An Interview with Larry Levis
Michael White | October/November 2003
Larry Patrick Levis was born in Fresno, California, on September 30, 1946; his father was a farmer. He earned a bachelor's degree from Fresno State College (now California State University) in 1968; a master's degree from Syracuse University in 1970; and a PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974. His first book of poems, Wrecking Crew (1972), won the United States Award from the International Poetry Forum. His second book, The Afterlife (1976), was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the American Academy of Poets. In 1981, The Dollmaker's Ghost was a winner of the Open Competition of the National Poetry Series. Among his other awards were a YM-YWHA Discovery award, three fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He taught English at the University of Missouri from 1974-1980; from 1980 to 1992, he was an associate professor at the University of Utah, where he directed the creative writing program; and from 1992 until his death, he was a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Larry Levis died of a heart attack in 1996, at the age of 49. His last collection, Elegy (edited by Philip Levine), was published posthumously in 1997.
The following unpublished interview was compiled both by tape, and by written questions and answers, in Salt Lake City in the winter of 1989-1990. This was a few years after the publication of Winter Stars, and before The Widening Spell of the Leaves, and Black Freckles. Levis had recently returned from a Fulbright year in Eastern Europe.
Michael White: Could we begin by summarizing the unusual developments in your work over the past few years? I'm wondering specifically what influence your travels abroad have had on your poetry.
Larry Levis: I'm not sure that I can summarize them, nor am I sure that such changes are all that unusual. For one thing, they were far more gradual and internalized than the work itself might suggest. Obviously, if you placed the new prose beside Winter Stars, and had no idea that the two were written four years apart, you might wonder about it, or about me. But in so many ways the new poems in The Widening Spell of the Leaves are similar to the poems in Winter Stars. The line itself is far longer in the new work, especially in the longish, narrative sequence ("The Perfection of Solitude") that begins the collection. The poem has a way of circling back on itself in a sort of larger musical pattern, denying any more direct, linear narrative. Of course, I wonder if there is such a thing as a direct, linear narrative? Sounds a little boring, and it seems to me that fiction dispensed with it centuries ago, as did poetry, i.e., Homer.
And there's nothing very new in a musical pattern or in the obsession with destroying or confusing or annoying Time in a poem. We're still sitting in the glacial shadow of Modernism, a period in which Eliot and Faulkner pummeled Time into whirling dust specks. And it's hard to escape the Time in which one is born, and the ideas that occur inevitably because of that. When Mandelstam cries out, "My Age, my Beast!" doesn't he mean that he can do little but cling to the fur of it as it passes through his world, that he has no alternative? But who does?
White: But what about the shift in genre?
Levis: Yes. An Illustration of the Castle (published as Black Freckles) the new manuscript of prose, is unlike anything I've done. For one thing it is prose, prose poems, essays, short interrupted narratives in which the speaker appears to have forgotten the story completely only to resume it again. Each piece of it has within it this small refusal to embrace entirely any one genre, and so I don't know what to call it, exactly, which is fine with me. And I would just as soon that others write realistic short fiction in a plain style, with lots of tersely convincing dialogue. When that sort of thing is done well, it's a delight, whether it is Chekhov or Carver. Writing prose was exciting for a number of reasons-one of them was the sudden liberation from the self-confrontations that poetry demands. To put it briefly, the prose is the Not Me.
Which implies that the poetry is Me. Which is what I prefer to believe, but who can know which is which? Which one is Me? Or whether Mr. Both and Cousin Neither compose it all.
It was my friend Mark Strand who encouraged me to write the prose, who kept encouraging me, and who gave me exactly the right suggestions for revising it. In my opinion, he is almost always right about such things, at least when they concern poetry, writing, or art. I mean, he would suggest changes which I had dimly known were necessary here and there, but he made them articulate, unignorable. Since a few of the prose pieces were originally poems, some in blank verse, and one in delayed, rhyming couplets, the revisions I had to make were substantial, even though all of those used personae, and in that sense they were on their way toward a condition of prose anyway poems. Revision is difficult, but it must be done, and one has to learn how to do it, and the earlier he or she learns it the better. It isn't a bad fate-revision-and in art it's the most common one we know. This has never made it repugnant to anyone who's serious.
