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Gary Lehmann

Where do poems come from?

                Ask poets where their poems come from, and you will get as wide a range of answers as there are poems.  For some, the ideas start to flow when simple experience becomes complicated by the natural arrival of richly evocative association patterns.   For others, it starts with an ambiguous event which suggests some ironic possibilities.  Some poets start with an emotion, some with a sound or smell, some with a word.
                Many poets, perhaps most, eventually get around to mentioning the power of dreams in the creative process.   Anthony Hecht, Edward Hirsch, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, and Richard Wilbur, amongst many others, attribute to the operation of the unconscious the unique ability to deepen and extend their work.   It feels to them as if poetry and dreams are parallel languages which bespeak compressed emotional-laden messages across confused seas of experience.   In dreams, as in poetry, ideas take on a physical manifestation.  They assume symbolic significance and give rise to deep imagery.   Sometimes the best poems emerge from what seems at first to be pure ambiguity.   In the midst of all this chaos, a clear shining vision arises that compels the words off the tip of the pen.      
                It makes sense that there might be a correlation between dreams and poems.  Both create representations of truth based on deeply-held emotions.   Many poets write in images, because their dreams begin as pictures which slowly reveal themselves as feelings in disguise as people, objects, or events.  Some people dream in pictures, some in color. 
                Sometimes, I dream in words.  The sound of the word floats around in my dreams like a pure idea.  Each word takes on phrases as it floats through an emotional soup and slowly it turns into whole sentences, with rhythms and even rhymes attaching themselves along the way.   Not infrequently, I wake up with entire poems completely written sitting at the tip of my conscious mind.  This usually follows a period during which I have been thinking about writing a poem on a certain subject.  It takes the power of dreams to assemble it for me.  Over the years, I have learned to keep a pen and paper by my bed so I can capture these words exactly as I strike consciousness.  Any interruption can jar my mind enough that the whole poem evaporates.
                In a 1998 essay later published in a book entitled Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams, edited by Roderick Townley, Philip Levine reported having similar experiences.  He was reading Thomas Hardy day and night to try to break the thrall Hart Crane had over his style.  It was going badly until one morning he woke up with a whole new poem which he composed in his sleep, a perfect little redaction of Thomas Hardy’s essence.   The poem was not one of his best, but the method stuck.
                The importance of dreams in the construction of poetry is not so hard to understand really.  We all need the help of our unconscious minds to overcome the settled tendencies of our conscious minds to resist necessary new directions.   Levine was trying to find a more authentic voice for his poetry and needed the power of his subconscious mind to help him discover what was genuinely his own.
                Levine was born in 1928 in Detroit to a working class family.   His father died when he was five, and his mother worked a full-time job to support her family.  Levine was an ungovernable child, who roamed the streets and learned the ways of the world from the bottom of the social ladder.  His family is Jewish, and at age 14, he discovered that Detroit could be “the most anti-Semitic city west of Munich.”  He attended public schools and Wayne University, which was later renamed Wayne State University.  He envisioned himself “a tiny Walt Whitman going among powerful, uneducated people.”     When he graduated, he yearned to write poetry, but economic realities forced him into the auto factories and onto the line.  
                He wondered how he could possibly compete writing odd scraps of poems in stolen moments with the pampered elite of the Ivy Leagues who had nothing better to do than critique each other’s ideas and bounce their rough drafts off the best minds in the nation.   So, he decided to run away and learn from the best at the Ames Writing Center at the University of Iowa.  When his scholarship fell through, he went anyway and just dodged his professors’ questions about why his name never appeared on the official list of students. He went on through a number of fine teachers to study Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, and William Carlos Williams.
                At one point, he had a dream in which he received a phone call for help from an old Detroit buddy.  He was all but begging him for an invitation to visit, but Levine steadfastly refused.   This dream haunted him for years, almost ten years, until he came to realize that the work-a-day world he hated in Detroit was really his natural carrot patch.    In his rush to be accepted by his fellow poets, he had drifted away from the working men he admired and knew.            
                “I felt I had betrayed him,” Levine recalled of his imaginary caller in the dream in an interview with Guy Shahar, editor of The Cortland Review.   “It probably was a warning that I should welcome back into myself all those people that had meant so much to me, and write about them.” He did and it mattered.  “The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry.” Here is an example.
    The Two
    When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
    outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He's tired,
    a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
    on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
    on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
    has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
    The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives
    nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
    and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.
    The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided
    what to become. The traffic light at Linwood
    goes from red to green and the trucks start up,
    so that when he says, "Would you like to eat?"
    she hears a jumble of words that mean nothing,
    though spiced with things she cannot believe,
    "wooden Jew" and "lucky meat." He's been up
    late, she thinks, he's tired of the job, perhaps tired
    of their morning meetings, but when he bows
    from the waist and holds the door open
    for her to enter the diner, and the thick
    odor of bacon frying and new potatoes
    greets them both, and taking heart she enters
    to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke
    to see if "their booth" is available.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no
    second acts in America, but he knew neither
    this man nor this woman and no one else
    like them unless he stayed late at the office
    to test his famous one liner, "We keep you clean
