Cleveland has always been the butt of many jokes by American comedians for some reason. I never knew why this is but it seemed to be the case for a very long time. It’s almost as if Cleveland was this place where no one would want to be caught dead in, a seemingly “Nowheresville” of America. I’ve never been to Cleveland but I have to say I would like to go there. Not for the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, which is probably the most famous destination at the moment, but because of the poet d.a. levy.
During the 1960s there was an explosion in poetry, mostly brought about by a whole generation of disaffected Americans who were weaned on the poetry of the previous generation such as the works of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and the rest of the Beat Generation. The times were changing in America, as the old Bob Dylan song inferred and along with those changing times, a creative explosion that has yet to be equaled, even down to this day. One of these poets was d.a. levy. He was pretty much a contemporary of Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the Beat poets of the 1960s but his work was never widely known outside his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, and to those who were very well versed in the underground literature at the time. Cleveland had their own underground movement at the time as well, the two most well known figures from that era being two underground comic book writers Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb. But the literary scene was really taking off there as well and d.a. levy was at the vanguard.
Levy’s poetry was of extremely high quality and definitely on par with his contemporaries but his popularity was never to be outside a small circle of underground artists and writers. It has only been in the past few years that his work is getting the recognition that it so richly deserves but still, his work is very hard to come by; and all of his original chapbooks are all out of print nor has any other publishing house bothered to release any of it save for a very few small presses around the country. At the moment there are probably only two books of his poetry commercially available and even those are hard to get unless you really hunt them down. In a literary world that reveres the Beat poets and other underground experimental writers of the era, levy’s work seems to have fallen through the cracks.
All of levy’s work was self-published through numerous small presses he began in Cleveland during the 1960s, the two best known being Renegade Press and Seven Flowers Press. Renegade Press also published small editions of other Cleveland poets and writers and levy’s aim was to put the Cleveland literary scene on the map. I don’t think he ever truly succeeded but his intentions were certainly noble, almost as if he were trying to wipe out the idea of his city being that “Nowheresville” of American culture. His work was on par if not superior to his contemporaries but he never seemed to break out of the underground literary world. His work is powerful, often alluding to the times in which he lived. His work did not reflect the Norman Rockwell vision of middle America but rather the tumultuous changes that were taking place: the Vietnam War, acceptance of other religious models other than the Judeo-Christian ethic so prevalent in middle America at the time. His poems, like the Beat poets before him, often referenced Buddhism an other eastern thought and ideas. His poetry reflected the world around him, specifically the streets of Cleveland.
Here is one example of his poetry, a work entitled “Great Man Sleeping in a Closet”:
The first time I met my
teacher...we talked about Zen
Neither of us said anything.
It was good.
One day I took a drawing to
my teacher & asked him if it
was any good. He said,
“I don’t know. Is it good?”
When I asked my teacher
how to become a great painter
or a great writer, he replied,
“Paint and write.”
When my teacher told me to
go to school and study...I
went to the same school he did.
When someone asks me to see
my diploma...I point to the sky.
And this, from “Cleveland Undercovers”:
SOMETIMES CITY I walk at dawn,
past the trucks parked on the cold morning’s edge,
of the old viaduct to look at the sore mouth of the Cuyahoga,
eating and being eaten by the dawn and the city and I KNOWING
in the east a new sun is rising.
Unfortunately, the times being what they were, levy began getting the attention of the authorities, who often tried to shut down his press for being “obscene” and was often the target of harassment and arrest. Tragically, it all became too much for him and at the age of 26, he committed suicide. A lot of controversy surrounded his suicide, some believing that it wasn’t a suicide at all but was in fact murdered by the powers that tried to silence him. I don’t know about all that and I highly doubt he was killed by some authoritarian conspiracy. His work revealed a very sensitive soul, one on which could not withstand the pressure that was being put upon him at the time. He was also known to be a drug addict and suffered from depression. That pretty much cancels out any “conspiracy” as far as I’m concerned.
Maybe one say levy’s work will sit along side his contemporaries with the same reverence and maybe one day his work will become more widely available to the American public. Bur for now, 40 years after his death, we just have to settle for the few books that do exist and the work that is scattered across the internet on various websites created by dedicated admirers of his work; and it’s really a shame since I believe levy (who always spelled his name in lowercase, ala e.e.cummings) was one of American literature’s better writers and had he lived, it would have been interesting to see what he would have eventually accomplished. Sometimes the best things that our culture has to offer lurks in the shadows, just waiting for a little light to shine upon it.