White: I know what you mean. But don't most of us, at times, struggle to avoid resenting the labor the art costs us?
Levis: In art or in life, revision should be a pleasure. And one way of revising life is to travel. In 1983, I had a Guggenheim Fellowship, so I went to Europe and later, when I returned home, I didn't quite want to be back here yet, and I still had some time and money, so I went to Oaxaca, Mexico. Both places occur in the new poems, and Europe figures heavily in the prose.
I traveled through Europe without any plan and without much organization. I wasn't studying it. I rarely carried a guidebook or a camera, things that I thought created a shield between me and the places I was in. In the station in Rome one day, I decided to take the next train, wherever it went. I traveled alone, and walked miles and miles, and got lost dozens of times, and discovered the pleasure of losing my way on the Via Serpentia"following it to the Coliseum, which loomed up suddenly at the end of it. In Vienna I drank with strangers and simply nodded as they went on raving in German. Off the Damrak in Amsterdam, on impulse, I bought a gray sport coat with narrow lapels and didn't realize that it made me look like a polyester sleaze ball until a year and a half later.
One night I tried to find the red light district, and asked two Dutch guys how to get there, asked them in French. One of them listened closely, then looked at me in my sport coat and replied, 'Why don't you just use English? It's a perfectly good language.' Then he pointed across a canal. I felt so abashed I just walked back to my hotel, an ill-lit place I never liked much but never took the trouble to move from, either. It was run by Indians and had a chronic odor of curry floating through it. I saw a large De Kooning exhibit near Constantin Huygenstratt and wept in the middle of the museum and have never known why. I mean, I never cry. The paintings were beautiful. My father had died about a year before. If it was him who wished that I weep at a De Kooning exhibit, I didn't mind. One morning I saw a rat climb along the counter of a cafe that looked empty, clean and gleaming before it opened for business; a muted glow of brass lining the bar seemed old and trustworthy; the rat wasn't hurrying.
You see? All I did there had this random quality about it that you can see in the above. In Europe I began to experience things, and still remember them, in terms of prose, in terms of a journal or notebook that recorded anything I happened to notice. This is why I believe that being in Europe made prose possible for me.
Levis: I don't know, exactly, but that's the lie I tell myself. Of course, composing prose is 'the shaping of sentences, paragraphs; it is not at all random, and, for me, it remains a larger and more impersonal system than poetry. For in poetry I do not fly out of myself and into another configuration, into the otherness of a character who is X or Me plus x or Me minus Y. In prose this is almost a requirement of some kind, I think, if you want to be interesting, even to yourself. This doesn't mean that poetry doesn't spiral into larger circles; it does. Yet the conventions of lyric poetry have their reasons for being somewhat incontestable, and they are good ones. In a lyric one has the sense, or the illusion, that he is hearing, getting the poet in all his frankness; you hear, then, the real Keats, the real Donne, beneath the conventions of another time and culture. The truth is, I really don't know. I had no intention of writing any prose in Europe, or of ever writing prose.
White: Did you continue to write poems during this period?
Levis: I wrote one poem, "Those Graves in Rome," while I was staying in Paris, and I finished the final revisions for Winter Stars while in Bucharest. But I did write any number of notes, impressions, things in a journal which I kept and which began to result in poems and prose.
I did see some of the things that one is supposed to see in Europe, I guess, but I missed many others. I saw the Caravaggios in Santa Maria del Popolo and in the Borghese, and this, seeing them, resulted, some time later, in a poem called Ã±Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex.' But that poem is far more about Vietnam and a friend who died there than it is about the painting or about one of the more fascinating bad boys of Italian art, though that life is there too, in the poem. Just now I doubt that the world is in any desperate need of another poem about a painting, and mine, I am glad to say, isn't one. Still, that is no reason at all not to go and write a poem about a painting if you need to, or even desire to. The painting by Caravaggio was not my real subject. I was standing before it with my friends Phil and Franny Levine, admiring it, and this is where things get a little eerie, for in Caravaggio's rendering of the beheaded Goliath, a self-portrait in fact, there is just a little too much there that is a likeness of a friend from high school who went off to Vietnam and never came back; in Rome he appeared before me in the moment of death, his eyes half closed, or half open, depending on how you look at it.
