How To Remain Human


in Features


A young poet killed himself in Cleveland on November 24, 1968. He did it with a .22 caliber rifle he’d owned since childhood. In the years leading up to his death, the poet often demonstrated to friends how he could operate the gun with his feet and put the muzzle against his forehead, right at the spot of his “third eye.” The poet’s name was d. a. levy, as he liked to spell it (he was born Darryl Alfred Levy). He was just 26 years old when he died.

Just a year before his death, levy was arrested by the Cleveland police. He’d been indicted in 1966. The specific charge was “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” At a poetry reading, he allowed juveniles to read work deemed obscene by city officials. levy’s own poetry had its share of bad words, sex, and drugs. The poet was a public advocate for the legalization of marijuana. It all seems rather tame by today’s standard. But in Cleveland in 1968, the d. a. levy affair created quite a ruckus. His arrest brought national attention. Guys like Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder got involved in the case, advocating for the dismissal of the charges against levy. The call to “legalize levy” became a rallying cry at protests and on t-shirts and flyers, not just in Cleveland but around the country.

After his death, many people in Cleveland adopted levy as a kind of local hero. And there it should have ended, if history is any guide. A young poet takes his own life. A city mourns. The relentless wheel of history churns on, forgetting as it goes.

This summer, however, there is a show at the museum of contemporary art in Cleveland with the title “How To Remain Human.” That’s a line from one of levy’s poems. The poem is called “Suburban Monastery Death Poem.” It is 13 pages long. The poem is mostly a long rant about Cleveland. It is also a tortured love letter — as are most rants. It contains passages like the following:

someone sed i should write
something constructive
about east cleveland

get me a passport – that’s constructive!
send me to a free country
deport me to Milwaukee
send me to the city of light
or tell me how to get there
& then – lets go!
im afraid to go alone –

The misspellings and typographical oddities were part of levy’s style, which had taken much from the Beats. Reportedly, levy would stay up for days on end generating material and then taking it to a downtown Cleveland bookstore called The Asphodel, where owner Jim Lowell would help levy publish the material in the form of hastily assembled books and pamphlets. That haste, that mania, was part of the aesthetic. levy had no time for the mainstream publishing establishment. He wanted his words to get out there on the streets as quickly as possible. That’s at least one small reason why levy’s name has stayed alive while the names of plenty of other young poets with untimely deaths have long been forgotten. levy is considered a father to the alternative press and zine culture that still flourishes around the country today.

Go See It

How To Remain Human” at MOCA Cleveland, Cleveland, OH. Through September 5.

Being a father of modern-day zines surely generates a certain amount of authenticity and admiration that serve to hallow levy’s name in retrospect. But I’m not sure it explains the kind of urgency and excitement that creeps into people’s voices when the name d. a. levy comes up in Cleveland today. Philip Metres, a well-respected poet who teaches at John Carroll University in Cleveland, described the cult of d. a. levy like this:

[levy’s] poster-sized image — with all the gravitas of those iconic Warhol images of Che Guevara — looks at me every time I walk into Macs Backs Paperbacks, one of the last remaining independent bookstores in town. His voice is uttered in low adoring tones at local poetry readings. Recently, the 60th anniversary of his birth was recognized, and in 2005, Levyfest was held.

All this local adoration begs a simple question. Why? The question comes up partly because levy’s poetry is, much of the time, not great. He wrote too much, too fast, while he was too young. levy says as much in many of his poems, complaining that he is too immature to express what he really wants to say. Many of his poems, like “Suburban Monastery Death Poem” contain long sections of what amount to teenage complaints about authority figures.

i really wanted to say
something about love
& the chance to grow into
the adult you never had the
courage to become
but i dont think i have the
time to hear all your freudian
and jungian psychology defining
what an adult is

One can practically hear levy uttering these lines and then storming upstairs to slam his bedroom door, on which hangs a sign “NO PARENTS ALLOWED!”

