Over the last few years Philip Levine has become so striking a poet that I’m surprised he’s not more highly valued than he is. Of course he always wrote forceful poems, but were they always so original? An early admired one, “That Distant Winter,” seems now, in retrospect, not to be Levine at all, has varying echoes of Lowell, Jarrell, Trakl, and some of the dramatic properties of Lawrence’s “The Prussian Officer,” which probably inspired it. Another, equally admired, “On the Edge,” sits with the ghost of Weldon Kees, who has haunted the poet elsewhere. But it’s when we come to his latest collections, They Feed They Lion, published a few years ago, and the recent 1933, that the particular Levine style and strategy continue almost uninterruptedly from page to page. The fine savagery of the earlier volume is manlier, more immediate in its appeal; the later volume is smoother, craftier, a bit muted, but is an advance, I think, deeper, certainly, and more humane.
Levine’s is a daunting, brooding art, often without solace. Scorn and sympathy seem to be there in equal measure, “so much sorrow in hatred,” as he says. The bonds of family, work, class, Levine as householder in America, knockabout wanderer in Spain, the wars of man and nature, wilderness and town—these are the different features of a difficult face, “human and ripe with terror”—and with knowledge. Recognition through confrontation, behavior under pressure—obviously these do not come easily to him.
An antagonistic strain, what he calls the “sour afterthought,” rubs off on practically everything he touches. Essentially he’s a poet of solitude, presents not “the bliss of solitude,” Whitman’s theme, but solitude as recoil from attachment or obligation, solitude that has him as a poet in middle age ruminating on remnants of a boy’s dream “of a single self / formed of all the warring selves split / off at my birth / and set spinning.” And it is just these selves or their later incarnations—Levine as husband, father, friend—which he keeps discovering or despoiling again and again.
He manages, I suppose, two things probably better than any of his contemporaries, at least those born in the middle or late Twenties. The old mon semblable, mon frère business of Baudelaire is given renewed American vigor in a number of his poems—for instance, “The Midget,” “Baby Villon,” “Angel Butcher,” parts of “Silent in America.” More important, he can create the sense of a milieu, the sound, feel, geography of a place, a time, a people, the flavor of what’s been happening among us and what continues to happen, which seem to me almost totally lacking in most other serious poetry today. His portraits, in particular—those in They Feed They Lion and 1933—are troubling, mysterious, delicate, wrathful, constitute a sort of litany of the industrial (Detroit) and immigrant (Jewish) backgrounds which formed him and follow him. They define the poet to himself and his world to us.
Here is Levine’s grandmother in “her empty room in heaven,” “beautiful Polish daughter / with a worn basket of spotted eggs,” with
for the bad back and the black radish
and three quick spits for the pot.
Here are his uncles and cousins before a funeral in his childhood, sitting in the kitchen, seeming “strange / in their serious suits / and shirts, holding / their hands on the table,” his mother, with a black fox stiffening at her throat, saying ” ‘The good die young’—/ not to me or anyone.” Here are the teenagers of the poet’s youth, the Angels of Detroit, where the toilets overflow and “the worms of money / crack like whips,” the desperate frolics of “long Eddie,” the little clown, “the yellows of his eyes / brown on pot,” who
never did nothing right
except tell the cops to suck
and wave them off like flies.
Here are the ordinary nightmares of the suburbs, the housewives and their TV sets, “the bullets sucking quietly in their cradles,” or the “ice and steel raining / from the foundries in a shower / of human breath,” the grundgy roads of the metropolis where “the gates are closing / at Dodge Main / and Wyandotte / Chemical,” where the workers are returning to their houses
to watch the kids
scrub their brown
faces or grease
the show down.
Here is the world of “Automotive in the city of dreams,” where you can learn a job that takes you thirty minutes to learn and then you can work at that job for the next thirty years and then they retire you at fifty or fifty-five—and this is heaven, this is life. Here is the black man Luther with his old black Lincoln, “watching the radiator bare its muddy wounds”:
rolling his sleeves up
high and cupping his long
hillbilly fingers around
a flaring match, Luther
cocking his tattoo
against the black rain and
the rain of black luck, Luther
pushing on toward
the jewelled service station
of free cokes
and credit there ahead
in a heaven of blue
falling and nothing
going to make him cry
Machinery that doesn’t work, clothes that fall apart—the old American story growing newer every day. But Levine subverts these sociological images, decor of the depressions, past or present, his “drifters in a drifting crowd,” contrasts them with his own pervasive subjectivity, sings as does the midget in the terrible café in Barcelona—“sings of Americas, / of those who never returned / and those who never left.”
