by birth, residence, and sensibility, David Lehman is most often associated with the new york school of poets, whose lives and work he has chronicled in books and essays. His poetry evokes the irony and wit of that earlier generation, but it more directly engages the immediacies of everyday life in a media-saturated, technological society where values and relationships grow ever more complex and difficult to articulate. Praised by critic Robert Schultz for his "associative exuberance" and "ear for the jargons which exhibit contemporary truth and folly" (508), Lehman attempts to balance formal stylistic concerns against an impulse toward spontaneity.
The son of Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled Europe, Lehman was raised in upper Manhattan. He holds advanced degrees from Cambridge and from Columbia University, where he studied with Kenneth koch. He has held teaching positions at Cornell, Hamilton, Wells, and the New School University. Among his awards are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1987) and the Guggenheim Foundation (1989). Series editor of the Best American Poetry annual, Lehman has published seven volumes of poetry, including An Alternative to Speech (1986), Operation Memory (1990), Valentine Place (1996), and The Evening Sun (2002).
For all their cleverness and wordplay, Lehman's earlier poems address serious matters, such as the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and the dynamics of love and marriage, often at length, and frequently contained within elaborate variations on received forms, including villanelles, pantoums, and sestinas (see prosody and free verse). Margaret Holley discerns a distance between the poet and his subjects and states that "this poetry of ultimate seriousness is heavily laced with insouciance" (152), while Wesley McNair observes that the poet's polished craft is nonetheless tuned to "the continual transition and perplexities of postmodern experience" (677).
Inspired by the lunch poems of Frank o'hara, Lehman began keeping a daily journal in verse to capture authentically life's quotidian flux, a project that resulted in The Daily Mirror (2000) and continued through The Evening Sun, in which he writes "I'm taking jazz as / a second language" ("March 23"), and indeed the work exudes jazzs improvisational spirit. The gravity in any given poem can shift from light to heavy in the space of a pun, as when a satirically depicted married couple must ruminate on their estranged condition for hours "before the remorse code / is deciphered, repealed" ("January 12").
Less formally constrained and more overtly personal than their predecessors, these poems casually allude to friends, family, popular music, films, and sports, creating a singular tapestry that vibrantly depicts the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of American life.
Holley, Margaret. "Myth in Our Midst: The Multiple Worlds of the Lyric." Michigan Quarterly Review 32.1 (winter 1993): 150-164. McNair, Wesley. "Craft and Technique: Four Poets." Michigan Quarterly Review 36.4 (fall 1997): 668-682. Schultz, Robert. "One Retrospective, Four Sequels, and Three Debuts." Hudson Review 49.3 (autumn 1996): 503-520.
LEITHAUSER, BRAD (1953- ) The primary feature of Brad Leithauser's poems is a passion for prosodic experimentation (see prosody and free verse), and he has lamented what he sees as a decline in "metrical literacy" in American poetry of the last several decades (41). His writing, in which the influences of such poets as Donald hall, Robert lowell, and Elizabeth bishop, as well as Gerard Manly Hopkins and A. E. Housman, may be discerned, displays formal mastery and a meticulous attention to form's possibilities, particularly how form relates to intonation and the sounds and cadences of spoken language.
Leithauser was born in Detroit, Michigan. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and he has written six novels as well as four volumes of poetry and a book of essays. He is editor of the Norton
Anthology of Ghost Stories. Among the many awards and honors he has received is a MacArthur Fellowship (1983). He has taught at Mount Holyoke College.
An expansive poet who often finds metaphors in mathematics and natural science and rhythms in everything from common speech to songs by George Gershwin, Leithauser writes with a wonderful combination of scholarship, a microscopic eye for detail, and a gentle but incisive sense of humor. A sensuous, naturalistic, frequently pastoral imagery is typical of his poems. In his poem "Small Waterfall" (1998), for instance, he neatly conveys the sense of a little waterfall with short phrases that tumble one into the next, breaking off in midstream and regathering, with rhymes splashed throughout to bring continuity and likeness to the lines, as in: "stumbling on this small, all-but-forest-swallowed waterfall." The poem also exemplifies his interest in correlating natural images and phenomena with the psychic "landscapes" of people, as it goes on to liken the waterfall to his wife, the poet Mary Jo SALTER, to whom the poem is addressed, calling both cataract and woman "a thing that flows and goes / and stays, self-propelled and -replacing."
