On "They Feed They Lion"
The title poem is a litany celebrating, in rhythms and images of unflagging, pistonlike force, the majestic strength of the oppressed, rising equally out of the substances of the poisoned industrial landscape and the intangibles of humiliation. Its language is an extraordinary meld of high rhetoric and illiterate linguistic forms, galvanized by intensity of feeling. . . .
From The Yale Review (1972).
On a gloomy, greyly monochromatic night in a time and place deliberately left unspecified, the speaker is driving his car from "West Virginia to Kiss My Ass"through the Appalachian wastelands of tin-roofed huts, junked autos, "black bean and wet slate bread." As he drives, his thoughts become a catalogue of both what he sees and what, through inference, he knows is outside the car window: "wooden dollies," "industrial barns," "Mothers hardening like pounded stumps," slaughtered hogs gone into at length in strophes 3 and 4. These observations pass in a frenzied rush, and the sense is that of pressure building at a threatening rate. The speaker does not understand this pressure on a conscious level: he is a stranger in this land and merely reports what his senses receive. On the unconscious level, howeverthe level of the inexpressible, the "talking in tongues"he does understand. As the poem ends, this building pressure finally bursts, and he knows.
What is this relentless pressure? What is its source? On first reading, this source seems to be primarily the anger and frustrations of the poor lying in wait along the side of the roadfrustrations and anger that grow without purpose, building to some breaking point as emphasized by the frequent repetition of the clause "They lion grow" in lines 5, 11, 18, and 25. This pressured sense is intensified by two devices: first, the constant repetition of the preposition "out of" in strophes 1 and 2, and the preposition "from" in strophes 3-5; second, the graded lengthening of strophe lengths from five lines in the first, six lines in the second, seven lines in the third and fourth (an important stall to be discussed later), and the ultimate eight lines in the final fifth. Furthermore, the building repetition of that ominous and unspecified "They Lion" increases the feeling of some impending doom: from only one mention per strophe in the first three, "They lion" is stated twice in strophe 4 and thrice in strophe 5. Finally, in strophe 5, we have correlative repetitions adding to the effect of' "They Lion": "they feed" (line 27), "they sack and they belly opened" (line 31), "They feed they Lion and he comes" (line 33). Who is this "they"? What is this "lion"?
On second reading, an apocalyptic undercurrent becomes evident. Yeats's "rough beast" in "The Second Coming" is called to mind:
. . . somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
Yeats's poem is a vision of universal apocalypse and rebirth; as one reads "They Feed They Lion," the same vision appears. From a religious standpoint, other references are brought to mind: an allusion to the biblical maxim "the meek shall inherit the earth" with line 29, "from my children inherit"; a reference to the woodhewn tabernacle in line 30, "From the oak turned to a wall"; a reference to sacrifice, the sacking of towns (especially Old Testament sackings), and the earlier slaughter of the hog In line 31, "From they sack and they belly opened"; and finally, a reference to the prophesied fiery Apocalypse in line 32, "And all that was hidden burning in the oil-stained earth." These biblical references all appear in the penultimate four lines of the poem: all are conditions feeding They Lion until, ultimately, in line 33, "he comes."
The poem, then, is a contemporary vision of the Second Coming; the question remains, however, of just who is prophesied to come. It is significant to note that although "he comes" falls on a line numbered the same as the year of Jesus Christ's death, the "he" is not capitalized as it traditionally would be if referring specifically to Christ. Perhaps instead "he" is either one of the poor or simply the poor as a group: in any case, to increase the threat, Levine leaves this unclear . You can't prepare against an enemy you don't know.
In the Gospel of John, Christ says that "the poor always ye have with you" (John 12:8). This is not refuted in the poem. Furthermore, John is the most mystical of the Gospels: in the book's beginning there is a long discussion of opposing light and dark. This light and dark imagery is also central to this poem: "black bean and wet slate bread" (line 2), "grey hills" (line 6), "white sins" (line 27). Even in the phrase "the candor of tar" (line 3), an obsolete meaning for "candor" is "whiteness"so that, rephrased, we have "the whiteness of (black) tar" or "the whiteness of blackness." This clash of white and black thus informs the poem's narrative line: as one drives along West Virginia highways late at night with the radio on, one invariably hears the black revivalists preaching a gospel of redemption and rebirth. This is exactly what we have in the poemthe rhetoric of the revival. And since the rhetoric is that of a black preacher, John's black and white imagery gets reversedi.e., black is good, white is bad ("white sins"). Thus, the poor here are specifically blacks, oppressed by whites. Paradoxically, the speaker is white ("my white sins"), yet he has assumed the voice and message of the black revivalist at the end. Being one of the oppressors, this only intensifies the panicked, threatened feeling that much more.