His poems, moreover, have a startling contiguity to physical detail, invest objects and things with human feelings and human characteristics, a practice once disdained as the pathetic fallacy but which works well for him, as it does more and more in these crazy times for his contemporaries. His descriptive method is a mechanics of action often both natural and surreal, or guardedly hallucinatory in the manner of Latin American verse, though minus the usual blur: stones that gleam with “the warm light of an absent star,” “fish head and man head” on a shore in Spain “communing in their tongue,” small boats with “orange and scarlet hulls, / unblinking eyes / and bared teeth flashing / on the prows,” eventless eventful days among mountains where “the first pale ice-plants dot / the slopes like embroidery.” These suggest for the poet the weight of human contact, or set him to seek those moments of rest always at the edge of things where
like prayer, a kind of nonsense
which becomes the thought of our lives,…
or where he can create elegies to a damaged past, where “the lie is retold in the heart” and “the scars shine” for good:
she married and unmarried
flushed and aborted
The jar that stood so high
and fell away
she showed the words to everyone
he whispered into the dead phone
I’m from Dearborn and I’m drunk
The tenor and power of the language are often colloquial, yet subtly, sparsely musical too. Musical, I suppose, in the traditional sense that the words on the page always await their proper pitch, can only be arranged in a certain way, deviate from the necessary sequence and the mood is not sustained, the melody lost. And that’s important since Levine’s metaphors are not always the strongest, his subject matter can seem repetitive or astringent. One really has to believe what he says, the way the breath shapes its particular truth. And I do (which doesn’t always happen when I read poets).
“Later Still,” the demonic “Children’s Crusade,” and “They Feed They Lion,” “Dark Rings,” “The Poem Circling Hamtramck, Michigan All Night in Search of You,” “Ruth,” “Going Home,” “Zaydee,” “Hold Me,” the unusually psalmic, almost apocalyptic title-poem of his latest book, and from earlier collections, “The Horse” and “The Cemetery at Academy, California”—these seem to me pretty nearly perfect in their distillation and achieved cadence, the structure of the poems often clean as a whistle, but the emotions in them deep and dark as a cave.
Levine, though, has one particular fault. Naturally he’s a master of la belle indifférence, but that sort of stoical orneriness can become, I think, a bit of a trick. A few of the poems, especially those in They Feed They Lion, affect an odd air of concealment and exposure, reminiscent of the American thriller, the taut abrupt tone of Bogart with his buried vein of idealism, the Bogart who says, “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.” It’s that sort of cockiness, and the threatening calm behind it, that makes him laugh at, for instance, what he calls those “twitchnosed academic pants-pisser poets” of the Fifties, or that has him count a bit monotonously the cost and grit of experience, insisting upon its value even while chafing against it, or has him write declamatory phrases that sound great but don’t always make much sense: “I shit handfuls of earth.” Still he’s obviously a rugged burdened animal. The best of his obsessions seem to me always muscular, always authentic, his characteristic posture being, in fact, that of a horse in harness, moving restively backward or sidewise, who balks but endures.
Whitman saying that “to speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movements of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside is the flawless triumph of art”—well of course Levine doesn’t have that invincibility, lacks the sweep and companionability of Whitman’s lines, his orchestrations on the Infinite. Levine is pre-eminently a poet of the finite, of “one more day” or “one more time,” locked in his own sense of fatefulness, his special creed that “each has his life / private and sealed,” whether with others or apart from others; locked too in certain recurring emphases, terms, phrases: fingers, moon, horse cart, hankie, black pit. (Black: If I had a dollar for every time Levine uses that adjective, I’d have more money than I expect to get on my rebate from Ford.)