In "Plus the Fact of You" (1995), a seamless interchange of personal and environmental details again creates a sense of the sensuous and the cerebral as interchangeable, as the poem's speaker muses sleepily on a day of hiking and wonders, "Why at night do numbers clamor so," as he finds himself counting his partner's breaths. This interplay, as much as his tireless attention to meter and intonation, is at the heart of what makes Leithauser's work inventive and captivating. Leithauser proves that careful attention to form can liberate and give substance to an image or idea; his poems reveal a genuine delight in images and the tireless connections the mind makes among them.
Gwynn, R. S. "A Field Guide to Poetics of the '90s," Expansive Poetry and Music Online. Available online. URL: http://home.earthlink.net/~arthur505/cult1096.html. Downloaded April 19, 2003. Leithauser, Brad. "Metrical Illiteracy." New Criterion 1.5 (January 1983): 41-46.
LEVERTOV, DENISE (1923-1997) Denise Levertov is considered a member of the black mountain school of poets, even though she never attended the college. Her friends Charles olson, Robert creeley, and Robert duncan influenced her work, but it is William Carlos WILLIAMS whom she most closely followed formally. Her poetry combines public and private experience, dealing with private issues, such as love, solitude, divorce, marriage, and motherhood, as well as with some of the major public events of her times, including the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, and AIDS. Often praised as a master of free verse (see prosody and free verse), she stressed the role of craft in poetry, and many of her essays, such as "Some Notes on Organic Form," first published in 1965, have become classics of contemporary poetic theory. Although her poetic voice is simple, it relies on concrete images and clear language to provide insight into everyday experience.
Levertov, originally spelled Levertoff, was born in Ilford, Essex, England. She was the daughter of a Russian Jew who converted to become an Anglican priest. Raised in a bookish home, she was educated privately. Her mother read 19th-century novels and poetry to her, and her father provided her with a religious education. Levertov's desire to become a poet came early. At age 12 she sent T. S. eliot several of her poems, and she received from a him a two-page letter of encouragement. During World War II she was a nurse in London, and soon afterward she married the American writer Mitchell Goodman and had a son. Goodman introduced her to Creeley, and she soon came to know Olson, Duncan, and Williams. In 1948 she immigrated to the United States, and by 1955, when she became a U.S. citizen, her poetic style had become Americanized. She served as the poetry editor for the Nation (1961,1963-65) and Mother Jones (1975-78), and she also taught creative writing at, among other schools, Drew University, Vassar College, University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University. Among her awards are the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1976) and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America (1984). Along with being a poet, an essayist, and editor, she translated works from French and Spanish and was active in political protest.
Her first book, Double Image (1946), was published in London and provides an example of the neoroman-tic tendencies of English poetry of its period. Levertov is remembered primarily for her American works, starting with Here and Now (1957) and Overland to the Islands (1958). These works contain tightly crafted lyrics that display most of her major themes: love, mysticism, marriage, imagination, inspiration, the poet's craft, and solitude. In many of the poems, she presents domestic situations through fresh viewpoints. For example, in "The Gypsy's Window" (1957), she presents plates, paper roses, and a vase as places where there is "the chance of poetry." Also in these early volumes she presents her concerns with religion. In the tradition of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, she presents religious ideas through her personal experience. In her early works she displays an agnostic worldview, portraying her mystic visions often through nature or her ancestors. For example, in "Illustrious Ancestors" (1958), she mentions "Angel Jones of Mold, whose meditations / were sewn into coats and britches." Angel Jones, a tailor, connects to the divine through daily events and through physical touch, just as Levertov wishes to do through her poetry. Throughout her work Levertov tied her personal experience closely to the poem's formal qualities, since she believed that form is an expression of perception. In "Some Notes on Organic Form," she states that the poet is "brought to speech" by an experience (68), which brings the words of the poem as a perception: "the metric movement, the measure, is the direct expression of the movement of perception" (71).
