American poet Larry Levis, born September 30th 1946 in Fresno California, grew up enjoying a rural life of tractor driving and tending grapevines. These experiences, among the Mexican migrant workers on the family farm and later among the tough steel-workers, would influence much of his semi-surrealist poetry. The California landscape in particular would come to have a deep and lasting effect on his writing. Levis said,
Levis’ first book, Wrecking Crew, was in 1972 and won the United States Award from the International Poetry Forum. Far from focussing on his beloved California landscape, the book opens a window on the bad things which can happen in life, like war, rape and death. The work, containing mainly short poems, was described as ‘overtly political’ and was perhaps an example of Levis still trying to find his style as a poet. He included The Poem You Asked For in his first collection and it seems to be a good example of a poet struggling to formulate his style. Here are the opening lines:
Levis acknowledged that he changed his writing as he went on and admitted that his second collection, The Afterlife, was less political and more personal. Though some critics found this book slightly disappointing it nevertheless was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. His writing continued the prize-winning theme when his 1981 book The Dollmaker’s Ghost won the Open Competition of the National Poetry Series. This third book is regarded as some of Levis’s best writing, considered mature and artful in his presentation of his understanding of the human condition and the world around him.
In common with many writers, Levis devoted a large chunk of his life to study. He obtained a Bachelor’s Degree from Fresno State College in 1968, a Master’s Degree in 1970 from Syracuse University and a PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974. He went on to teach English at the University of Missouri for six years up to 1980, then directed a creative writing program at the University of Utah for twelve years to 1992. From 1970 onwards Levis had carved out a career in Academia and held several teaching and lecturing positions at professor level. For the last four years of his life, 1992 to 1996, he was a Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University which, to this day, bestows an annual award in his memory – the Levis Reading Prize. In addition to his educational career and poetry writing Levis was the co-editor of the Missouri Review from 1977 to 1980 and contributed to several poetry publications, mostly in the 1970s and 80s.
Larry Levis died May 8th 1996 from a heart attack in Richmond, Virginia. A collection of his poems, called Elegy, was published posthumously in 1997.