“Yet,” Metres wrote in an essay in which he worries that levy might be just a third-class Alan Ginsberg, “levy’s poetry and art demonstrated enormous energy, raw talent, and great instincts.” Writing about levy’s poem, “Cleveland undercovers…” Metres claimed:

The opening [of the poem] shows levy’s inheritance of the Whitmanic trajectory of American poetry — from Sandburg’s rhetorical air (“sprawling & brawling on its back”); to Williams’ antipoetic images of grimy urbanscapes and sense of line (“cold mornings edge/of the old viaduct”); to Ginsberg’s transcendental optimism (“where once in a shopping center/i slipped into my center”). In its samizdat printing, with its half-inked words, the poem captures the relentless desire (even duty) to own the city that has owned him: “I have a city to cover with lines.”

Along with Metres, there is a growing critical discussion that, while admitting its weaknesses, takes levy’s poetry seriously. Sophisticated critics have noted that levy’s experiments with poetry and printing have interesting connections to a number of 20th century movements that focused on the “materiality” of language. That’s to say, levy was interested in getting past words as merely words. He would construct word collages that transformed poems into visual objects. With his printing, bookmaking, and collages, it’s as if levy wanted language to have physical weight and heft. He wanted words to do things, change things, have political force, moral force.

This, I suspect, gets closer to the core of what makes levy’s work continuously relevant. His work may have been all over the place but it also had the virtue of acting like it belonged all over the place. “I have a city to cover with lines.” This was not art for art’s sake. This was art that claimed to be as big a part of reality as anything else.

In a statement about levy for the “How To Remain Human” show at MOCA, one of the curators, Elena Harvey Collins wrote, “Early in the planning of the exhibition, the Cleveland poet d.a. levy’s work shaped our thinking … as an artist who chronicled everyday life in a way that was both deeply personal and political, laying out his anger and passions in an open and uncensored way.”

Such openness tends to be attractive no matter the circumstances. But it is, perhaps, especially attractive in Cleveland. That’s because, at about the same time d. a. levy was covering the city with his lines and then killing himself, Cleveland was falling apart at the seams. Cleveland – a thriving industrial town for many decades – was, by the late 1960s, a broken place. It was a victim of the now well-rehearsed story of Rust Belt collapse. No need to go into the details. Suffice it to say that Cleveland became a symbol, in 1969, of everything that seemed to be going wrong in America. That’s when the Cuyahoga River, which runs through the center of the city, actually caught fire from all the surface oil and debris in the water. Time magazine published an article, about a month later, featuring the fire as a showcase example of environmental crises around the country. The legend of Cleveland and its burning rivers was born. The Mistake on the Lake.

The point here is that d. a. levy was writing his poetry at a time when Cleveland was in the process of hitting bottom. It is inherently humiliating to hit bottom. It brings up feelings of shame and the desire to hide that shame, even to pretend it isn’t so. d. a. levy’s poetry, however, took the opposite tack. Levy was constantly trying to expose the shame, speak the pain, explore whatever was to be found down there, lurking around at the bottom. Cleveland’s suffering became his muse. “Suburban Monastery Death Poem” opens right in the middle of that suffering.

only ten blocks away
buildings burned – perhaps burning now
the august night broken by sniper fire
police men bleeding in the streets
a sniper surrenders (perhaps out of ammunition)
Gun Jammed?
someone sed he was framed in a doorway
like a picture – his hands in the air
when they shot him –

The “only ten blocks away” at the beginning is crucial. levy was bringing attention to the fact that you can be right in the middle of your own suffering and not even recognize it. Terrible things are happening just a few blocks away and still we close our eyes to them. “Only ten blocks away,” he writes a few lines later, “from my own helplessness.” In that sense, we could place levy’s poetry firmly in the prophetic tradition. Prophets, after all, are never speaking primarily about events to come. Instead, they are trying to open people’s eyes to the reality that already stares them in the face, if only they would look. The entire prophetic tradition could probably be boiled down to Elisha’s prayer “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.”

The counter-intuitive knowledge shared by all poetic prophets is that the cure for suffering is not getting away from it. The cure is in going straight down into the core of suffering, acknowledging it for what it is — surrendering to it, if you will. There are many things that poetry cannot do, that art cannot do. But this it can do. It can present reality raw and unvarnished. It can express the feelings that are otherwise repressed in our more quotidian modes of discourse. Poetry can be the place where the id gets its chance to speak. And the id of Cleveland in the late 1960s seemed to have found its voice in d. a. levy.