By the late 1960s Levertov became concerned with the Vietnam War. She wrote poetry, was active in protests, and even traveled to Vietnam along with Muriel rukeyser to present the voice of a writer against the war. Many contemporary critics condemned her work during this period as overly polemical. Even some of her most supportive critical allies, such as Majorie Perloff, questioned her work. In "Poetry, Prophecy, and Survival," Levertov argues that poetry must deal with the horrors of the period, because the imagination makes the events understandable: "The intellect by itself may point out the source of suffering; but the imagination illuminates it; by that light it becomes more comprehensible" (145). Even in her war poetry, Levertov addresses public experiences through personal perceptions. For example, in "Life at War" (1967), she speaks about her experience of Vietnam: "We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives, / our lungs are pocked with it." She stresses the personal effect of the war on her and on her imagination. Although her volume Footprints (1972) marked a turn away from political poetry as a primary concern, she continued to provide a poetry of witness for the rest of her life, writing about such subjects as El Salvador, the Gulf War, and the nuclear arms race.
With her collections after the Vietnam War, such as Life in the Forest (1975), Candles in Babylon (1978), Oblique Prayers (1981), and Breathing the Water (1984), Levertov returned to many of her earlier themes but with looser forms. Through close perception of daily experiences, her later work provides insight into the importance of such acts, but it also presents the mystery inherent within objects. The poet finds God in everyday experience and objects, as in "The Task" (1981): "God's in the wilderness next door / —that huge tundra room, no walls and a sky roof." In these collections Levertov also discusses the importance of inspiration. In "A Poet's View" (1984), she states that to believe in inspiration "is to live with a door of one's life open to the transcendent. . . . The concept of 'inspiration' presupposes a power which enters the individual and is not a personal attribute" (241). These collections contain various explorations of religious belief and doubt, and they point to the major concerns of her later poetry.
Evening Train (1990) signals her last period, in which her work is permeated by Christianity and nature. After becoming a Christian in the 1980s, Levertov explored her preoccupation with religion through prominent Christian figures, such as Caedmon, Saint Peter, Saint Julian, and Saint Thomas Didymus. In "Candlemas" she presents Simeon's experiences: "Simeon opened / ancient arms / to infant light." In this poem Levertov portrays, as she often does in her later poems, the importance of faith and revelation, which she ties to poetic inspiration. Frequently, in her later poems, she explores the mystery of everyday experience, and she also discusses the relation between humans and nature.
Much like the British romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, she presents nature as something almost imperceptible that changes us slightly for the better: she attempts to describe this process of betterment.
Ultimately Levertov's poetry is one of communion and witness—to contemporary atrocities and to the divine. Through witness she reminds us what it means to be human; moreover, her close examination of the details of life's pains, successes, beauties, and mysteries point toward an understanding of and provide means of coping with the complexity of life.
Colclough Little, Anne, and Susie Paul, eds. Denise Levertov: New Perspectives. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 2000.
Gelpi, Albert, ed. Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. Levertov, Denise. "A Poet's View." New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, pp. 239-246.
--. "Poetry, Prophecy, Survival." New & Selected Essays.
New York: New Directions, 1992, pp. 143-153.
--. "Some Notes on Organic Form." New & Selected
Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, pp. 67-73. Marten, Harry. Understanding Denise Levertov. Columbia:
University of South Carolina Press, 1988. Wagner-Martin, Linda. Denise Levertov. New York: Twayne, 1967.