Yet though his poems are not inclusive, though they are built on a continual narrowing down of sentiment or comment, the incompatibilities in them—the opposition between grievance and balm, fierceness and tenderness, between himself “made otherwise” by another’s pain—do ultimately merge, as they do in Whitman, although not in joyous surrender, but simply of necessity. We learn of the recoveries the poet makes in the dark with the dark, affectionate in his hate, hard in his compassion. Levine is a poet who speaks of “growing up and losing / the strange things we never / understood and settling,” yet who is always drawn to what is most strange, most unsettling. He knows that each experience we have had or we remember denies another experience, another life we might have had and might have remembered in its place. He knows too that great heart, skill, and sorrow are the poet’s weapons, defining the self negatively by what is let go, positively by what is held on to; and then beyond that there is the twilit other world where the negative and the positive seem to be twins of the same coin, where the poet is both victor and victim, and at times blessed because he is both:
In May, like this May, long ago
my tiny Russian Grandpa—the bottle king—
cupped a stained hand under my chin
and ran his comb through my golden hair.
Sweat, black shag, horse turds on the wind,
the last wooden cart rattling down
the alleys, the clop of his great gray mare,
green glass flashing in December sun…
I am the eye filled with salt,
his child climbing the rain, we are
all the moon, the one planet, the hand
of five stars flung on the night river.
Philip Levine lives in California where one out of two marriages ends in divorce, a statistic that would probably have appealed to Whitman and his love of the “open road.” Eleanor Ross Taylor lives in the South, not the South of Governor Wallace crowning a black homecoming queen, or the South of missile centers and crazy police, that “one big armed camp down there” as radicals like to say, but a South that still seems miraculously “rocked in homespun,” where the floors of the houses still smell “seasonround of guano.” It’s a land where an unhappy moment in a garden at evening can appropriately be called “starfall on savagery,” where a “Flagg Bros. store, / With new glass front” or “Falcons and Mustangs” can be dismissed as “bourgeois rot,” where whenever the things of the earth or the heart are ripe you have to pick them, give them—where, too, Whitman could say, as he did say obstreperously up North, “I wear my hat as I please, indoors and out,” and be cherished, not for being a nut, but for the spontaneity of his observation, the spunk of his conviction. During most of my hitch in the army I was stationed in Georgia and Mrs. Taylor’s South was not the South I found. But if it’s not there in fact, it’s there on the page.
Her poems, however, do not affect to “laugh at disillusion” as Whitman the irreverent bachelor did: managing alone is impossible in Mrs. Taylor’s world. Her characters may be separate or inconstant, a mother may moan the loss of her son, a wife may giddily shout, “A husband, more or less! A family, more or less!”—still these people and their lives are always at the farthest remove from isolation. Kinships, legacies, ghostly estates, “a changing and pacing in the rooms of next year” or the year after, a perennial opening and closing of accounts, the injury rates in human affairs—these are the rhythms that shape her world. A throb of pathos, a current of universality seem to run through the poems where we catch all the moments that lie behind us or all the moments that await us, as in a wedding or a funeral, where Mrs. Taylor’s men and women weep for all the brides that have ever been, for all the dead who were once alive.
Far from being sentimental, though, her work, both in spirit and interest, is strict and classical, fastidious even in its verve. It comes out of and sustains, as Randall Jarrell once observed in a marvelous essay on her work, the traditions of the Puritan South, a world as “dualistic as that of Freud.” Yet it is full too of the folkloric or prosaic habits and rites, or the gratuitous, contingent aspects of one’s humanity—one’s compromised humanity especially. If some of the poems seem governed by a gossipy generalized texture, the small, lyric, slightly querulous, at times somewhat histrionic voice of the poet can always be felt. For Mrs. Taylor is a little like a Southern belle who has uncharacteristically read all the big books, thought all the gray thoughts, who is a bit fearful perhaps of expressing grief or depth or the cruel chemical wit of which she is capable, yet who, against “cyclonic gust and chilly rain,” expresses them forth-rightly anyway.
She seems to me better at dramatic monologues, which make up most of her earlier book, Wilderness of Ladies, than she is at dramatic reveries, which make up most of her latest and only other collection, Welcome Eumenides. Either way, though, her poems depend on a sense of character, a coherence of manner and motive, as much as they depend on anything. If they are not readily quotable, demand the full strength of the full context to be faithfully represented, still her virtues can be enumerated easily enough. In “Victory,” one of the best of the new poems, she has a novelist’s eye, Faulkner’s in miniature. In “Buck Duke and Mama,” one of the best of the older ones, she can incorporate bits of stray humor, idiomatic quirkiness, the sort of catchy effect you get in Welty or O’Connor or in Peter Taylor, her husband, but it’s always rare in poetry:
“Don’t drink that Mackling Spring’s brack water
Whe’r it’s high or low.
