The Missouri Review 28.1 (2005) 218-220
[Access article in PDF]
In the opening essay of this book, Philip Levine speaks of his former student Larry Levis's "fierce devotion" to the art of poetry that for thirty years "served as [his own] inspiration and model." "Devotion" is perhaps the best word to describe what fills these pages—both that of Levis in his own writing (to his art, to the truth) and that of other writers in writing about him. Editors Buckley and Long collect reminiscences, memoirs and critical essays by more than forty poets, critics and editors who knew or admired Levis and his work, and the result is a portrait not only of the man and his poetry but of the incredible force field of devotion he created around him.
In Levis we encounter the all-too-rare instance of a writer whose character in life seems to have matched the character in his work. Levine writes, "What many who knew us well failed to realize was that I took from Larry, from his advice and from the poems he wrote, more than I ever gave to him. It was easy to take from Larry, for his whole vision of why we are here on this earth had to do with giving." And Charles Wright has this to say: "Sweet, self-effacing, funny, brilliant Larry . . . no fanfare, no self-promotion, no puffery. Just Larry and his poems, quiet and shining."
Often, as in the case of Dave Smith's account, the memories a writer shares of Levis become intertwined with memories of Levis's praise for his or her own work. Smith writes of the unexpected boon of receiving a letter from Levis in the late '70s praising some recent poems, even though Smith had personally offended Levis a few years earlier: "There had been nothing to recall between us; he had nothing to ask of me; he did not complain of any slight, the usual motivations for correspondence between poets. That he was simply generous and curious makes a poor but actual answer. He had read my poems and he sincerely did like them."
Buckley and Long organize the book into three sections. The first, entitled "Some of the Life," consists of the memoirs and reminiscences, those by Levine and David St. John standing out as the most loving and selfless in their appraisals of Levis. The second, "Larry Levis on Poetry," consists mainly of uncollected prose pieces by Levis, both creative and critical, and interviews. Predictably, the most enjoyable section of the book is this one—the one authored by Levis himself. What emerges here is a sense of Levis as a great moral thinker and critic, especially in "War as Parable and War as Fact: Herbert and Forché" and "Waiting for the End of the World: Snodgrass and The Fuhrer Bunker," two essays that should become required reading for all American poets. [End Page 219]
The third section, "Response to the Work," is a current history of Levis's critical reception, consisting of both short reviews of individual volumes and longer, more serious appraisals of his work as a whole. The comprehensive essays by Eric Gudas and Tony Hoagland are the most sensitive and insightful of the group.
One oversight on the editors' part was not to include the dates of the pieces collected in this section, or in the entire book for that matter; as a result, it is impossible to tell precisely how well a writer is evaluating Levis's work. Marcia Southwick sounds overly lavish in her praise of The Afterlife, Levis's second book; one his later books would critically surpass The Afterlife, but one cannot tell if Southwick wrote the piece before those later books came out.
This is a mammoth collection, big enough to tide lovers of Levis over until the publication of his collected poems...