One Strand of Significance in the Work of d.a. levy

by Charles Potts

The historical record reads pale compared to the literal pain and thrust of living through it. I mention this because I have never quite been able to get across exactly what the sixties were like to people who didn't experience them. For example trying to explain levy's life and death to people who've never heard of the subject, they can't seem to believe it when I say, he was arrested for reading poetry in a church. Time present nearly forty years after, what passes for American culture has become so resolutely fascist with its assault commerce, its multiple colonial wars, so disconnected, one part from another, and so multifarious, so global in its end put, the generalizations required to attach a simulated cohesion to it render most attempts to analyze it trivial and misleading.

Making sense requires sticking to cases. In 1971 I wrote a poem for d.a. levy entitled "Too Late" for obvious reasons which commenced with:

Too late I realize that you alone among us
Insisted publicly on forcing primary gains

This couplet has always seemed to me to contain a strong compliment and a faint, less prominent castigation. There's a lot to cover here. What is force? What is the difference between primary and secondary gains anyway? What does it mean to insist? Where is the public and who are they? "I love people but I hate the public," said the psychologist Deborah DuNann Winter. How does forcing primary gains differ from accepting secondary gains? Give me an example. The mari jew wanna 1/4ly. Busting up the language into constituent parts. Direct drug references. UKANHAVYRFUCKINCITIBAK. This is a poem in a title, a great vernacular sentence, poetry as the "spoken" word.

Who is "us" in the first line of poetry? I had in mind besides myself and Litmus, poet/publishers such as Richard Krech of Avalanche magazine and Undermine Press; John Oliver Simon of Aldebaran Review;, Douglas Blazek of Olé; D.R. Wagner of The Runcible Spoon; Jan Kepley and mel buffington of Blitz; plus a cast of thousands that don't spring readily to mind, as well as all of levy's cohort in Cleveland including T.L. (Tom) Kryss, as well as Dave Wagner, Jon Reilly etal in Madison. If the rest of us were not forcing primary gains in public, what were we doing or attempting to do, really?

I reprinted two of levy's poems from the Collected Poems edition from Jon Reilly's Druid Press in Pacific Northwestern Spiritual Poetry. I've deflected flack for including poets not certified as bona fide Northwesterners, which I suppose would include levy, by a University of Idaho creative writing maven. But PNSP is not a regional anthology, some place where poetry came to die when the University of Washington hired the crackpot Theodore Roethke. Think of PNSP as a dowsing rod, a discovery of the direction poetry was taking, indications of a tectonic shift, a movement in other words away from formalities, niceties and the American nightmare itself. "i will hate America for the rest/ of my life," levy wrote in the poem "i found it at the movies (or)/ hummmmed-off in a laundro-mat" thinking about his friends in jail. Make no mistake, 1968 was a wonderful year for the establishment all around the world, in Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, and all across the United States. The establishment looked at the heartbreaking idealism, moral clarity and commitment of the young and said, FUCK YOU, we're going to keep doing things the way we've always done them and if you get in the way expect to get run over or killed. The other levy poem in PNSP is a paean to his father entitled "new year" and concerns among other things how poor Jews are treated by the rich Jews.

The world-wide youth rebellion in 1968 was all about primary gains. Insisting on making them can get you killed and leads to death, of movements and individuals. Forty years later we huddle over a little pile of poetry, brimming with the truth. A gain? Of what dimension, what kind? I gave a speech and a poetry reading in Gwuangju, Korea in 2006, the subject matter among other things was Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, a book I sold a lot of copies of to the young who frequented The Temple Bookstore. I sold it with the caveat, be careful with this volatile material. If you take it seriously it can get you killed. It got Gandhi killed, it got Martin Luther King Jr. killed. Thoreau wrote the book and went to jail on principle, objecting when Emerson bailed him out. Primary gains; how to get them.

Bringing levy's work back into print for second innings is a good sign. Can the lovers of levy's work get it all the way across into the general culture? And what will it take to achieve that? And what will it mean if we do? Is the work doing it by itself, with a little help from its friends? Shall we insist? Which parts of levy's career and behavior are worth emulating? I can think of three other friends, Chris Boyd of Freddie's Feed and Read, the poets Bruce Embree and Scott Preston, all suicides. Death just stops the output, it doesn't improve it a single iota. Emulate the commitment; eschew the romance of suicide.

"We always have the past to look forward to," says the artist Robert McNealy. Vincent Ferrini, the city poet of Gloucester, Massachusetts, made an impassioned plea at the first Walla Walla Poetry Party in 1990, to reinforce our relevance and our service, to pick a city, or a neighborhood, and become the voice of that place. Did levy pick Cleveland or did Cleveland pick levy? My ultimate unease with levy must be related to his lack of the gene to lighten up. Having and keeping all four things in place at all times and in all instances, "Insisted publicly on forcing primary gains," seems like a recipe for disaster. We need a compliment of editors to salvage something durable from the work and separate it from the disaster of his unnecessary suicide. I keep running on to scintillating insights, "I have a city to cover with lines" but the famous "public" won't take the time to conduct a scavenger hunt. A great favor will be done to levy's reputation which ultimately will rest on only the very best when it is sorted from the rest and put before its potential readers where its unmistakable power and beauty will be irrefutable.


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