The cows stand in there and let go.”
She can use words we all know—words like posterity, constellation, kinless, beseech—but rarely use because they might sound too awkward or too grand, but in her poems they almost always hit the proper note. Or she can employ a more exotic grammar—dominie, rheum, disfestooned—yet these do not misbecome her, as she might say, but have a natural sparkle, seem just. Her language always has something going on beneath its lines, even the echoes of nursery tunes, old songs, revivalist hymns, black or redneck chatter contribute to this, add a regional or epigrammatic luster. The meter has its own pace and duration, suggests, as an odd analogy, Schopenhauer’s description of rhythm as melody deprived of pitch; her adjectives and verbs, especially those in her still lifes, project a strange delicacy and weight:
Down underneath where roots
Lose track of seed,
No flowers open and convolve,
No apples madden and exact.
Some of the passages in “Family Bible” have the flat reproachful finality of tombstone inscriptions—and the heartache and hilarity too. They are better, more convincing, I think, than similar stuff in Spoon River Anthology:
My full name is Aminta Dunlap Watkins Ross.
My mother was Merina Wilkerson.
My father was Arnold Watkins—he carpentered—
I married your pa Whitson Ross
My wedding presents were a feath- er bed and two hens.
Other poems are obsessed with disaster, feelings of suffocation, fighting off restraint: a backwoods escapee dreaming he’s gathering tiger lilies from the graves of his pursuers, or the woman in “Goodbye Family,” who before letting the water close round about her and blot out her “flashing translucent spirit” had observed:
Every day I opened the drawer and Scanned the knives;
Were there enough, sharp enough, For all lives?
Principally, though, the poems seem to celebrate life and life’s ways, the firm outline of familial fact coupled with private fancy:
In the morning, early,
Birds flew over the stable,
The morning glories ringed the flapping corn
With Saturn faces for the surly light,
And stars hung on the elder night…
Or celebration against the grain, rejoicing in “the ruin saved for me alone,” or being able to “say finally / I did outdure them all.”
Many of the poems, too, seem to be wise in the way that the old proverbs are wise, poems that know it is better to be invited to herbs with love than to a fatted calf with hatred, poems that may regret life, indeed can and do make judgments against life, against people, but there’s no hostility in them. And that’s rare—considering life, considering people. The characters quarrel with God, are restless among themselves, but the flux has an unusual balance, like water, whose underlying characteristic is patience, so that the wearing away of the spirit occurs slowly, diffidently, the sea wearing away the rocks on a strand. The domestic details are often as exact as in Vermeer, the settings as shapely as in Manet—nothing grandiloquent, nothing askew (though much of the subject matter can appear almost willfully odd). And the figurative presences that shine in her portraits are often there in the manner of Manet saying that the real figure in the painting is the light—the light in Mrs. Taylor’s case being the dignity and sympathy of her response, the clarity of her memory.
Of course her work is peculiar—sometimes too tense, too skittery. Welcome Eumenides is not as conclusive in its impact as is Wilderness of Ladies. A few of the newer lines tend to leap in the air without having first touched ground. Others are so wispy or so austere as to be almost obscure. Her poems in general, I guess, take a while to reveal themselves just as it takes the reader a while to surrender to them. But they are distinctly her own, unlike that of any other American writing. They set their own standard for honesty and wit, for rueful downrightness, for sparkle and restraint few other poets reach. That to my knowledge Eleanor Ross Taylor, who was born in 1920, has never been anthologized, while others who are clearly unworthy to offer her a mint julep have, is simply one of the anomalies of what we humorously call the literary life.