But I didn't go searching for anything like this. It happened that way; that's all. I did nothing very deliberately in Europe. I let it all ambush me however it wished to, and it had a serene and complete way of doing this.
White: Do you think your writing is political in any sense?
Levis: No. I mean, I'm not really for anybody or any party. And I don't write tracts or manifestos. But life is political. I buy this, or that, and whether I remind myself of it or not, I'm involved in capitalism. And I have desires: I don't want to see the earth turn into a dumpsite, or the sky fill with our waste, or witness the sea full of oil. I don't want our government sending troops into Nicaragua or any place else in Central America. I wish our leaders would stop lying and using propaganda, too, but such a wish is no doubt futile. Still, how can it make war on drugs when the CIA has been trafficking in heroin and cocaine for decades? If they were serious, they'd outlaw cigarettes. After all, part of experience is necessarily and inescapably involved with a political dimension. If you keep everything touching upon this dimension out of your work completely, despite the very real and censoring difficulties of that, such an absence would be seen, I imagine, as enormously deliberate, and would seem itself a kind of political act.
But could anyone do this? Where does the political end? Recent theory has widened its meaning rather than restricted it: gender is political; metaphor is political; the existential decision to read is political given the nature of film, video, and tv now. And in terms of American culture, this interview and my consenting to do it is political.
White: Actually, I was curious whether your experience of the politics of Eastern Europe might have been transformative in some metaphorical or metaphysical way.
Levis: Sorry. I guess I simply don't know what you mean. I really don't. My poetry's political effect will have all the force of a grassblade. Still, traveling and working in Eastern Europe was important to everything I wrote later, and I feel that going over there, going east of the Danube, changed me in some mysterious way.
Let me explain, or try to. In 1983 I had a Guggenheim, but I also had a more official purpose for traveling, for I had been invited, by the Romanian Ministry of Culture and the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, to read and lecture in Bucharest, Cluj, and Sibiu. People warned me that it must be a kind of USIA tour, and I therefore could expect a lot of banquets and bullshit, but that didn't happen thanks to Ioanna Deligiorgis and her friends, and I was able to see Bucharest without being herded along by an apparatchik. Romania is perhaps the only country in the world where young women come up to you after you have read your poems, poems which some of them haven't understood a word of, to hand you flowers, bouquets of flowers. As a custom, it seemed very sweet, and if some poets consider it insincere and false, because you're even more incomprehensible over there than you are here, I think their reaction is shabby and selfish. What the Romanians respect is poetry, any poetry: whether they've understood it or not, they think it civilized to hand you a bouquet out of respect for the art. There's no such respect in this country: here, you are more often thought of as some kind of con-artist guru, or as a clown who isn't terribly funny, or as someone pretentious, someone who doesn't understand that he lives in a democracy, where we are all equal, and therefore all equal in talent and brains. And always, in such a country as ours, the poet, who publishes his work in the naive expectation of being thanked for this gift, is often judged not on the merits of the work, but for his or her life, his or her behavior, judged for his or her morals. For finally, you see, there's no money in poetry, so why is this man or woman doing it? There must be something wrong with him, with her. This is capitalism in concert with that detestable vestigial Calvinism that grows everywhere here. It's depressing. How many people attended Poe's funeral? Whitman was one of the few.
Their offerings of flowers grew immense when I read with Nikita Stanescu, who died recently and was probably ill then; his audience was aware of this. He was, and is, something of a national hero in Romania, and deserves to be.
White: How do you compare the life of, say, a Romanian poet with your own experience of life in America?
Levis: In our country, few poets become heroes, and when they do it must feel suspect. Fame? Oh, but look at the fate of Pound with his insanity trial and his 11-year stay at St. Elizabeth's; look at the reviewers (some of them once his friends!) of Hart Crane. Frost played his role quite well, but it's interesting that his last question was: "Was I any good?" Was Frost so corrupted by his public that he could no longer know whether he was? 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. In that case you'll learn nothing from reading Keats's letters; and that seems a wonderful reason for buying a guitar and learning how to play rock n' roll, which I think is a fine and respectable thing to do. It's also a lot of hard work. But the audience might, and it often does, love you. Besides, the Talking Heads are light years more imaginative and intelligent than most of what I see published in, say, literary journals.
