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On "On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane"

Kevin Stein

. . . Levine has staked out a position on the interplay of history and the poet's own historical consciousness, insisting on a kind of dialogue with the people and events that compose the past and continue to shape the present. No solipsist, Levine is looking for an understanding of self that transcends the self, one that takes into account both the individual's place in history and history's place within the individual. In this way, Levine's thinking resembles Hans-Georg Gadamer's conception of the individual's relationship to history and its texts. Like Levine, Gadamer regards this process as a dialogue between the past and the present. In his Truth and Method, Gadamer makes this encounter an even more intimate affair, describing it as a "conversation," ideally one in which a person comes to "experience the 'Thou' truly as 'Thou,' i.e., not to overlook his claim and listen to what he has to say to us." It was Gadamer, after all, who once called history itself "the conversation that we are." Still, while Gadamer concerns himself mostly with how one reads and interprets a text, Levine demonstrates how this process applies as well to the creation of an artistic text, to the making of a poem.

Moreover, Levine apprehends one aspect of this conversation that Gadamer complacently overlooks: that often the dialogue excludes the disempowered, the poor and the marginalized, those who have by some intentional or unintentional means been silenced by the exercise of power. Recorded history is rarely written by or about those individuals disenfranchised from the realms of political or economic power. Levine's poetry, compelled by moral and aesthetic urgency, therefore directly engages those individuals in poetic conversation. What most interests me are those poems in which the speaker addresses an historical "you" in a kind of dialogic act. Sometimes that "you" says nothing in the conversation, other times a dialogue ensues, and occasionally the reader is the "you" the poem addresses. These poems provide a forum for Levine both to intermingle the private and the cultural and to interact with history—offering, in the process, an aesthetic means for him to personalize the historical and historicize the personal.


. . . "On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane," a new poem which recently appeared in The New Yorker, exemplifies the tendencies discussed thus far. The poem concerns the speaker's cousin, Arthur Lieberman, a former "language student at Columbia" who, on his death bed, told the speaker of his having brought together Lorca and Crane in Brooklyn in 1929. Not only does Leiberman facilitate such historical dialogue, he also, because he "knows both Spanish and English," acts as its interpreter. He would therefore seem to be the perfect embodiment of Gadamer's "effective-history."

Surprisingly, not a word of the conversation between the "poetic geniuses" appears in the poem. Neither Arthur nor the speaker is "frivolous" enough to try to recapture it or to "pretend" it bore "wisdom." Neither is foolish enough to attempt to "invent a dialogue of such eloquence / that even the ants in your own / house won't forget it." No doubt theirs was a conversation like all others, fraught with misunderstanding and peril and surprise. No doubt theirs was no better or worse than the conversations each of these poems has pursued. What does come to Lieberman as a result of this encounter is a "double vision" which fuses his historical horizon with theirs, shocking him with a premonition of the poets' untimely deaths: Crane's suicide from a ship at sea in 1932 and Lorca's at the hands of a firing squad during the Spanish Civil War (returning us to the wellspring of Levine's work). The speaker asks his reader:

[quotes ll. 28-41]

Levine acknowledges this perilous aspect of imagination, the way that we humans, by imagining the lives of others, may come face to face with the "horror" as well as the beauty of our own existence. This "double vision" issues from an assiduous attention to the intersection of our lives with that of the Other, and it orders our sense of place and value in a world divided along historical, social, and racial lines. Through their conversations with history, these poems seek to enlarge both the poet's and the reader's individual horizons, to extend what we can see from our "particular vantage point," as Gadamer puts it. These poems ask readers to chance a "vision" of ineffable loveliness and equal ugliness, a vision of what it is to be human. If we take Levine's word that "nothing is past," then we readers follow this vision towards a future always in dialogue with the past and the evanescent moment of our present.

from "Why 'Nothing is Past': Philip Levine's 'Conversation' with History." Boulevard 9: 1-2 (Spring 1994). Copyright 1994 by Opopjaz, Inc.

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