One of Schopenhauer’s stranger ideas is that the will to live is so universal, so strong, that no man can ever really say “I’ll kill myself.” He can of course do away with his body but his “will” goes marching on. This (I suspect) is the old notion of the immortality of the soul in another (and absurd) guise, and beyond that, morally, perhaps vengefully, the conviction that no matter what we can never escape judgment. But it seems to me it’s precisely escaping judgment that the suicide wants and, for all we know, finally achieves. For a suicide is the ultimate bankrupt, he cancels all debts, wipes the slate clean, plays the last trump, what the analysts call the “superlative bid”—he not only dies but sacrifices himself. So what more can one ask?
This fascination with “death and what death invents” or what death erases, with tabula rasa, with “never having been,” is the melody we hear most often, I think, in the poetry of the late Anne Sexton. Sometimes it is barely audible, sometimes it is strident, sometimes it is a sort of fugue contrasting the will to live with the will to die. Sometimes the “music swims back” to the poet and she is less afraid, sometimes soaring on “black wings” it enters a major key, brings forth “good news good news.” But the latter occurrence of course is rare.
Many of the early poems depict intensely introverted states in a highly extroverted style, are desperate in spirit but have a breezy air. Colloquial in statement, clever in juxtapositions, they are sleek too in a certain recurring employment of nuances, rhymes, couplets. The later poems, though, seem to me less commanding, strike dissonant strains, chromatize the keyboard, or become programmatic, a little like Gray’s “moody madness laughing wild amidst severest woe.” And the language suffers. Often in The Book of Folly and The Death Notebooks, and now in her posthumous collection, The Awful Rowing Toward God, the churning of a symbol, the intrusion of a raw memory betray Anne Sexton almost as ludicrously as the ass in the lion’s skin betrayed himself when he began to bray:
I am filling the room
with words from my pen.
Words leak out of it like a miscarriage.
I am zinging words out into the air
and they come back like squash balls…
Anne Sexton often wrote of the cruelty of life and the cruelty of people, particularly the ungiving nature of her parents, yet unlike Sylvia Plath she seems always to have been asking to be forgiven. Plath had a colder heart, perhaps, but wrote fiercer, purer poetry—was indeed a genius. Sylvia Plath refused to forgive the world and there’s always something triumphant about that refusal. Plath is always, as she says, “ready for enormity,” crossing the frontier, with no carols to be sung, no Whitmanian salutations to accompany the hearse—and one has to honor her. Faithful to her demons, she seems, in the end, a conqueror, victorious.
Anne Sexton dealt with the theme of vulnerability directly, bluntly. Also the theme of melancholia, often picturing herself as a “possessed witch,” or speaking of “menstruation at forty,” or laughing at herself as a housewife mixing the martinis. But these highly womanly images were never any match for the presence that really haunted the poems, the specter of herself as a dependent, arrested in the past, the child with the “night mind” or night wound.
When she retreats to the “scene of the disordered senses,” the sanatorium, she has to lecture herself as if she were elsewhere, back with the family: “for this is a mental hospital / not a child’s game”; to her bachelor analyst she’s his “third grader / with a blue star on my forehead”; her fellow patients chew in rows above their plates, these “permanent guests” beset with faces that are “still small / like babies with jaundice”; while the guignol of therapy, “the skull that waits for its dose / of electric power,” assumes the shape of a classroom horror. And even when she becomes a mother herself, Sexton sees it as a means of remaining a daughter, clarifying her childhood or redeeming it:
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it. I made you to find me.
Full of doubts over the essential conventional truths of maturity, she was nonetheless never an iconoclast; always looking for answers she knew she would “die full of questions.” Often she dramatized herself as the unwilling beneficiary of what others would give her (“they gave me your ash and bony shells”) or awarded with what she felt she could not use or didn’t deserve, “the division of money,” her mother’s legacy. In one of the poems she creates a persona for herself, a woman with a bastard child, who represents “sin and nothing more.” Guilty, she gathered “guilt like a young intern / his symptoms, his certain evidence.”
The clinical detail of many of the poems has often been remarked, but the guilt is really of the old nether world, invented long before Freud, and it is in that world that her repeated suicide attempts occur which are always unforgivable (” ‘I cannot forgive your suicide,’ my mother said. / And she never could”). The guilt is there, most condemnatory, in the remembered deaths of her parents, which are always the real deaths of her life: watching over her mother as she lay dying of cancer, “blown up, at last, / like a pregnant pig,” her daughter seeming to be her mother’s “dreamy evil eye,” or recalling her father, “a cured old alcoholic” who went out “on crooked feet and useless hands.”
