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The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry

d.a. levy

d.a. levy

Poetry can be a very fickle aesthetic, oftentimes found trapped rather grudgingly between society’s disinterest & the writer’s surrender to culture.  Very few poets have made a prominent name for themselves in pop culture, a position that many artists denounce for vague reasons of pride & value, & in the fast-paced, disposable modern world of literature, awareness can go a very long way for a very short amount of time.  Where, then, do we stand as poets?  In an arguably dying field, many have taken steps to popularizing performance in step with (or sometimes instead of) the strictly written word.  “Slam” poets took the foundations of hip hop (which took the foundations of beat poetry, soul, & Southern sermons in turn) & made superstars out of many angry performers with a lot to say about limited topics (usually race, gender, or poetry).  But where do we go from here, & who do we look to as our inspirations of indifference?  When no one wants to read Frost outside of the isolated academic bubble, what do we turn to in order to keep from writing in Frostian prose?

The answer is not out there.  Perhaps there is no answer yet.  But one place to start, a breaking-off point of sorts for today’s frustrated poet, is a collection of the oft-absurd, sometimes belabored, but nearly always mindfully prominent “underground” poems of the 1960’s onward: The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.  The book structures the work it contains characteristically, grouping poets into categories of poetry that are rarely taught, if ever explored, including The Meat Poets & the more recent Unbearables.  The collection is massive but never daunting, despite its nearly 650 pages; logistically, this makes it even easier to digest, as it does not discourage the casual reader from opening to any page, thrusting a finger downward, & starting to read, preferably aloud & loudly.

The most starkly noticeable aspect of The Outlaw Bible, however, is its originality.  This is poetry that you are not very likely to read elsewhere (as most of it was either published in homemade lit magazines or not widely published at all), & yet it hardly comes across as insincere or unpracticed.  One poem by Cleveland native (& a favorite of mine) d.a. levy reads:

if you want a revolution

return to your childhood

and kick out the bottom

dont mistake changing

headlines for changes

if you want freedom

dont mistake circles

for revolutions

think in terms of living

and know

you are dying

& wonder why

Later in the collection, punk maiden Patti Smith writes, “Freedom is a waterfall, is pacing/linoleum til dawn, is the right to/write the wrong words. and I done/plenty of that…”

As if the amount of caustic, confrontational, & generally out-there literature this book puts together were not enough, though, Mike Golden’s “Write a fucking poem” sums it all up rather nicely:

every fucking time

you don’t know what to do.

You’ll have a body of work

despite yourself.

There are too many words that could be pinned to The Outlaw Bible (pretentious, bloated, disgusting, just to name a few), but I’m still going to add my own & trust that you will know my word is bond: this book is probably the most important collection of poetry we could discover as 21st century writers, as it hopes to revive the medium & inspire the uninspired, not with beauty but with a wad of spit directly in the eye.  And perhaps violent awakening is all we need for beauty to awake alongside us.

–Brad Efford