Be spoiled in the right ways. If your work feels mediocre, if it demeans your spirit, burn it. Burn it even if the workshop you're in likes it. After all, you didn't begin doing this in order to be a competent or even an accomplished poet. That's like being a moderately good neurosurgeon; they don't exist. No one alive is going to be as good as Keats, but that doesn't mean you have to settle for crap. In fact, it means the opposite of that.
White: Practically speaking, what was it like abroad?
Levis: The problems faced by the average Romanian are so different from the ones above it's shocking. Flowers may have been easy to get in Bucharest, but bread, meat, milk, cheese, clothes were nearly impossible. A carton of Kents was a treasure on the black market. When I was there, coffee seemed to have become extinct, and in its place was a watery barley concoction. For the first time since the age of seven, when my mother gave me a first cup before school, I was decaffeinated. Things were scarce there. I first noticed this crossing the frontier from Hungary. The train from Vienna to Bucharest is the Orient Express, but after it crosses the Danube it becomes communist, and so is bare of even necessities: no dining car, no lounge car, not even water to drink. It's not the Orient Express of the movies; in fact it's an uncrowded, oddly silent train. I was hungry and thirsty when we crossed into Romania at three a.m. There, a woman about 35 or 40 came on board with two men in civilian clothes. She was wearing, I remember, high heels and a red dress that might have been appropriate for a prom in say, 1962. I was prepared for more stern young guards with shiny, new submachine guns, the kind of military inspectors who had got on at the checkpoint in Budapest, and who barked at me: "Visa forma, please!" Someone later told me I didn't have to worry about their machine guns; they need at least three signatures before they can fire them at anyone.
But the woman at the Romanian frontier was different. First, she apologized in English for having to wake me up in the middle of the night, then said they would have to search my luggage as well. Then after a second or two, she apologized for having to do that. Then she sighed and sat down across from me and looked at my cigarettes on the windowsill until I offered her one. She did want one, she said, but her employment forbade her taking one. After another sigh, she confessed she didn't like her job that much, that the place was too remote for her, that she missed Bucharest, but then, she shrugged, you had to go where you were sent. Then she and the two men began to go through my bags, inspecting them, until she found one of my books, The Dollmaker's Ghost, with my picture on the back. Holding it up, she said, "But this is you! You are the author of this book!" I admitted I was. In Romanian, she told the other two, who halted what they were doing. The three of them just stood around the book in silence for a moment, then they zipped up my bags without a further glance into them, wished me the best of everything, and went on down the corridor of the train.
But a second later one of the men came back, gesturing urgently by lifting two fingers to his mouth. Finally, I understood what he meant, and gave him a pack of Marlboros from the carton I'd brought.
White: What was Bucharest like in 1983?
Levis: Most of the lives I saw there were far tougher than my own, obviously. But they were also far harsher than the general life one sees in, say, Yugoslavia. The Romanian system seemed infinitely crueler than any other I've seen, for there one confronts a socialism whose premier owns 39 castles though he prefers the downtown palace; a premier who recently has taken to bulldozing entire Hungarian villages in the north and in Transylvania in order to promote "national unity"; a premier who, in order to pay off the national debt, has made food shortages commonplace.
When I arrived in Bucharest, the cultural attache from the embassy dropped me off at the Hotel Union with this remark: "You should be aware that your room is bugged. But don't worry. You don't know anything." Then she sped off in her little Renault. I found out later that such bugging was routine there, but at first I did feel a little self-conscious in a room that actually listened to me. After a day or two, I ceased to think about it, or even be aware of it. Surveillance! If anything, that is the legacy of Ceaucescu, that and fear and fear's little nephew, paranoia. There was a young guy, a journalist I knew in Bucharest; he worked for one of the large dailies there. He was married, but his wife lived and worked in Cluj. When I knew him, he was having a not terribly secret affair with a young woman in Bucharest who was, incidentally, beautiful and interesting. From what I gathered from friends there, his wife had no interest in his affair, and in fact the two of them had married in the first place so that they might obtain an apartment, a place where they would be allowed some independence from their families: that is, they wouldn't have to live with their parents anymore if they married. No one thought the arrangement remarkable nor thought a thing of their affair, given the circumstances.
