Charles Molesworth: On "They Feed They Lion"

An early poem Of Levine's is called "Animals are Passing from Our Lives," and it laments the loss of feral energy. But "They Feed They Lion" offers a bestial totem - the exploitative spirit as a universally hungry animal anthropomorphized by a blind greed only humans could recognize. The poem begins slowly, like a litany. . . .

And grow it does. There are few other thirty-line poems that manage to say as much about America as this one; if there were a dark counterpart to the figure of the poet laureate hymning his country's grandeur, Levine by this poem alone would earn the right to be considered for the title. Beginning as it does with images of the grime-coated detritus of America, the poem recalls Ginsberg's "Sunflower Sutra," but what sprouts from this soil is something utterly different from Ginsberg's ecstasy-inducing flower.

The purpose may remain dark, but the shape and sound of the beast get clearer and clearer. I said earlier that none of Levine's poems was obscene, and despite the social obscenity this poem depicts, I would leave that statement unaltered, for somehow - by poetry, by magic, by the expressiveness of the inarticulate - this poem comes clean. By the time we reach the concluding stanza we are in a realm of discourse mythically remote and yet oppressively mundane, at once chthonic and crass. . . .

Ignoring the slight possibility of a sexual pun on the last word, we have an image of ravening hunger faintly counterpointed by the ambiguity that the Lion is also theirs, of their creation, in their lineage. (The identity of the first-person speaker in the poem is also ambiguous, since he speaks with the authority of an earth god and the dialect of an oppressed worker. Also, because of the ambiguity of the dialect, "Lion" could be the subject, the object, or the predicate nominative of "grow.") In any case, this is one of Levine's most memorable poems; in it his empathy with the wretched of the earth, his fascination with the rich possibilities of the barely articulable, his pained awareness of social destiny, and his mythical, consciousness come together with perfect and awesome force.


Title Charles Molesworth: On "They Feed They Lion" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Charles Molesworth Criticism Target Philip Levine
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 08 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry
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