Larry Levis

1946–1996
Larry LevisJay Paul

Poet Larry Levis, whose collection The Afterlife won the Lamont Poetry Prize, often employed an imagist or surrealist approach in his work. As Diane Wakoski wrote in Contemporary Poets, Levis's "work is best when the poems are short and are shaped by his imagist instincts or his gestures towards surrealism. He is a master of the brief moment of recognition where the personal is embedded in the generic . . . and the least effective when he allows nostalgia to reign over or shape his poems."

"The landscapes in which I live always have a powerful and direct, although often delayed, effect on my poetry," Levis once explained to Contemporary Authors. Among Levis's personal sources of inspiration are his childhood experiences surrounded by migrant workers at his family's farm and his time during college when he was exposed to tough, violent, and crude people while working as a janitor in a steel mill. However, as Levis said, "the most important landscape, for me, is that of my childhood: the central valley of California."

"Levis's first book, Wrecking Crew, includes poems on war, rape, discrimination, death, and wasted lives," Steven M. Wilson explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "However, little of the book suggests solutions to the troubles; the book is more an existentialist's litany of America's cruelty." "He describes the book as 'overtly political,'" the critic continued, "and he does deal with the major concerns of his day, but his decision to 'witness' leaves the reader ultimately disappointed by what could be seen as artistic cowardice." "Unlike later works," Wilson recognized, the " Wrecking Crew poems are short—often very short—relying on calculated understatement and the connecting of concretely described images (a sort of exhausted imagism), often explained by the use of simile. . . . Perhaps the final failure of Wrecking Crew . . . is that he had not yet found the technique that best suited his poetic philosophy."

Levis explained to Contemporary Authors that he made changes to his concept of poetry through time, especially after the publication of Wrecking Crew. "My themes have changed since Wrecking Crew. The poems are far less overtly political, and, in The Afterlife, much more personal. 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." According to Wilson, critics recognized that " The Afterlife is evidence of a maturing writer. Behind the poems of this collection is someone who has begun to trust the leaps of logic and imagery provided by his intuition, and a reader is better able to follow the narrator of each poem as he struggles to find meaning in a chaotic world. . . . The Afterlife is at times enjoyable, but taken as a whole it is disappointing philosophically and annoying technically, which makes Levis's later poetry an unexpected pleasure, as he moves beyond experimentation into an artistry and insight of the best kind."

Levis continued to grow and mature as a poet throughout the 1980s. In his essay expounding on Levis's growth as a poet, Wilson commented, "In [ The Leopard's Mouth Is Dry and Cold Inside] are the beginnings of an important feature of Levis's work: he uses his poetry and imagination to reach into other people's lives and find symbols there." "The value Levis discovers in poetry, then," the critic continued, "seems to be its ability to illustrate the similarities of all people. . . . There is moving clarity of vision in The Dollmaker's Ghost, and Levis's technical abilities have matured, resulting in a volume that contains his best writing to that point." Wilson has similarly complimentary remarks about Levis's later works: " Winter Stars, even though it concerns the death of Levis's father, is finally an affirmation of the ability of the poet and his art to rejuvenate the soul. The Widening Spell of the Leaves is a journey through moments from the poet's life that have taken on symbolic or personal importance, and that lead him through a sometimes dizzying maze of images and meanings as he explores the uses of intuition and personal history in reaching an understanding and acceptance of human existence."

"As Levis . . . progressed and . . . [drew] more heavily from his experiences," Wilson summarized, "his work [took] on greater depth and eloquence, so that in later books many poems are self-referential but are also moving, insightful meditations on living. Levis uses his life, but also looks outside himself and beyond the events he remembers to find connections with broader truths. Thus he is an important figure in contemporary American poetry, both as a highly decorated practitioner of a style and philosophy many see as the dominant method of poetry in recent decades and as a writer who considers, with at times artistic brilliance, the issues involved in being human."

Career

California State University, Los Angeles, lecturer in English, 1970-72; University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, visiting lecturer, 1972; University of Missouri, Columbia, assistant professor of English, 1974-80; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, associate professor, 1980-88, professor of English, 1988-92; Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, professor of English, 1992-96.

Bibliography

POETRY

  • Wrecking Crew, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1972.
  • The Rain's Witness (pamphlet), Southwick Press, 1975.
  • The Afterlife, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 1977.
  • (With Marcia Southwick) The Leopard's Mouth Is Dry and Cold Inside (prose poems, seven by Levis and seven by Southwick), Gentile (St. Louis, MO), 1980.
  • The Dollmaker's Ghost, Dutton (New York, NY), 1981.
  • Sensationalism, Corycian (Iowa City, IA), 1982.
  • Winter Stars, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.
  • The Widening Spell of the Leaves, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.
  • Black Freckles, Peregrine Books (Salt Lake City), 1992.
  • Elegy, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
  • The Selected Levis, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 2000.
  • The Gazer Within, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 2001.

OTHER

  • Co-editor of Missouri Review, 1977-80. Contributor to Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, edited by Stuart Friebert and David Young, Longman (New York, NY), 1980. Contributor to American Poetry Review, Field, Poetry, Antioch Review, New Yorker, Ploughshares, and other publications. Sound recordings of Levis include an October, 1977, broadcast on the radio program "New Letters on the Air," Kansas City, MO; and, with Thylias Moss, a February 14, 1991 recording made in the Montpelier Room at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 23, Gale, 1996.
  • Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James, 1996.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets Since World War II, Third Series, Gale, 1992.

PERIODICALS

  • American Book Review, April, 1992, p. 26.
  • American Poetry Review, May/June, 1979, pp. 21-32; July/August, 1983, pp. 7-13.
  • Antioch Review, spring, 1982, p. 229; summer, 1990, pp. 284-299; winter, 1993, p. 153.
  • Booklist, July 15, 1981, p. 1431.
  • Book World, July 5, 1981, p. 7.
  • Choice, December, 1972, p. 970; February, 1978, p. 1645.
  • Georgia Review, fall, 1981, p. 647.
  • Hudson Review, spring, 1982, p. 147.
  • Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1992, p. 344.
  • Kliatt, winter, 1986, p. 27.
  • Library Journal, December 15, 1971, p. 4097; June 15, 1981, p. 1309; June 1, 1985, p. 130; April 1, 1992, p. 152.
  • New York Times, May 20, 1996, p. B14.
  • New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1981, p. 12; May 3, 1998, p. 35.
  • North American Review, fall, 1979, p. 62; December, 1981, p. 64; December, 1986, p. 64.
  • Poetry, February, 1973, p. 292; August, 1982, p. 293; May, 1986, p. 103.
  • Prairie Schooner, fall, 1972, p. 264; winter, 1978, p. 422.
  • Publishers Weekly, April 12, 1985, p. 98; June 14, 1991, p. 54; April 6, 1992, p. 52.
  • Shenandoah, fall, 1993, p. 116.
  • Southwest Review, summer, 1980, pp. 332-35; summer, 1983, pp. 291-94.
  • Times Literary Supplement, May 28, 1982, p. 592.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1986, p. 29; spring, 1992, p. 65.
  • Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1991, p. 31.*

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LIFE SPAN 1946–1996

Larry Levis

Biography

Poet Larry Levis, whose collection The Afterlife won the Lamont Poetry Prize, often employed an imagist or surrealist approach in his work. As Diane Wakoski wrote in Contemporary Poets, Levis's "work is best when the poems are short and are shaped by his imagist instincts or his gestures towards surrealism. He is a master of the brief moment of recognition where the personal is embedded in the generic . . . and the least . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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