But the government took an interest in the affair and evidently listened in on them. That's right, listened in on the young lovers night and day. It wasn't doing it for voyeuristic titillation, though: no, it would use the affair against the man. It worked this way: he could go on with his illicit (to whom?) romance and by doing so fall from writer and journalist to a sweeper of shopfronts in a week or so, or he could go back to "amend" what didn't need fixing with his wife in Cluj, end things with the woman, and keep his job. The government was simply showing its force, its reasonless cruelty.
White: You're glad to be back?
Levis: I know that my own country is idiotic in a million different ways and that it, like most other empires, is founded upon genocide, but when I compare the daily freedom or the illusion of freedom I have and enjoy, when I compare the material comfort I take for granted here with the lack of such freedom and the lack of such comfort which they, over there, take as the norm, I must admit, and not to anyone reading this but to those I knew in Romania, that I'm lucky. I believe this is the one testimony they would expect me in all decency to make in discussing such things.
White: Let's change the subject a little. An interesting comparison might be made between your poem "Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard" and Frost's "Directive." Each poem involves an imaginative return to origins, to a creative source. Frost's poem directs us to move "back out of all this now too much for us"; your poem takes the speaker "back to the house/where I was born." But the journey, in your poem, is peopled with the immigrant farmhands of a mythologized childhood, while Frost's poem is remarkable for its eerie, ascetic absence.
Levis: Such a comparison is interesting only if restricted to the ideas you mention. "Directive" is one of my favorite poems. My own poem is like Frost's, I'd say, even where you imply it differs, for mine is peopled by the absence of those workers, just as Frost's is inhabited by the absence, or imagined presence only, of those who once lived and worked in that New England town and countryside which they have subsequently and mysteriously abandoned. And the house at the end of my poem, which is the house I grew up in, is silent anyway, empty of what it once was, with only the past meaning of its solemnity intact, something there but inarticulate.
But I wasn't thinking of Frost's poem when I wrote mine. If his influenced me, that influence was by then so internalized as to be unconscious, I suppose. 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. I'm sorry, but this is the way I see it.
White: Are your poems directed toward some "other" or imagined community?
Levis: Well, I have a community of friends who usually but not always happen to be other poets; on the other hand, "community" in the largest sense involves language itself. When people say or imply they have read me and understood me, then I am aware of certain tacit implications and forces at work. I write for no one but me, it seems, at the time of writing.
But this language, this English, this sweet thing, still quite capable of doing long, difficult and passionate work in any variety of forms, means community. I didn't invent it, and among certain theorists it's still a question whether it hasn't invented us. "Otherness" is never exactly community, but primarily "other," different from the Self, something that is identifiably unlike me. It's an indication of our impoverishment that in our culture, one based on vanity, most people go out not in search of "other," as Jorie Graham suggested once, but in search really of what it is like them, what confirms the Self they think they have; they aren't interested in being challenged by something different. And this narrow confinement, this constant shopping for one more mirror, is what they call their "freedom." How awful, what an impoverishment of spirit, what intolerance for all that is not them!
White: I'm reminded here of the rather striking appearances Whitman makes in Winter Stars.
Levis: I'd have to guess that Whitman appears in my work because, first of all, I'm an American. In a way Whitman is like a language or a weed, ineradicable. Like the Civil War which gave this nation its most profound history, and of which he is irrecoverably a part and a witness, he is part of American thought whether one reads him or not. At its best, this manifests itself as part of our large, generous, open-minded health and democratic grit and idealism. But in a strictly material sense, that thought becomes a blight on the land: freeways, tract homes, replications mindlessly proliferating in the form of business loops, suburbs with those thin, just-planted trees lining the streets and what they suggest: the impossibility of any history ever taking root there. But the uglification of the world is not Whitman's fault, just as Stalin's pogroms and his extinction of the kulaks is not the fault of Karl Marx.
White: Who do you see as your precursors? I'm thinking of Harold Bloom's sense of the word.