In terms of both revival rhetoric and poetic form, several similarities can be seen. First, there are almost no rhymes, unless one wants to consider the constant reiteration of "o" and "u" vowel soundsa device which adds to the effect of impending doom. Also, in the beginning, there are frequent end-stops and caesuras which contribute to the initial slow pace, powerful build-up, and resultant Primitive Baptist ritualism of the end. Only in the fourth and fifth strophes do we switch to enjambmentand then basically because our revivalist is now excited, is racing towards the climax, and no longer has time to stop at the end of every line. The refrain "They Lion grow" adds to this build-up; furthermore, "Lion grow" is a transparent pun for the words "lie and grow," thus conveying what those poor are doing, and why this speaker should grow afraid. The poem is basically in five-stress per line accentuals (although it is arguable that some lines deviate to four or six); in other words, the speaker is speaking in breath-stops, as would a revivalist. Finally, not only is "They Lion grow" an emphatic refrain, but also the three stresses to this concluding line of each strophe serve to hammer the message home.
Thus the poem is a litany for the oppressed, in the voice of the oppressed, as told by one of the threatened oppressors. The rhetoric is that of the pulpit. The tropes are few and, where present, almost primitivethe personification of tar as having candor and earth as eating trees, the simile of mothers hardening like stumps. Involved here, however, is a constant switching between inanimate and animate, between the dead and the living. This becomes most important in the two stalled strophes on the butchered hog. Through his sacrifice, this hog almost assumes a property of rebirth ("From 'Bow Down' come 'Rise Up'"), which immediately transfigures into the image of a common laborer with a shovel at the end of strophe 4 ("The grained arm that pulls the hands"). Thus, the hog becomes an extended metaphor for the rising poor. It is also with these two strophes that the repetition changes from "out of" to "from"from a preposition locating one in space to one implying a more specific cause and effect. At the end of strophe 4, we finally discover what the poem is about; it is here, too, that the voice changes to first person. There is a minor, though pregnant pause. The speaker has also realized the poem's meaning and hurriedly leaves the scene before the threat becomes too real.
from The Explicator 41:4 (Summer 1983) pp. 56-58.
Levine has said that this poem is his response to the black "insurrection" in Detroit in 1967, calling it a "celebration of anger." But it is also an explanation of the causes and the legitimacy of a fury that has found its expression. . . .
Given "Animals," it is not surprising that pigs have nourished this lion, or that labor has hardened its muscles. What is surprising is the way that this lion of anger has swept up all before it, black and white alike. The last stanza suggests that the speaker is a white man. . . .
In fear and exhilaration, the speaker has imaginatively embraced "They," and done it in defiant black English grammatical constructions. And along with its African connotation, the lion suggests a literary antecedent: probably it is descended from Yeats's rough beast slouching toward another city to be born.
The white speaker and the black rage merge into a chant that implies a sense of oneness could exist at least in some hearts.
From Imagine (1984).
The voice in "They Feed They Lion," speaks largely in black dialect, but it conveys the urgency of all oppressed lives to find expression.
From Pacific Review (1990).
David St. John
In Levine's search for an authentic American voice, we can see the influence of daily speech, as well as the echo of black speech. It's not simply Levine's empathy with the oppressed and victimized that gives rise to a poem like "They Feed They Lion." It is also his desire to unleash the full power that he sees latent in American speech, in all of America's voices. We can hear it crashing forward in this poem, along with echoes of Whitman, Yeats, and Christopher Smart.
From Antioch Review (1986).
Levine's vision carries us to the edge of apocalypse, a poem so urgent and propulsive in voice as to ignore the "edges" of syntax, logical relation, propositional sense. . . .
The surging repetition of "They Lion" is like a cry trying to find shape in language. The passage doesn't make "sense," of course, since that's one of the points of the poem. It's the kind of poem Barthes would applaud - so wholly engaged that it verges on the act of abolishing itself.
From Partisan Review (1974).