Later the sense of guilt attempts to move away from the embodiment of her parents as earthly judges, agonizes a bit over the possibility that her father was not her “real father” (a concern also strikingly illustrated in two of the short stories she wrote during her last years, which are far better than the later poems), and finally fastens on some sort of heavenly intercession. Not the earlier panoply of Christ and Lent and Crucifix, but instead a cyclopic or totemic god, a god who appears to be grotesquely as “large as a sunlamp,” whose universe includes a manic America, a moon that has a “naggy voice,” and a sky out of which dogs jump.
These poems, irreverently called “psalms,” are, no doubt, deliberately horrific, meant to zap the Almighty, paradoxically to assuage the terrors or mock them. But Anne Sexton’s sense of violence was always faltering. Violence seems never to have enhanced her work as it did that of Mishima and Plath. With these figures there’s an objectification or theatricalization of the body—Plath and her “Greek ritual,” Mishima’s head severed with the single stroke of a sword—that’s not apparent in Sexton. The murderous impulses that lie buried in her work always verge on the lurid or the awkward; the cry of “my hungers! my hungers!” is a cry of absence, of feelings that can neither be named nor stanched. The flute player in Live or Die, whose eerie music intoxicates the poet, is a dwarf with an “enormous misshapen mouth,” who sits in a cave, “a great hole in the earth,” with its “tons of suffocating dirt,” the distance in which his listener must enter in order to be fed.
Nietzsche says, speaking of the creativity of the artist, that “one does not get over a passion by representing it, rather it is over when one is able to represent it.” But that when Sexton, I believe, never fully reached. Beneath the recklessness of so much of her language there’s always a strange passivity, a great unknowingness or fear. In the brittle, excitable music of the last poems, including those of The Awful Rowing Toward God, the theme of stability often sounds, the poet admonishing herself to put a pot of soup on the stove and “light up the cave.” But Anne Sexton’s sensibility always went the other way. For her poems are never about how to gain things or how to consolidate things, but about how to get rid of what she already has, how to lose friends, home, children, lovers, how indeed to move backward, to hold death in her arms “like a child,” the “death baby,” with the “glass eye, ice eye,” to be “wedded to my teddy,” to bed down against the “stony head of death,” to inherit, in other words, her parents’ graves, and there finally to be forgiven—that is to say, forgotten, unreflective and unreflecting.
Her best poems—poems like “Flee on Your Donkey,” “To Lose the Earth,” “Letter Written on a Ferry While Crossing Long Island Sound”—are delicate, visceral, poignant. The throes of a dire need run through them. Others, less successful, are a diary of scars where the reader can discern his own. But good or bad, because the protagonist is so often so dreadfully unhappy they are poems one can never take lightly.
Yet reading her one has to ask: is it really unhappiness that kills? I would doubt it. Unhappiness steadies one usually, if it does anything, adds gravity to what’s inevitable or implacable. What kills, I think, is something simpler and deeper, the horror, as Anne Sexton knew again and again, of being unable to see or feel clearly, to be always, as she says, only part way back from Bedlam; that inability to “for once make a deliberate decision,” to arrive at no conclusions whatever except the most desperate of all. It’s the sense of the fragmentary that buries us, because things don’t connect, so we don’t add up, we become useless to ourselves and to others.
With Sexton life seems a sort of “trick,” even sickness becomes something one no longer has “the knack of.” “Bells,” “lighthouse,” “Clorox and Duz,” “sixteen-in-the-pants,” “bedside radio,” “cash” and “car keys”—these emblems of the everyday became for her signs of the disfavored or disfigured, the unrealized. Nor did having a “career,” being an “ambition bird,” honored in a way Levine and Taylor have never been, seem to ease her plight. It’s as she says in one of her earliest poems, which points to all the later ones, where the people at Atlantic City are sitting around praying for “impossible loves,” for “a new skin,” for “another child,” or are playing at the gaming tables of Reno where they never win, waiting for the lost ingredient, like waiting for Godot, whose absence must keep them incomplete:
Today is made of yesterday, each time I steal
toward rites I do not know, waiting for the lost
ingredient, as if salt or money or even lust
would keep us calm and prove us whole at last.
April 3, 1975