Levis: I don't know if you're asking who my precursors are or who, specifically, influenced me. But if it's the latter, then it's easier. When I was 16, I read all of T.S. Eliot I could, read him constantly, and after him went on to Stevens, Frost, and Auden, and after that came back to Eliot. By then I was 17, I think. But I should say that if it hadn't been for Philip Levine's workshops, shortly after that, I'm unsure what I would have become. A shoe salesman who has no meaning at all? A drug addict who has his meaning entirely to himself? Both? Well, I include this fact, because facts are important now in an art presently infatuated by (and sometimes nourished by) the psychoanalytic theories of Bloom. But it wasn't Milton and Wordsworth who changed my life back there at Dust and Wind State College; it was Levine, his poetry, his teaching, the purity and fire of his genius that did that, and this further effected a change that my reading of Eliot had already begun.
White: And perhaps, with such an intensely personal view of poetic growth, you might also have an intensely personal sense of a poetic?
Levis: Somewhere my poetic must have begun to internalize itself just as radically as my influences did. But, all right, I try to write clearly, not because there may not be something in not writing clearly; there might be, you see, but it just wouldn't feel like me or wouldn't feel enough like me, and would seem bogus, a posturing, false. And I know that wanting my poems to have a kind of authenticity has nothing to do with that particular cultural vanity, which is a fear of change itself. For my work has changed.
So, yes, I suppose I do have a personal sense of a poetic, but having a sense of it does not mean that I can articulate that poetic. And I wonder if I would want to, even if I could.
White: But surely you must have an idea of the larger theoretical effects of this poetic? Its "political" effects?
Levis: No, what I do as a poet is different. In literary theory, in philosophy and history, we're accustomed to extending the use of the word "political" to an enormous range of preoccupations, and we're comfortable in speaking of the "political" nature of gender, sexuality, metaphor, patriarchal language, a Freudian history. In revising a past, the extension of such a term is meant to give way to a possible future. I'm less comfortable than others with speaking in this way, if only because Theory itself, and its usual codification and institutionalization in universities, allows its visionary energy to travel in the closed circuitry of an authorship and readership who are content with their isolation from the world of political action; by their abstention from such a world, they in effect reinforce, however temporarily, a kind of status quo. Of course, I'm glad that Foucault and Lacan and Kristeva are there, that they can be read, contemplated, and after all, it would be ridiculous to expect justice in a world where everyone seems glued to the set while Nature, as we've known it, is ending because, as Bill McKibben argues, we've tampered with its independence.
In the world, of course, politics still means power, and there's a significant difference between Theory and Power. I mean, I haven't any political power in that sense; few of us do, and this is the case whether one works in a library or a meatpacking plant.
But I would suspect that everyone's poetics, even Mallarme's, is political in at least one sense: it is vulnerable, no matter how scrupulously aesthetic it may be, to history, to time, to an ethical and therefore a political formulation or interpretation within a culture, a formulation which often makes the actual work seem distant by classifying it. In this way, the Symbolist becomes not the revolutionary, but the spokesperson for Art, and therefore for the status quo, not for those who might wish to overthrow it. Similarly, the revolutionary poetics of Pound or Eliot are complicated by a discernible and naive fascism which characterizes some of their opinions, just as it does the opinions of Hemingway and Lawrence. On the other hand, at times an actual choice, such as Eluard's dismal embrace of socialism after the war, resulted only in those empty, crooning lyrics he made during that period as he turned into a kind of Marxist cheerleader. Others, great ones like Vallejo or Mandelstam, retained an independence only at a great cost, and one might say that Mandlestam died because of it, because he challenged Stalin. It is rare to have the luck of a poet like Brecht, who was characteristically cunning when he was subpoenaed by McCarthy. When asked at the hearings if he knew any communists, he answered that he did. When asked to name them, he did that too, the German names lifting off his tongue in a long roll call of the absent. The senators witch-hunters went on furiously checking their lists and finding none of those names on them, so Brecht was then asked if he knew where any of those communists he had mentioned were living. He answered, surprised, "Why no, I don't. They're all dead now. The Nazis killed them all."
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. When Robert Lowell followed Bobby Kennedy around the house in Hyannisport reading aloud to him from The Education of Henry Adams, Kennedy finally went into a bathroom and closed the door. Lowell opened it. "Do you mind?" said the young candidate, and shut it and locked it.
Of course when Lowell published his refusal of Johnson's White House dinner invitation-a refusal that indicted the president for his escalation of the Vietnam conflict-on the front page of the New York Times at about the same moment Johnson received the actual letter Lowell had sent, that was understood, of course. A White House aide recalled that "the roar could be heard all the way from the Oval Office." But Lowell had no such luck teaching the doomed young brother of the slain president anything more complex, and literature is always more complex.