An energy of despair rises in the poem, ominous yet expansive, deadly, yet almost joyful. The voice of the black poor chants a language of apocalypse. "They Lion" feeds on suffering, and grows; not only human suffering, but the suffering of grass and stumps and gutted cars. The effect of Whitmanesque accumulation building from image to image creates a fraternity of darkness; the animate and inanimate worlds speak together in a single chant. "They Lion," etched more deeply by Levine's dialectal spelling, is a brother of Yeats's "rough beast" slouching toward Bethlehem; it is a mockery of St. Mark's biblical lion. When it comes, man and the earth will be devoured by one hunger.
From Poetry in Review (1972).
[Levine is] capable of thorny affirmations, celebrating his own "angels of Detroit." The magisterial title poem is Levine's hymn communal rage. It fuses a host of influences into a daring and brilliant new whole. One hears behind it the driving rhythms of the biblical prophets, the anaphora of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno" and Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," the wildly inventive, mixed diction of Dylan Thomas and John Berryman, the splendid verbal twists and turns of colloquial black speech. The poem inventively uses the word "Lion" as both noun (as in "the Lion") and verb (as in "to Lion"). The word "They" becomes both subject (as in "They Feed") and possessive pronoun (as in "They" or their "Lion"). This gives the poem a sinuous syntactical energy and ambiguity. Altogether it has a sweeping musical and rhetorical authority, a burning sense of "the adds of rage, the candors of tar," a psychological understanding of what motivates people to move from "Bow Down" to "Rise Up," and it builds to an apocalyptic conclusion.
From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.
Its lines are incantations, their power derived from anaphora, alliteration, and strong sprung rhythm. Its images are sharply concrete and discontinuous, referring to the most brutal sensory experiences in the marginal existence of the blacks who leave the rural South for factory work in the North.
The essence of the poem is its ambiguity, especially the syntactic ambiguity of the refrain "They Lion grow" and the concluding line "They feed they Lion and he comes." "They" may be read as manufacturers or workers, "grow' as produce or become, and "Lion" as direct object or predicate adjective. In the closing line, "feed" may be read as transitive or intransitive; "they" may be a dialect possessive or a new subject in a series of short clauses; and "comes" may or may not have a sexual connotation. The cumulative result of rhythm, imagery, and syntax is the creation out of suffering and exploitation of a creature (or a people) at once angry and forgiving, menacing and loving, oppressed and dignified.
From "Philip Levine," Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5, American Poets Since World War II, First Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Donald J. Greiner, University of South Carolina. Gale Research, 1980. Copyright © 1980 by The Gale Group.
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.
Philip Levine When you speak of rage, and of realizing you can't be rational, it sounds like the poem "They Feed They Lion." In terms of form and voice, that poem seems unique in your whole body of work. Is that fair to say?
From The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1979 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.
Yes, it is. I really don't know how it came into being. But I do remember that I had the idea for it and waited several days before I wrote it. I kept saying to myself, "I'm not ready to write this. I want to wait, and just let it germinate."
What was that initial idea? Can you put it in a nutshell?
The first thing that came into my mind? I had the title, which derived entirely from a statement that was made to me. I was working alongside a guy in Detroit -- a black guy named Eugene -- when I was probably about twenty-four. He was a somewhat older guy, and we were sorting universal joints, which are part of the drive-shaft of a car. The guy who owned the place had bought used ones, and we were supposed to sort the ones that could be rebuilt and made into usable replacement parts from the ones that were too badly damaged. So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who'd then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in -- burlap sacks -- and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words "Detroit Municipal Zoo." And he laughed, and said, "They feed they lion they meal in they sacks." That's exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy's a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn't speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit -- I'd gone back to the city to see what had happened -- somehow I thought of that line. "There's a poem there," I said. "But I don't know what it is. And I'm just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates."
I waited two days, got a good night's sleep, and got up in the morning and wrote the damn thing. It struck me that it was a long line, and that it would be out of the poet Christopher Smart. Do you know his work? He's an eighteenth-century mystical poet, a great poet, and his greatest poem was written in a madhouse. We only have a fragment of it. It's a sort of call-and-response poem -- very incantatory. I said, "That's the rhythm I'm going to try and use." It's the only time I've ever tried to utilize that rhythm.
from a 1999 interview with Wen Stephenson in The Atlantic Monthly. Click here for the entire interview.
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