Written by: Kevin Cox
Larry Levis’ (1946-1996) existence as a poet rests on one high-stakes night at sixteen years old. He decided, “one night, to try to write a poem,” and told himself “if the poem had one good line in it [he] would try to be a poet.” He never reveals what this line was. Either he does not remember or he became a poet based on a poorly judged reading in the same fashion he’d later avoid enlisting in the Vietnam War; in both cases it might be said that Larry Levis “became a poet because of a misdiagnosis.”
Philip Levine ends an essay titled after and about his friend in praise, that Levis is the greatest poet of his generation and that his last books are “collections of poetry that will last as long as our language survives, and it’s likely that my greatest contribution to literature is the small part I played in them” (Levine 8).
Levis’s poetry has lasted. There was a recent documentary in 2016 about his life and work, but Levis’s works haven’t entirely broken through the poetry classroom. That they haven’t reveals more about poetry in our culture than it does anything about his work because Levis’s poetry, specifically the poems in Winter Stars and The Widening Spell of the Leaves, is primed for popularity. It’s accessible, intimate, and conversational. Levis reveals to the reader as he clarifies for himself; speaker and reader tend to move as one. At times he almost stammers, like the narrator of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, explaining things to the reader by fireside, ironing out the past as he speaks.
Levis’s poetry can be funny, too. In an anecdote about a teenage Levis showing up at his doorstep with a six-pack of beer, Levine expounds on his former student’s humor: “When in full flight he was the funniest man I have ever known, for his humor was totally spontaneous and always took off from the elements at hand the way a jazz musician might walk out into a series of variations on a musical theme.” Levis’s observations, his turns of phrase and narrative trajectory, is often surprising to the point of comedy. In his poetry, it seems, Levis was able to channel these instances of spontaneity into narrative and the poetic image as a response to the mutability of life. The process of concentrating instances of ephemerality into one, vast poetic narrative or image is why Levis should be essential reading. He walks his readers through the process of channeling time and processing memory, invaluable processes for writers and anyone else alive today.