The Violence of Style: Larry Levis, Sylvia Plath, Mark Levine etc

by on Feb.05, 2013

I want to continue thinking about the kind of relationship between masculinity, violence and art that I broached in my last post, about the West Memphis 3 and “violent femmes”. This is of course something I’ve written about frequently in my own poetry (luckily I write about things I don’t understand, so I can continue). I’m interested in how the identification of violence and masculinity in poetry; and also how this relates to the foreign, the ethnic. But mostly what I’m going to talk about here is how violence is said to be “masculine” in fact comes off as “feminine” in many ways inside art, and how this relates to “style”, and in fact “too much” style, or “inflation” as I’ve called it elsewhere.

In older posts I documented how the “early” Larry Levis and cohorts were dismissed for their “glut” of poetry that was surrealist – violent, slapstick bodies, foreign/translation-influenced, sensationalistic – and how they “moved on” to write poetry that was about grief-as-interiority, “narrative” memories, but strangely almost paralyzed in their quietism. You can get a good sense of this violent early poems by the title of his first book, “Wrecking Crew.”

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 think it’s also pretty important that this “early” poetry was Plath-influenced in exactly these regards. The other day on Facebook, Brian Henry posted the following quote from Helen Vendler’s famous essay on Sylvia Plath:

Poems like ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’ are in one sense demonically intelligent, in their wanton play with concepts, myths, and language, and in another, and more important, sense not intelligent at all, in that they willfully refuse, for the sale of a cacophony of styles (a tantrum of style), the steady, centripetal effect of thought. Instead, they display a wild dispersal, a centrifugal spin to further and further reaches of outrage.

Reactionary poet Adam Kirsch has similarly written: “…her artistic growth seems to take place not in stages, as with most poets, but in a few violent convulsions.”

Whether one appreciates or wants to dismiss Plath, one thing holds true: her poetry seems violent, convulsive (the very word invokes Breton’s famous description of Surrealist beauty) – that is to say, it does not progress, it does not survive, it “acts out”, it has no interiority, it is “centrifugal.” It is also important that this violent tantrum art is violent in large part because of “style” – too much style.

Here I am reminded of Susan Sontag’s famous essay “On Style”:

The ambivalence toward style is not rooted in simple error – it would then be quite easy to uproot – but in a passion, the passion of an entire culture. This passion is to protect and defend values traditionally conceived as lying “outside” art, namely truth and morality, but which remain in perpetual danger of being compromised by art.

Sontag herself is ambivalent toward this style – in the very same essay she comes out against too much style, against the baroque, for largely the same reason she analyzes here!

It is not surprising that the great Rules of Quietist Pedagogy, produced by the “matured” generation of Larry Levis & Co. are largely about maintaining a kind of style-less pose: you have the “earn” the “image” (as opposed to the frivolously, violently inflationary poetics of their early work), and you have to write “what you know” (which roughly translates as, write about personal issues, write about interiority and memory).

I was thinking about this the other day as I was re-reading Mark Levine’s wonderful, daring, first book, Debt, a book that seems not only incredibly in debt to this earlier “glut-surrealist” poetics of early Levis etc, but also seems very much concerned with the debt of art, the violence of art, the inflation of art.

Here’s the title poem:

That reminds me.
I read my name in the town ledger.
Workmen stare at me from their shovel blades.
It’s out of the question, women won’t touch me, they draw their nets
across their heads, they walk ahead of me a hundred yards.
Even now i am standing in paint.

I tried getting work. It’s hard. They know me here.
They test my blood, they press my hands in ink,
they squint at my penis through smoked glass.
I swear oaths with a pencil in my mouth,
“I’m a company man!” I say.
They send a pound of butter to my doorstep.

It’s you, they say. What is?
– I’ve been identified. It’s him,
say the dentists, the children, the priests, say
an old Greek couple who claim I met them on a cruise.
I’m told my parents have identified me.
I have a familiar face.

I don’t ask where I got these debts.
Some bad breaks here and there.
A glut in the pulp market. A poisoned horse.
Christmas, the recession, something or other
in the third world. I start taking
bets against myself.

The phone rings and they take it away.
They must put something in the water
to make it taste so good, like coconut.
Beneath my door they push their slips of paper
covered with Latin. They want to confuse me.
The sidewalk scrawled in Aramaic.

Reminds me. I go for walks at night.
The lit houses remind
me of a place I might have lived.
A man cracks walnuts under a yellow clock.
A woman, naked, counts her ribs.
I climb through bushes. Press my face to her window –
she looks at me like maybe, maybe
we did make love once but we can’t be sure.

The Banker trails behidn me with his abacus
and crowd of yes-men. I hear
the gold coins rub together in his vest.

