of hers and witnessed her pain at the end of that relationship. She wrote three well-received books of poetry, and I believe she’s been active as a philanthropist on behalf of poetry.