Larry Patrick Levis was born in Fresno, California, to William Kent Levis and Carol (Mayo) Levis. The Levis family owned vineyards and orchards, property that was referred to locally as “the ranch” and that was described by Levis as “a place that seemed to exist . . . in some motionless and unchanging moment.” Adapted to this rural environment and the routine of farming, the Levis family life emphasized work and religion. Levis recalled his parents as ascribing to Victorian morals and conservative politics, harboring suspicion of social change, fearing communism, and disapproving of labor unions.
Carol Levis was a strong Irish Catholic who raised her children to believe in the “real presences rather than abstractions” of mystery, spirit, and the Holy Ghost. Her efforts to instill her traditional faith in Levis failed, leaving him feeling “guilty for something” but unsure of what. Levis responded creatively, mistakenly confessing to adultery during his First Confession at age seven. In later years, Levis portrayed the Catholic Church as a “garrison so effective it doesn’t need soldiers.” When he was twelve, Levis came to believe, following a confrontation with his father over a nude caricature that he had drawn, that he was not a good person and would have to live outside conventional society—an event he later cited as a perfect beginning for a poet. As a teenager, Levis worked in the fields with Spanish-speaking migrant employees who found his innocence entertaining and endearing. Levis cared deeply for the men, absorbing their humorous stories and sharing their camaraderie while respecting their toughness.
While still in high school, Levis decided to become a poet, influenced by his love for the works of T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost. He attended California State University, Fresno, where he benefited greatly from instruction by the poet Philip Levine, who later claimed that Levis was his most inspired student. Levine became a trusted friend, and the two men critiqued each other’s writing for many years.
Levis graduated from California State University with a bachelor of arts degree in 1968. He then became a teaching assistant at Syracuse University in New York the following year, returning as an instructor to California State...
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