The stoplights remind me. And the scars
on my ankles and the nails in my mouth.
Once my father pointed his finger at me.
Once my mother kissed me on the lips in winter.
I could have been a man like those men

on the roof, eyes narrowed at me
like diamond cutters. In surgical gowns
and crucifix tie clips, tight band of wires
wound beneath their chests –
they remind me of me. All in sync
they cup their ears to the antenna.

Quiet. The Jew Levine is coming to collect
with his chisel and his sack of flesh.

I feel like it would be kind of redundant to even analyze the poem. After my initial analysis this feels almost like an allegory. We have the violence, the art, the inflation (of the self, of the daddies, of the yes-men, of the money), we even get Plath’s most sensationalistic and most commonly denounced phrase (“I may be a bit of a jew”) mashed up with Merchant of Venice.

The one thing I would note is the role of self-infantilization and castration plays in not just this poem but the whole book. The speaker has to constantly castrate himself it seems in order to be allowed to write the poem: “they squint at my penis” (suggesting it’s tiny), “a man cracks walnuts”, and of course the finale couplet – what are you going to do with that “chisel” and that “sack of flesh”?? It’s Levine at his bawdiest. It also brings out all these issues: castration and masculinity, violence and style, the castration of those kids killed in Paradise Lost, the incarceration of those “violent femmes” made to take the blame for the murder.

The image of the Jew who has to posit himself as a child and/or as castrated also reminds me of Maria Damon’s fabulous essay on Lenny Bruce (“The Jewish Entertainer as Cultural Lightning Rod”) where she writes:

If the veiled gentile Phallus is the elusive figure that, like the Wizard of Oz, governs the discursive institutions of American social life from behind the scenes, the exposed penis of the other is the vulnerable carrier of the subversive disease of “obscenity,” which threatens the stability of those social institutions and calls down on itself the harshest recriminations.

I can’t help but think of my favorite depiction of the foreigner (as kitsch): that undefined foreigner in “That 70s Show” who is kitschy and ridiculous as well as threatening at times due to his utter lack of interiority, and, more importantly, who is both gay/feminine and voraciously over-sexual, ultra-horny – THE VIOLENCE OF STYLE!

Or as Marosa Di Giorgio puts it: “That crazy lilly is going to kill us!”

6 comments for this entry:
  1. maria damon

    thanks for the shout-out, J. your kitschy foreigner-cum-Lenny Bruce puts me in mind of Borat/Bruno. Sascha B-C’s whole oeuvre seems like an old-fashioned Jewish revenge on a slightly old-fashioned anti-semitism (the Eastern European, the German, etc., even the wanna-be Ali G)

  2. Johannes

    Thanks for writing the article! I keep meaning to write a whole essay about your book (and the first one as well) but I feel too close to the material! I will try.
    / Johannes

  3. Kent Johnson

    Re: Johannes’s Marosa Di Giorgio quote at the end: Just got yesterday the fabulous new issue of Mandorla (clocking in at 560-some pages!), and the concluding piece is a humdinger essay on Di Giorgio by Anna Deeny, who was one of her translators for Hotel Lautreamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay (2012). Deeny, as many readers of Montevidayo know, is also one of Raul Zurita’s main English-language translators. Of interest too, given that the topic of ‘kitsch’ has had much discussion here, Deeny references an essay on Di Giorgio I didn’t know about, and its provocative title is something in the sense of “Marosa Di Giorgio: Existential Terror and Kitsch.” Something like that. And I can’t recall the author, either! I’ll get the correct citation and post tomorrow for the growing number of Di Giorgio fans here. And more than appropriate that her following is climbing in U.S. : She is one of THE great and utterly weird poets, anywhere, of the 20th century.

  4. Johannes

    Sounds awesome. I recently asked my TA, an immigrant from Guatemala, to translate an article teh Uruguayan poet Luis Bravo wrote about Marosa. Might be the same one? I’ll definitely check out the issue. I’ll buy it rightnow./ Johannes

  5. Joyelle McSweeney

    Killer essay, Johannes

  6. James Pate

    Vendler’s comments just seem really odd: especially how Plath’s poems are not intelligent “in that they willfully refuse, for the sale of a cacophony of styles (a tantrum of style), the steady, centripetal effect of thought. Instead, they display a wild dispersal, a centrifugal spin to further and further reaches of outrage.”

    Is thought ever really “steady, centripetal”? I think this is an image of thought that we like to give to ourselves — it gives us a wise, human vision of ourselves — but I think most thinking is closer to a “wild dispersal.” When I think of the writers who have tried the most to give write Thought (Woolf, Joyce) the writing they give us is incredibly dispersed. Plus, is thought really even our own? Isn’t it always “out there” so to speak? Not a humanist “steady, centripetal effect” but a force circling around a no-place?