blackbirdonline journalFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
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back GREGORY DONOVAN  |  18th Annual Levis Prize

The Self and the Soul:
Yeats, Eliot, Levis, and “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage”

[eds. note: The audio version may contain extemporized material that is not reproduced in the text provided to us for publication.]

In writing a poem, what is the role of the personal life versus the larger cultural and historical aspects of a poet’s knowledge? In an era when identity politics seem to dominate the national conversation not only on the internet but in the news, when many poets are involved with what a recent article called “a new movement in American poetry  . . . the poetry of social engagement,” can there be an aesthetic balance point between the merely personal and a cultural perspective that might stand outside of time? The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who was clearly a significant influence on Larry Levis, believed that great poetry relied on the fully awakened tension between those two poles. On the one hand, Yeats asserted that “a poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness,” yet in the same sentence he went on to add that the poet “never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria.” For Yeats, that phantasmagoria is not only the imagined audience of readers addressed by the poet in his own time, but also a much larger ghostly audience which arises from many eras and occupies an extensive mythic landscape that crosses cultural and temporal boundaries. That larger consciousness is what Yeats called the Spiritus Mundi or “World Spirit,” which he defined as “a universal memory and a ‘muse’ of sorts that provides inspiration to the poet or writer.”

In his late great poem, “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage,” Larry Levis takes on the complex aesthetic task of balancing the personal and the mythic, of weaving them into a braided narrative that seeks out their entwined interdependence as he enacts a search for identity and connection while operating under the pressure of the ultimate erasure guaranteed by time. While it is an inescapable truth that all poets work in the shadow and under the influence of all the poets and poetries that have gone before them, two famous poems from the modernist era in particular may be identified as “ancestor poems” to the Levis poem.

One is The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, a poem that seeks to encompass all that ailed a modern society shattered by the enormous costs in human life, on a scale previously unknown, that not only resulted from the First World War, an unprecedented global conflict during 1914–1918 in which more than 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians died, but also the Great Flu Epidemic which followed on its heels in 1918, a plague which infected 500 million people across the world, resulting in an estimated 50 to 100 million deaths—thus killing three to five percent of the world’s population—one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. The destructive psychological effects of these cataclysms were explored in Eliot’s “Waste Land” poem, which involved a hero quest and a ritual sacrifice, but despite the poem’s attempt by Eliot to shore “these fragments . . . against my ruins,” the poem concludes not with a healing, but instead with a sense of judgment and finality that calls for transcendence rather than enacting any sort of triumph.

Eliot’s poem begins rather darkly with an epigraph taken from the Satyricon of Petronius, a Roman erotic satire about the misadventures of a former gladiator and his young male lover. The epigraph tells the story of the Sibyl, a woman whose loveliness attracted the attention of Apollo, who offered to grant her any wish, and although she asked to live for as many years as there were grains in a handful of dust, she forgot to ask for eternal youth, and so over the centuries, she wasted away until she was so tiny that she could be kept in a birdcage. The start of Eliot’s poem includes the line, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” It is no accident that Levis’s elegiac poem includes the story of the Sibyl of Cumae.

Another poem that stands behind the Levis poem is Yeats’s “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” in which Yeats allows the Soul to represent the transcendent, the eternal, the infinite, the visionary aspect, while the Self stands for the earthy embrace of the cycles of time, the engagement with bodily existence and with natural forces of birth and decay. When Yeats described his own poem in a letter to a friend, he said that it “is a choice of rebirth rather than deliverance from birth.”

And speaking as the Self, to whom Yeats gives the longest and last word in his “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” he refuses to renounce his life and all the errors he has made, including “The folly that man does / Or must suffer, if he woos / A proud woman not kindred of his soul,” and he instead renounces remorse and thus experiences a “great . . . sweetness” that allows the Self ultimately to comprehend that “Everything we look upon is blest.”

While in the Yeats poem, the poet speaks as the Self and refuses the Buddhist salvation of enlightenment, of freedom from the endless cycling of existence, and yet achieves a kind of sweetness in the acceptance of all the errors of the Self, including errors of affection, the Levis poem may appear to be closer to the less clearly affirmative nature of The Waste Land by Eliot—but in fact, the Levis poem goes in two different directions at once, reaching toward a saving intimacy even as it admits that the hope for connection, which the narrator might have held onto, nevertheless has probably receded “into the irretrievable.” And so the Levis poem leaves us in suspense between those two poles, between the saving possibility of profound and intimate human connection and the likelihood that we will all end in a profound isolation and searing alienation of the kind the Sibyl experienced, a place where nothing calls to you anymore, and you share her wish for a simple, total, and final escape.

And here is that poem by Larry Levis:

[“Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage,” Larry Levis, 1997.]  end  

Gregory Donovan, a senior editor of Blackbird, is the author of the poetry collection Torn from the Sun (Red Hen Press, 2015) and Calling His Children Home (University of Missouri Press, 1993), a collection that won the Devins Award for Poetry. With the writer/director Michele Poulos, he is a producer of A Late Style of Fire, a feature-length documentary on the life and work of Larry Levis. Donovan is a faculty member in Virginia Commonwealth University’s graduate creative writing program. His commentary on the work of Larry Levis is an annual feature at the Levis Prize event.

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