If that voice still has resonance today it might be because Cleveland is at another crossroads. The city is no longer at its bottom. Life, for many, is entirely pleasant in Cleveland. And yet, poverty and neglect and disenfranchisement persist. They persist in all American cities. But the fact of this persistence is less papered over in Cleveland, partly because there has been less time and money to paper it over. Driving around the city of Cleveland is like driving through a series of time and space warps. One moment you are in Slavic Village and it might as well be 1969 again. Whole blocks are being bulldozed to get a rid of an underwater housing stock that the city has deemed unsalvageable. You see people roaming the streets in a post-apocalyptic daze. A few blocks further and you are in a happy, suburban-style neighborhood that could have been zapped in from 1947. Heading toward downtown, the shops are clean and nice, young urban professionals take time off from work to shop at chic stores. It is 2015 again. And then east from downtown the city descends into a post-industrial wasteland that seems to transcend space and time, until you get to Cleveland Heights, where the cycle of wealth and residential bliss returns. The more you move around the city, the more you realize that Cleveland is almost literally an assemblage of fragments that have nothing to do with one another.

What would d. a. levy say were he alive in Cleveland today? He would probably say, “Look at this! Look hard at these fragments and how they don’t fit together and how it is hard and sad and heartbreaking and also good to see the reality for what it is.” He would publish long rambling poems about wandering from one neighborhood to another and seeing the various tragedies of American life playing out amidst a mute and uncomprehending populace. He would say, “This is what our art can see.”

If d. a. levy is screaming a message to Cleveland from 1968, that message is not, “Get yourself together and become a nice, comfortable place to live.” It is something more like, “Learn, Cleveland, to use your pain and your contradictions as a strength. You are a city that has the potential to tell the truth.”

That is why, it seems to me, “How to Remain Human” was a natural title for MOCA’s summer exhibit. d. a. levy was convinced that remaining human has something to do with revealing discrepancies, bringing the pain into the light, exposing the feelings that hurt the most. In that is our humanity. The human being who exposes her wounds is more human than she who hides them.

The work displayed in “How to Remain Human” is meant to be viewed along these lines, as wounds exposed. The most obvious example is the paintings of Michelangelo Lovelace, which dominate one of the central walls of the show. Lovelace paints in a self-taught, folksy manner. “Standing at the Fork in the Road at Temptation and Salvation” (1997) is a canvas divided in two halves. On the left side are bars and strip clubs and liquor stores. A sign reads “Time to Get Ya Freak On Nite Club and Strip Joint.” On the right side of the painting are churches and addiction treatment centers and people moving into the light. A sign reads, “12 Steps to Sanity Treatment Center.” There are many signs in the painting, but nary a sign of irony anywhere to be found, or in any of his other paintings. Humor, yes. But irony, no. The meaning of the painting is clear. Life does have a black-and-white quality in Cleveland. Ending up in the wrong part of the city, finding yourself heading down the wrong path, isn’t a joke. The consequences are real.

That’s what d. a. levy was up to when he took the city of Cleveland as his muse. He was trying to see the reality for what it was and learn something about himself in the process. The tragedy for levy is that the quest became all-consuming. The young prophet’s despair at his repeated failure to open anyone’s eyes dragged him further and further down. Finally, he gave up.

levy left the following lines to a future he knew he didn’t have the strength to witness first hand:

they are waiting for me in the future
but then, ill be someone else
screaming in the darkness
sitting staring
thru the paintings on the walls
lost in the maze of mirror reflections
not certain where i am
or who i am
i quietly ask myself who i am
& the voice in my head reminds me
“one of the sons of light, reborn”
fuck that shit – i mean
what does that mean
dreaming of past lives
the great teacher murdered
for teaching about the sun
just like Rev. King
murdered – The Kennedys – murdered!
symbols of the light – turned off

& the telepath
who rested in my head once
& disappeared

The research for this essay was conducted during an Art Writer-in-Residence period at SPACES in Cleveland.

Illustration by Diane Pizzuto using Cleveland postcard from Roger W via Flickr (Creative Commons). Photos of d.a. levy courtesy of the Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University.