LEVINE, PHILIP (1928- ) Philip Levme's best-known poetry deals with working-class themes in an industrial setting, frequently the Detroit of his upbringing. Yet, because Levine's verse honors the endurance of the human spirit in the midst of harsh exterior conditions, he could best be described as a poet of humanity in general, endowing the silenced with voices that transcend material circumstance. Influenced by the expansive verse of Walt Whitman and, to a lesser extent, William Carlos WILLIAMS, Levine's early poems contain a carefully controlled, rhythmic energy expressive of personal and collective freedom. Levine's recent poems take on a quiet, conversational tone; they are somewhat less controlled than the climatic chants of his first volumes, and in them fury is replaced with rev erence. A characteristic intensity of emotion as well as a subsequent break with traditional forms place Levine among those poets of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including several poets of post-coNFESSlONAL and deep image poetry, responsible for a second flowering of romanticism in American verse.
Born in Detroit, Levine worked many blue-collar jobs and was educated at Wayne State University. In his twenties, Levine left Michigan to attend the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was influenced by Robert lowell and John berryman. Since then Levine has received various grants while also teaching at California State University, Fresno. He has published 17 collections of poetry. Throughout his career, Levine's work has consistently gained critical recognition in American arts and letters. Ashes: Poems Old and New (1979), an exploration of Jewish heritage, earned the first American Book Award for poetry. Levine's newer work continues to gain acclaim: What Work Is (1991) received the National Book Award, and The Simple Truth (1994) won the Pulitzer Prize.
Similar to the work of many poets who began their careers in the 1950s and early 1960s, the formal character of Levine's early poetry eventually gave way to a looser, more conversational technique. His first volume, On the Edge (1963), deals with working-class themes in a tightly controlled iambic pentameter, leading many critics to remark on the incongruence between content and form. Not until the publication of Not This Pig (1968), written in free verse, does Levine arrive at what is generally cited as his mature style. In "Animals Are Passing through Our Lives," the speaker is an actual pig that maintains a fierce dignity when facing the blades of the slaughterhouse. The pig's last utterance, "No. Not this Pig," encourages a succinct, yet profound connection to Levine's primary sacrificial animal, the American laborer.
They Feed They Lion (1972) is generally considered most representative of Levines working-class poetry. Its frequently anthologized title poem grew out of the Detroit riots of 1967. In the poem the colloquial title phrase transforms into a forceful litany as Levine's displacement of the word lion signifies the rising anger of those thrust into the industrial North in search of work. Finally, the anger of those who have come "out of the gray hills / of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride," culminates in release. Here Levine subversive ly celebrates the communal release of the laborers' rage, "They Lion," otherwise kept in check by the system.
Levine's next few volumes can be loosely characterized as belated elegies dedicated to his father and other close family members. The poems written during this period make a general transition out of anger and rage toward a more compassionate outlook on humanity. one of Levine's most expressive poems from this period is "You Can Have It" (1979). Here Levine's 20-year-old twin brother, made prematurely old by his job at an ice plant, "dies when he sleeps / and sleeps when he rises to face this life." In other words, the brother is physically and spiritually exhausted from his job. Levine employs repetition to sum up the whole of his brother's experience; "You can have it" is the poem's refrain.
While continuing to focus on the importance of memory, Levine's recent verse more explicitly tests the ability of language—particularly poetic language—to capture middle- and working-class experience. As a result, his poems have become increasingly more accessible. A Walk with Thomas Jefferson (1988) and What Work Is (1991) continue to address personal memories and American work with free verse narrative. In these volumes, one can also sense Levine's continued investment in the knowledge to be gained from personal experience. In "What Work Is," Levine recalls waiting in line for work outside of the Ford Highland Plant. Frequently addressing his readers throughout, Levine encourages their participation in the shaping of the poem. In his aim to make poetry useful in our daily lives, Levine reminds his readers of the poetic subject matter residing inside of them. As Levine writes about personal memories in "The Simple Truth" (1994), sometimes "they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme." Though he often displays a certain self-effacement—a skepticism that resembles how one of his characters might regard poetry—Levines continued devotion to the craft exhibits his faith in the transformative potential of poetry.
Buckley, Christopher, A. "A Conversation with Philip
Levine." Quarterly West 43 1996-97: 267-276. --., ed. On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.
Hirsch, Edward. "The Visionary Poetics of Philip Levine and Charles Wright." In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Megan Swihart Jewell
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