Biography of Larry Levis

Larry Patrick Levis (September 30, 1946 – May 8, 1996) was an American poet.

Life and work

Youth and education

Larry Levis was born the son of a grape grower; he grew up driving a tractor, picking grapes, and pruning vines in Selma, California, a small fruit-growing town in the San Joaquin Valley. He later wrote of the farm, the vineyards, and the Mexican migrant workers that he worked alongside. He also remembered hanging out in the local billiards parlor on Selma's East Front Street, across from the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks.

Levis earned a bachelor's degree from Fresno State College in 1968, where he studied under Philip Levine. For Levine's classes and poetry workshops, Levis completed many of the poems that would appear in his first book of poems, Wrecking Crew (1972). Levine and Levis formed a lifelong friendship that would, for each of them, leave an indelible mark on their writing and on their art. Both of them continued to exchange poems for critique and consultation, either by mail or in person, during the rest of Levis's life. Levine would go on to edit Levis's posthumously published 1997 volume, Elegy.

Next, Levis completed a master's degree from Syracuse University in 1970, where he studied under the guidance of poet Donald Justice. One of Levis's classmates at that time, poet Stephen Dunn, has written about their 1969-70 experience at Syracuse:"We had come to study with Philip Booth, Donald Justice, W.D. Snodgrass, George P. Elliott, arguably the best group of writer-teachers that existed at the time."

Finally, Levis earned his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1974. While at Iowa, he renewed his friendship with David St. John, whom he'd first met at Fresno State when both had taken classes with Levine. St John would later edit two of Levis's posthumous publications: The Selected Levis (2000), and The Darkening Trapeze (2016). In his foreword to Elegy, Levine acknowledged St John's guidance while editing that volume for publication in 1997.

Academic career

Levis taught English at the University of Missouri from 1974–1980. From 1980 to 1992, he taught at the creative writing program at the University of Utah. He was co-editor of Missouri Review, from 1977 to 1980. He also taught at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. Levis was a Fulbright Lecturer in Yugoslavia in 1988.From 1992 until his death from a heart attack in 1996 he was a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, which annually awards the Levis Reading Prize in his remembrance (articles about Levis and the prize are featured each year in Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts).


Levis was married three times. His second wife was Marcia Southwick, a fellow poet, whom he married on March 15, 1975. David St. John served as best man. Together the couple had a son, Nicholas Southwick Levis (b.1978). They were together for 10 years, until their marriage ended in divorce. Southwick later married Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, in 1992.

Awards and recognition

By the late 1960s, Levis had written many of the poems which would appear in his first book, Wrecking Crew (1972), which won the 1971 U. S. Award of the International Poetry Forum, and included publication in the Pitt Poetry Series by the University of Pittsburgh Press. The Academy of American Poets named his second book, The Afterlife (1976) as a Lamont Poetry Selection. His third book of poems, The Dollmaker's Ghost, was selected by Stanley Kunitz as the winner of the Open Competition of the National Poetry Series in 1981. Other awards included a YM-YWHA Discovery award, three fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a 1982 Guggenheim Fellowship. His poems are featured in American Alphabets: 25 Contemporary Poets (2006) and in many other anthologies.


Levis died of cardiac arrest triggered by a cocaine overdose, in Richmond, Virginia on May 8, 1996, at the age of 49. The Levis Reading Prize is awarded each year by the Department of English and its MFA in Creative Writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University. The prize is given annually in the name of the late Larry Levis for the best first or second book of poetry published in the previous calendar year.

Selected bibliography

PoetryWrecking Crew (1972)

The Afterlife (1977)

The Dollmaker's Ghost (1981)

Winter Stars (1985)

The Widening Spell of the Leaves (1991)

Elegy (1997)

The Selected Levis (2000)

The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems (2016)ProseThe Gazer Within (2000)FictionBlack Freckles (1992)

Further reading

Buckley, Christopher. Condition of the Spirit - The Life and Work of Larry Levis. (Eastern Washington University, 2004) ISBN 9780910055925


External links

Levis Remembered.

Believing in words: the Larry Levis papers, online exhibit of archival materials, Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Devotion in the Age of Larry Levis, The Missouri Review. 2005 March 29.

Friends of Dead Poets Society. Larry Levis’ latest (and possibly last) posthumous collection. The Smart Set. 2016 January 21.

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