Friday, February 27, 2015

D.A. Levy and the Cleveland Beats

“If you want a revolution
grow a new mind
and do it quietly if you can” 

I taught poetry in schools and colleges for nineteen years, here and there.  Sometimes as a full-time faculty member, sometimes as an adjunct, sometimes as a visiting lecturer.  I've come to realize that there are two things about poetry I've always appreciated.  The first, and the most obvious, is that it elevates all elements of a language to art.  Not only through simple rhyming verse, but through tone, the pattern of the syllables, and the manner in which the very pronunciation of the words can create a kind of music without instrumentation.  Poetry delicately enlivens the mind and creates a synaptic theme for appreciating reality anew. [Wow, that last sentence is pure academic gibberish, isn't it?  Or is it poetry?!]

The second reason is more complicated and visceral as it appeals to another portion of my character, I suppose; that which appreciates art that is less...tactile.  For example, in my days as an indifferent and failed New Wave musician, it was "the scene" rather than the music that drew me.  The energy, the raw, undiluted emotion of primal music, the massive expectations and the sheer, wild puissance of the crowd and the band and the immediacy of shared experience. 

The people drawn to music, both musicians and fans, tended towards the fringes of society, either due to their youth or liminal habits or peculiar view of the world.  To be involved in the next, and decidedly non-corporate, development of popular music was intoxicating, especially when it had not even been noticed by the professional sentinels of the media.

Similarly, poetry, too, highlights "the scene".  While I can recognize the stirring themes of Tennyson, absurd world-view of Eliot, the vividity of Shakespeare, or the lyrical wonder of Wordsworth, I can also appreciate what has been offered by poets of, in my opinion, lesser efforts.  While they may have come and gone, or only heard on amateur nights at the corner bar/coffeehouse or at a "slam poetry" experience at a college, they were willing to extend their artistic sense into a verbal medium.

This means there isn't that much of a difference between a musician and a poet.  There are those who prefer to offer the classics, or at least the classical themes, and those who are more experimental. Some become recognized artists whose work is collected and presented to subsequent generations, others offer a more transitional effort that also plays a role in the greater corpus of art.  Both poets and musicians experiment, shove at limits that are artificially imposed, weave new themes and styles into expression, and attract followers who are eager to share in the poet/musician's art.  The life of David Bowie and the life of Lord Byron are not as separated as one might think.  Both, whether consciously or not, make their lives into an art form.

One of those poets of lesser effort but important influence was D.A. Levy, who established a forum and style for a school of verse that became known as The Cleveland Beats [which was also the name of the one of the bands in which I played].  I'm not a big fan of Levy's poetry, but I appreciate what he did and how he pushed the raw experience of localized poetry into a new, much less cautious and deliberate, dimension.  A testimony to his power was that, when I was a first-year English teacher in a Cleveland high school, I was advised not to teach Levy's works in my classroom.  Being banned from formal educational curricula is generally, in my experience, an indication that the subject may actually be valuable.

Levy was born David Allen but, with a young man's enthusiasm and as an homage to e.e. cummings, eventually shortened his name and rendered it in lower case so that, by the mid-60's, he was listed on posters and poetry collections as d.a. levy.  His family were members of the sizable Jewish population that emigrated from Europe during the 1930's and found jobs in the enormous and powerful manufacturing sector of Cleveland.  He was born in 1942, lived throughout the Cleveland area, and unlike other Cleveland poets such as Hart Crane or Langston Hughes, never left.  His overriding desire was to write the great Cleveland poem, much as had been done for Chicago by Carl Sandburg.

He was slight, quiet, and unimposing with an unremarkable voice; often seen in the centers of counter-culture life with those originally labeled "beatniks" and later "hippies".  His first poem to be read by a respectable audience, "Cleveland Undergrounds", sought to capture the dualism of his city.  It is an immature work, and derivative of many of the beat poets of the period, but shows an energy that many found compelling.

Other poems would be printed from 1962 to 1968.  These would not result in any form of mainstream recognition, but Levy would gradually become a legend in the Cleveland sub-culture that found its epicenter in the University Circle/Coventry Road area of the city and in a popular performance space located at the Episcopal cathedral.  [It's interesting that when I think back to my youth, much of the counter-cultural arts scene was introduced through the basement of Trinity Cathedral.  In those days, the Episcopal Church really was on the cutting edge of society, rather than simply believing itself to be.]

He would suffer a different type of recognition, unfortunately.  Disturbed by the movement that was consuming youth culture and creating friction with the political class, Levy and the other "hippies" would come under the aggressive scrutiny of the police, especially as their drug use and promiscuity became known.  Since Levy wrote candidly of the counter-culture experience, used sparing profanity in his art, and was recognized as a spokesman for the artists of his generation, he was targeted by local authorities and twice arrested for obscenity.  As the charges were somewhat vague and clearly designed to harass, nothing much came of them, legally.  However, they did contribute to what many of Levy's friends recognized as a growing mental disturbance.  In 1968, shortly after completing what is considered his most elaborate work, “Suburban Monastery Death Poem,” Levy took his own life.  As he was only 26-years-old, one cannot help but wonder if he would have continued to grow as an artist.

Beyond his poetry, however, Levy made another, and lasting, gift to the Cleveland literary scene. Using an old mimeograph machine, purchased from some school or church, Levy and some of this friends created the primary underground publication of its era, The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle. Beginning in the summer of 1967its crude, blue print pages presented a collection of local poets who could not find a publisher willing to print the lyrics of hippies.  These poets, The Cleveland Beats, found local notoriety and earned an appreciation that continues to this day.  Without Levy, they would have never been known.

It wasn't simply a forum for poetry, either.  As noted in a magazine profile of Levy from a few years ago:
Paging through issues of the Junkmail Oracle, which levy first published in June 1967, is like paging through levy’s radical, rambling mind. Articles on Buddhism by Allen Ginsberg and Zen author Alan Watts, levy’s own poems and some by Charles Bukowski ran along with his wild collages, which mixed images of Buddha and Hindu gods with cutouts from newspapers, movie ads and skin magazines...When police shut down the bars and cafes at Euclid and East 115th, and fires struck the buildings, levy accused the cops and the University Circle development corporation of destroying the area to create a wall between blacks and whites. (Two parking lots and a McDonald’s sit at the corner today.) Levy also wrote about books, movies and music, even interviewing the Velvet Underground, the legendary art-rockers....
In retrospect, Levy was exactly right about the motivation behind the University Circle development, as it did create a barrier between the cultures that lasts until this day.  The development also, very gradually, destroyed the counter-cultural community through re-zoning, absurd rents, and the harassment from law enforcement.  From the late 1960's through the late 1970's, the clubs where we would play our eccentric music, the coffee houses where we could hear poetry recited, the theater company that produced experimental plays, the small bookstores, even the delicatessen that provided cheap, wholesome food on ample platters, would all evaporate.

However, there is an historic marker acknowledging the existence of the sub-culture and its artists, as if from some exotic, extinct tribe that surrendered to inevitable progress.  So there's that, I suppose.

There is also, like a brooding ghost, an image of Levy that can be spotted to this day on university bulletin boards, dormitory doors, some remaining independent bookstores, and the music clubs that have gradually moved further east and west.  His visage serves as a reminder that, behind the perpetual attempts of the city to be something other than it is, it remains the Jerusalem of the under-appreciated. And that's okay.

A video of Levy reading one of his poems may be found at the Cleveland Memory Project, which is still the most complete depository of his works.  As he was sloppy about seeking copyright protection and tended to release his poems far and wide, all of them are in the public domain.  In fact, most may be found for free on the Internet.