But publishing such a refusal is an incident of Lowell exercising the maximum amount of his political power. His attempt to teach Kennedy something is politics in this other, larger sense of the term, and is interesting because of its ineffectuality and failure.
White: What makes that interesting?
Levis: It reveals a world that doesn't care much about poems or poets. I, my whole generation, we were all violated by a little bit of history, by the Vietnam era. I won't go on with any prolonged analysis of it and don't want to bore you. But to see friends from high school go off to fight needlessly in it, to see other friends wind up in jail for protesting it, affects you. And finally, to see a friend go off and never come back from it has a much larger and more lasting effect on you. He dies, you go on living, and it seems at first unfair, then odd to do so, then strange to be able to do so with such ease. But you don't forget it, and you can't forget it. This is the way history enters you.
White: That seems like a somewhat passive view of things.
Levis: No. History enters you belatedly and far more effectively after it has happened around you. It strikes me that the opposite is true.
Forgetting, ignoring is passive. To ignore the history that has in a sense created what you have become is passive. But remembering it is active, an acknowledgement not only of time but also of one's acceptance of it. And such remembering is akin to poetry, as is that line in a letter by Emily Dickinson where she condemns the Civil War by saying of it: "The boys who whistled are extinct." Such remembering is why some bodies find no graves except in poems. For politics, power, at times is unwilling even to condescend to bury those whom it has used and forsaken.
Poetry takes up such a task unquestioningly, has always done so, and does it not because it is naive, but because it is worldly. From this point of view, politicians, leaders, seem a clique of rich, indifferent boys who, because they have never seen anyone die, do not believe in death itself, and who, therefore, do not really believe in the lives of others, in the very existence, the doggedly unadorned daily existence of anyone else at all.
I know this is a large, gross oversimplification, but this was the impression I got of them at that time, and still get of them when I see them lying on TV, something they do badly but often. That history makes me, and maybe my generation, anomalous. As Robert Hass makes clear in a recent prose poem about Vietnam in which everyone against that war was given the chance, 20 or more years ago, to cut off the tip of his little finger and mail it to the Pentagon in protest, the effect of that war persists in the psyche of a generation. And Robert Pinsky, in An Explanation of America, has a similar image of grotesque mutation and bodily defilement that characterizes the survivors of that era, a kind of medieval griffin's tail that grows from them as a talisman, souvenir, mark of their complexity and misfortune. And yet the notion of reminding everyone endlessly about Vietnam smacks of a piety almost as insidious as the television evangelist's. There is no reason for a younger generation to care as some of us have found we have to, and it would be wrong not to recognize them as different than we are. All that one can do in poetry, in teaching, and in at least some other matters, is to attempt to remind anyone listening, as Sherod Santos once pointed out, of beauty itself.
As a political act, a necessarily naive one, this remains the only one I can think of which, in its inception at least, is innocent, or as Barthes says, "intends no harm." And it may in fact acquire less naivete as a poet matures.
Levis: After the horrors of WWII, Zbigniew Herbert once wrote, in a little ode: "One might still offer, even to the betrayed world, a rose." That trite rose is deliberate and complex there, for it is offered not out of mere innocence, but out of a radical, recovered innocence, and out of the pain of that innocence, and so the offering of it, the poetry of it, reminds its recipient, painfully, at once of what is lost and of what is not lost, and, therefore, of what is still possible. For the appearance of a rose in the ruins of Warsaw, in bombed-out Dresden or Belgrade, is no longer trite. All the reality of it comes rushing back into its scent, the same one that has clung to it so tenaciously all through those years.
White: Do you find any irony in the fact that you-who might in some circles be considered the loner, rebel poet-are now directing one of the more established creative writing programs in the country?
Levis: No. As a title it doesn't mean much, and in fact is a departmental assignment that rotates from one to another of us on the staff here. If someone were to take it seriously as a title that meant something, like County Sheriff, well, that would be ridiculous. The only danger of such an office is identifying yourself with it. That's never been a problem with me, and, when things go wrong, I don't even take the failure personally. I just try to fix it.
Michael White teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He is the author of The Island and Palma Cathedral.