The "They Feed They Lion" Effect

Jonathan Mayhew recently posted about that poem that draws one to a writer's work, only to find out that the rest of her work doesn't...quite...click. I commented that I'd call this the "The Feed They Lion" effect, after Philip Levine's pulse-raising, anaphora-working, phenomenal early poem, the first strophe of which is still one of the most exciting I've ever read:

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.

I mean, Jesus, that's good. And though Levine wrote other decent poems, none of them ever had the thrill for me--or the ear, the command of syllables--as "They Feed They Lion." If I didn't know he'd written it, I wouldn't guess that he had.

Jonathan mentions Strand's "Keeping Things Whole" as another example (I never liked that one, but I know what he means: it's more striking than most later Strand). And he wonders, well, is this because nothing excites us as much as the first poem we love by a poet? Whatever we encounter first, we love most (I think of hearing a cover song repeatedly before hearing the original, and never liking the original as much, even if it's clearly better). I'm not sure. And I think there's a reverse capacity--to be turned off by the first poems one reads by a certain poet, only to later be shocked at intriguing work from the same hand ("Anyone lived in a pretty how town" in no way prepared me for "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands").

Somehow, with Levine, I think it's more to do with that poem than with the fact that it's the first I read. I'm sure I read it in an anthology and that it was followed up with some competent other Levines--it wasn't like it was years before I'd come to read the so-so stuff, or that it wasn't contemporaneous with Lion.

Where did that one come from? A dream? A high? A more electrifying poet channeled?

(PS--at GMU we were assigned the classic "7 up, 7 down" experiment where you choose a poem and replace each noun, verb, etc., with one you find roughly 7 up or down in the dictionary. I ended up with "They Federalize They Lips" [grin])


Pamela said...

I love the story about how this poem germinated. Here's Levine's explanation of the poem's impetus (from Modern American Poetry):

I had the title, which derived entirely from a statement that was made to me. I was working alongside a guy in Detroit -- a black guy named Eugene -- when I was probably about twenty-four. He was a somewhat older guy, and we were sorting universal joints, which are part of the drive-shaft of a car. The guy who owned the place had bought used ones, and we were supposed to sort the ones that could be rebuilt and made into usable replacement parts from the ones that were too badly damaged. So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who'd then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in -- burlap sacks -- and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words "Detroit Municipal Zoo." And he laughed, and said, "They feed they lion they meal in they sacks." That's exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy's a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn't speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit -- I'd gone back to the city to see what had happened -- somehow I thought of that line. "There's a poem there," I said. "But I don't know what it is. And I'm just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates."

Pamela said...

(Continuation of MAP post)

I waited two days, got a good night's sleep, and got up in the morning and wrote the damn thing. It struck me that it was a long line, and that it would be out of the poet Christopher Smart. Do you know his work? He's an eighteenth-century mystical poet, a great poet, and his greatest poem was written in a madhouse. We only have a fragment of it. It's a sort of call-and-response poem -- very incantatory. I said, "That's the rhythm I'm going to try and use." It's the only time I've ever tried to utilize that rhythm.

Pamela said...

I use this as a pair-up with Christopher Smart's poem when I teach Intro to Creative Writing. It's pretty cool to see the students' faces when they move from "My cat" to "They Lion."

Emily Lloyd said...

Wow, thanks, Pamela--I'd never read this. Sheds a lot of light. And I suppose it would be boring as hell to read the work of a Philip Levine who ALWAYS tried to utilize that rhythm...goes both ways. But it was such a successful experiment that I'd love to have seen him go on to do other ones (not with Smart, with a variety)--he really inhabited it.

Funny, though--is Levine really talking about "My Cat Jeoffrey"? I think the rhythms of that and "They Feed They Lion" are incredibly different: Smart's is more like a recitation, Levine's like a giant, sweeping storm (pushpushpushpushpush). "For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey..." vs. "Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread..." I get a sense of "Jeoffrey" being delivered from a state of repose. "Lion" feels like music for a riot about to happen.

Pamela said...

Yes, I'm pretty sure it's that poem. I think Levine took from it the anaphoric device, rather than the structure. (And maybe he also thought of the out out? of Macbeth).

I love the pair-ups poems can make. I put a blog post up about them today. Thanks for inspiring me.

Emily Lloyd said...

Yes--I meant to comment on that being a really nice pair to teach together.

Yeah, I hear you on the anaphora--but Levine did also say "rhythm." Whitman's anaphora in the first section of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" reminds me much more of Levine's use of it in "Lions" than the Smart does--I think "Out of" leads straight into that drive, that momentum in ways "For I will consider" does not. Most of Smart's lines end with periods, too--and are full sentences. Periods and one-line sentences would take a lot of the steam out of the Levine.

Jonathan said...

I think he was thinking of Lorca too. He mentions this poem in an essay on Lorca.