Dispatches | March 29, 2005

For the past few months I’ve been reading A Condition of the Spirit: the Life and Work of Larry Levis, a compendium of essays, reviews, reminiscences and critical articles written both by and about Larry Levis. It is an incredible book, simply for the devotion it shows to this poet whom most Americans have never even heard of. It is extremely rare for a book like this to come out only eight years after a poet’s death; no such book came out, to my knowledge, after the deaths of Eliot, Frost, Stevens or Crane. The devotion Levis inspires in his readers is important—it is on the level of that inspired by a Keats or a Rilke. And I think devotion itself is an important criteria for evaluating a writer: how much devotion does he inspire in you? Do you want to read everything he has written? Do you get completely absorbed in reading anything by or about him?

Devotion seems to be inspired by a particular kind of moral intelligence and openness, a humor, honesty, and wisdom. I do not think I am truly “devoted” to Rilke (even though it sounds like sacrilege to say this) in the same way I am devoted to Levis or Keats because Rilke lacks their sense of humor and generosity. Perhaps, too, devotion is inspired by the sense of a quest, the sense that an artist is giving his life completely to an ideal, constantly evolving, constantly coming into his own. So I am devoted to the Ashbery of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, but not the Ashbery of the late 90’s and early 21st century, because that Ashbery has lost his sense of the quest. You just don’t get the sense that Ashbery cares much anymore.

Who else inspires devotion? Proust, Kafka, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Mozart, Flaubert, Andy Goldsworthy, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Emerson, Auden, Hart Crane, Chekhov, Cervantes…start your own lists.

I think it is interesting to think of Ashbery and Levis side by side. Harold Bloom has proclaimed the second half of the twentieth-century “The Age of Ashbery,” but an equally compelling case could be made for Levis. Certainly by Winter Stars in 1985 Levis had overtaken Ashbery as the most important poet in America; and while he published far fewer volumes than Ashbery, he showed a much more dramatic evolution, and a greater sense of craft and care. I would say the 60’s and 70’s were “The Age of Ashbery,” and the 80’s and 90’s were “The Age of Levis.” I would also say that Levis is going to prove to be the more influential poet.

Wonderfully, Ashbery and Levis evince almost no awareness of each other throughout their careers. They calmly go about their business, writing the boldest and most original poems of the era, as if living in completely different lands. The “school” of Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Snodgrass, Levine, and others that Levis went through, Ashbery ignored. And Levis, in his criticism and interviews (which are terrific), doesn’t seem at all interested in the “New York School” of Ashbery, Schuyler, Koch and O’Hara, nor Ashbery’s important French influences, Pierre Reverdy and Raymond Roussell. Levis definitely seems to be the more “professional” poet; he was groomed in the academy (getting an M.F.A. and Ph.D.) and took his teaching responsibilities very seriously. Ashbery only dabbled in teaching, made most of his bread through art criticism. The American poetry scene is very strange; admirers of Levis never talk about him in relation, or comparison, to Ashbery, and vice versa. I am not sure Harold Bloom has even read Larry Levis, and that idea (not reading him) seems preposterous to me. How can you talk about Ashbery as being the greatest and most influential poet of the age without even considering Larry Levis? Levis’s work in the 90’s makes Ashbery’s work of the same period seem trite.

Levis is the only American poet thus far who has used the influence of Eastern European poetry in a productive way—not losing his Americanness, and not simply bemoaning the tragedy of European suffering, but deepening his work with an authentic philosophical-historical consciousness, a la Milosz or Herbert.

I leave you with some quotes from Levis’s interviews, as reprinted in A Condition of the Spirit:

“Most poets in this country can expect little but to be neglected and unread, and they are lucky if they can turn this to their advantage, most of them are too much like the culture that has produced them; they cannot stand to be ignored. All poets are spoiled, but if you can’t stand neglect you are spoiled in the wrong way.”

“Actual politics often seems like an adolescent who insists upon Either/Or, upon answer, classification, completion. It is all Keats did not mean by negative capability. Poetry is an ancient art that insists upon Both/Neither. Politics can’t understand this.”

“It may seem strange but I believe that poems are written because the poet engages in a special form of forgetting and therefore is enabled to concentrate upon the composing of a poem; that is, the poet deliberately, skillfully, insouciantly, cunningly, faithfully, unforgivably forgets. It is the only kind of forgetting which is also a form of remembering, yet it does no good to reflect upon the greatness of Wordsworth in such moments, and, from a certain perspective at least, the poet in those moments simply doesn’t give a shit.”