The images of death and stillness in the poetry of Larry Levis and how they correlate

Essay, 2001

12 Pages, Grade: 1.3 (A)


The images of death and stillness in the poetry of Larry Levis and how they correlate

Reading especially the later poetry of Larry Levis one cannot deny the quite curious role death and silence/stillness play in it. One of the reasons for that is the very different perception of death from what we consider as normal in our time.

We are used to see death as something frightening and definitely not as something to look forward to. Death simply is the end of our so beloved and celebrated life. This is partly due to all the influence and impact the mass media has upon us.

Of course there were other times in history when death was seen as the final rest and comfort after a restless and struggling life. That can be seen fairly well for example in the Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, which partly quite joyously pray for death (e.g. the last movement of BWV 82: “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod” – I joyously am looking forward to my death).

Both of these representations of death don’t occur in that way in Levis’ poetry. It is something in-between. I think that Levis knows perfectly well how most people think about death and therefore tries to make death more friendly (if that is possible) from that situation. I’d like to compare this procedure to a special German Lied by Franz Schubert: “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden) with lyrics by Matthias Claudius. I think that the befriending of death in that song works similar to the way Levis does it. The whole song begins with a prelude in d-minor which rhythmically resembles a clock or a heartbeat and is very slow. The we encounter the maiden who really is afraid of Death and tries to run away from him while begging to leave her alone. This passage is musically fast, hasty and dramatic. But, as slow as Death is, as inevitable is he. He appears very calm and also calms down the maiden in a very slow but somehow soothing embrace. Musically this part is very interesting because Death stays the first few measures on the same note which still has the effect of letting him appear soothing and a bit frightening at the same time. But at the conclusion of the line “Bin Freund und komme nicht zu strafen” (A friend I am, not come to pain/punish you) all this floating over the keys comes to a definite major chord, which implies home, friend and nothing remotely frightening. The conclusion of the whole song emphasizes this with the postlude, which is exactly the same as the prelude apart from the fact that it now appears in D-Major.

The result of all that is that death is befriended, but not to that extend that was common to Bach’s time; and this befriending most certainly has nothing to do with suicide. Death simply becomes a necessity of life, because without death there wouldn’t be life and the other way around. You need both to define each other. How all this works in detail in connection with silence/stillness in Levis later poetry I’ll try to explore in this paper.

First I would like to focus on this befriending of death in Levis’ poetry. One good example to show this on in my opinion is the poem “Though His Name Is Infinite, My Father Is Asleep” from the collection “Winter Stars”. This poem is about the death of the speaker’s father, which normally would be pretty depressing but in this case somehow only seems to be logical. The first of possible reasons for that are the words that describe the process of the father’s dying. You never can see the word to die explicitly. Instead we see such phrases as “When my father disappeared”, “That’s how my father left”, “ And that’s how my father went/ Out of his house, forever.” or “…’I’m on my way/ Home’…” and “’I’m going into my name’”. At a first glance these phrases by themselves seem to be quite contradictory, but not really frightening. These actions are first of all non-violent and they seem to be actively done by the person who died here so that it is clear that no outside force is involved. The question now is, where exactly did the father go, when on the one hand he is going Out of his house but on the other hand and seemingly at the same time is going home. The speaker provides us with the answer that the name is a home and that he believes that the dead person therefore did go into his name. The still might be confused about the difference of house and home. At least I was confused quite a while, but I finally came up with an answer for myself to this question. This is according to the true literal meanings of the words home and house: You can live in many houses during your life, which all can be very nice and protecting, but I think that for every single person there is only one place that he/she calls home. That my be where they grew up, where they lived for 50 years with their wife/husband or something completely different. So, home simply has stronger positive and endearing connotations than just house. Putting all this together it can be said that to go into a name, which is home, is something you don’t have to fear. This mainly is the befriending of death in this poem. But then there is the other side of perspective: the father’s son, who still is alive and who has a hard time with his father’s death although he knows that death isn’t terrible and the end of everything. He shows that by simply speaking of what happened to his father when he died (that he just went into his name). But he somehow realizes that at least the memory of his father still is there, in his name, where nobody can steal it. The speaker even realizes that so “…his worn-out, infinite name/ Outwits death…” and that therefore he himself can live again and stop mourning over his father.


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The images of death and stillness in the poetry of Larry Levis and how they correlate
University of Southern California  (English Department)
Contemporary British and American Literatures and Cultures
1.3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
415 KB
contemporary poetry
Quote paper
Bianca Kloda (Author), 2001, The images of death and stillness in the poetry of Larry Levis and how they correlate, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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