    Muscatine," on the woman emptying
    his waste basket. Fitzgerald never wrote
    with someone present, except for this woman
    in a gray uniform whose comings and goings
    went unnoticed even on those December evenings
    she worked late while the snow fell silently
    on the window sills and the new fluorescent lights
    blinked on and off. Get back to the two, you say.
    Not who ordered poached eggs, who ordered
    only toast and coffee, who shared the bacon
    with the other, but what became of the two
    when this poem ended, whose arms held whom,
    who first said "I love you" and truly meant it,
    and who misunderstood the words, so longed
    for, and yet still so unexpected, and began
    suddenly to scream and curse until the waitress
    asked them both to leave. The Packard plant closed
    years before I left Detroit, the diner was burned
    to the ground in '67, two years before my oldest son
    fled to Sweden to escape the American dream.
    "And the lovers?" you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
    Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
    a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
    of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
    of spent breath after eight hours of night work.
    Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write?
    Why the two are more real than either you or me,
    why I never returned to keep them in my life,
    how little I now mean to myself or anyone else,
    what any of this could mean, where you found
    the patience to endure these truths and confessions?
                   In 1953, Levine was back in Detroit working in a grease shop with a tall, thin black man named Lemon Still Jr.  They were sorting out defective parts and stuffing them into bags marked “Detroit Municipal Zoo.”   Just for fun, Lemon said “They feed they lion they meal in they sacks.”   He was just playing around with words, but the sentence stuck in Levine’s mind.
                   In a dream sometime later, he recounts seeing himself guarding the perimeter of the grease shop, which was being menaced by angry male teenagers.  Keeping them at bay was a lion and an elephant.     
                   Again sometime later, he attended a wedding with lots of drinking and dancing.  That night he slept until six in the morning.  When he awoke, the whole poem came into his mind at once.   He did not write it out immediately, but let it ruminate in his mind for two more days.  
                   On Tuesday, he arose early.   This time, the poem was ready.  He wrote the whole thing out at once.  Only the first lines of the final stanza needed subsequent revisions.
                   They Feed They Lion
        Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
        Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
        Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
        Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
        They Lion grow.
        Out of the gray hills
        Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
        West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
        Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
        Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
        They Lion grow.
        Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
        Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
        "Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,
        From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
        From the furred ear and the full jowl come
        The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
        They Lion grow.
        From the sweet glues of the trotters
        Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
        Of the hams the thorax of caves,
        From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
        Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
        The grained arm that pulls the hands,
        They Lion grow.
        From my five arms and all my hands,
        From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
        From my car passing under the stars,
        They Lion, from my children inherit,
        From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
        From they sack and they belly opened
        And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
        They feed they Lion and he comes.
                Knowing some of the sources of the imagery of the poem doesn’t exactly explain it, but it puts us in the right direction.  You feel the anger of the man still saddled with boy’s work.  You feel the anger against his industry which rapes and desecrates the land, its trees, and animals.  You feel that the lion is growing like Blake’s “tyger” into something fearful and vengeful.   A very pissed-off Mother Nature is rising up.  She has sucked all the rage from the gang of jeering teenagers that appeared in his dream and transformed it into a five armed beast, drooling and showing its fangs with an open belly.
                This is not a picture poem or a sound poem, exactly, but a direct transcription of Philip Levine’s most deeply held emotions.   In The Cortland Review interview, Levine confessed that he often felt in childhood like an orphan.  His father died young; his mother was never around.  “I have a sense that many Americans, especially those like me with European or foreign parents, feel they have to invent their families just as they have to invent themselves.“   What is a hog belly, but bacon.  To bring home the bacon one has to kill a perfectly innocent pig.
                In “They Feed They Lion” we get the sense that Levine is finally casting off his teachers, and his favorite poets, and embracing his own emotional and cultural past to create a unique language which only he fully understands.   However much you want to blame this poem for not making sense of itself for us, it does at least have the merit of being 100% genuine Philip Levine.   In the cool aftermath, Levine went back to writing poems other people could read more easily, but from this point on, he knew in his own heart --  what it meant to be Philip Levine in print.
                That lesson he never lost, and it’s not a bad one for any of us to try to achieve.   Dreams work differently for different poets.  Today, Levine confesses that he feels lucky that he dreams almost every night.   For a poet that is the emotional equivalent of having a permanently assigned chair in the Library of Congress Reading Room.     It may be more important than all the research in the world, a deeper source of inspiration than a photographic memory, a better listening post than all the Ivy League classrooms in New England -- which he so much coveted.
                In 1995, Philip Levine was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.   In his poem “Salt and Oil" we glimpse why.
    [This] . . . is a moment
    in the daily life of the world,
    a moment that will pass into
    the unwritten biography
    of your city or my city
    unless it is frozen into the fine print
    of our eyes. . . .



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