By Sam Needleman
I have been lucky to know, in my four years of half-fledged college life, four full-fledged graduates of Beyoncé’s high school: two very tall dancers and two very short poets. They’re a buoyant bunch, and they have all assured me, unprompted and on separate occasions, that a public arts school in Houston is a special place to come of age. “H-town till I drown,” they say, and they seem to mean it. They aren’t suburbanites like the kids supposedly from Boston; they aren’t malcontents of the Sun Belt sprawl like the kids from LA and Miami. They really do hold H-town down, and they do it artfully.
“It was a given that you were interested in something and doing something creative … you didn’t have to prove it,” short poet Morgan Levine, CC ’22, told me on a recent afternoon in Hungarian, gently knocking their more pre-professional peers here in the Northeast. It was getting tantalizingly warm, and hindsight was suddenly 20/20 for the ’22s. Levine, normally an energetic optimist, was expressing regret over time not well spent, people not met, literary salons not hosted. Above all, they seemed overwhelmed and perplexed by the careerism ensnaring their classmates, fellow artists included. They were making the classic case for art for art’s sake, and it’s never been so well-timed. “There has to be some kind of commune or arena where you can volley out creative impulses without having them be immediately hierarchized,” they said.
How to resist? Write an English thesis on ekphrasis, of course. What better antidote for post-grad pressures than artful descriptions of descriptions of art? Though postmodern poetry, especially Ashbery, is the central tile in Levine’s mosaic, their historical sweep is much broader. “The first ekphrastic description in the Western canon is Achilles’ shield,” they told me, insisting that the concept was porous from the get-go. “Even then, when you think about it, and the verbs that are being used, it can’t possibly be a direct representation. People are getting in fights and throwing shit in there! That cannot be going on in the shield itself.”
Fair point. And it’s not as if things got any clearer. “After Stein, you can describe a pin cushion by saying ‘sparkly sparkly sparkly’ over and over again,” they pointed out. So if what a poet describes ekphrastically isn’t necessarily a work of art—maybe it’s a text, maybe it’s an object, or maybe, said Levine, it’s the passage of time—then the lines between art criticism and literary criticism, between criticism and art itself, are quite blurry. Levine loiters there, and anyone racing ahead or lagging behind befuddles them: “You’re gonna only look and not taste?” Spoken like an artist at school. “Everything should be together,” they declared. “My goal has always been to merge.”
It’s difficult, of course, for a senior to insist on this sort of merging when everyone around them suddenly seems more interested in mergers and acquisitions. “You kind of watch people’s physical contours shift,” Levine said, recounting with disappointment and defeat the endless job searches, which too often entail abandoning passions. They described their friends “flitting back and forth” between campus and the nebulous world beyond. They offered an alternative, the one they know best: “Poetry is about creating and paying attention and allowing things to have a resonance beyond their physical contours.” A few hours with Levine serves as an edifying reminder—if you needed one at all—that consulting can’t hold a candle to poetry. For Levine, what can? Maybe going to Spain on a government-funded program, Ashbery in hand, Ben Lerner–style. If most post-grad paths are clichés, you might as well pick one that will let you eat good croquetas, go to the Prado, and break even.
They’ll be great at all of the above, I think. Levine tends not to traffic in superlatives, but I do: They are perhaps the best poet on campus, the smoothest barista at Journalism Joe, the most talented editor of the Columbia Review, and the host of the most sublime Central Park coloring parties. I hear that they also have one hell of a WBAR show and the best Instagram story on campus—a torrent of sumptuous reposts. “They posted my cake one time!” a Blue and White editor told me ecstatically, and, upon seeing the picture, I gave Levine as much credit for disseminating the glorious Maira Kalman–esque confection as I gave the editor for baking it. I imagined Levine, quarantined in Texas, periodically putting down Autobiography of Red to send spates of square pleasures to their followers.
Perhaps the only venue where they command more respect than Instagram is the Review, where they now enjoy a cushy emeritus perch. When they invited me to a recent meeting in Kent, I arrived late, bowed to all the literary heavy-hitters, set a three-minute timer, and bet myself a pint of mint chip Häagen-Dazs that “enjambment” would be mentioned before the beep. It was—and positively, at that! A rainbow-haired, turtlenecked Levine mostly kept quiet, including during a fierce debate over a poem about top surgery, but their slow Houstonian nods said it all. “I feel like you’ve been sitting on something,” one of the more loquacious editors finally said, turning to Levine, and the old sage launched into a sermon that somehow held the room rapt while loosening it up. “Mmm,” said everyone, all at once. Next poem.
While the editors weighed a piece “for Pollock,” I watched one of them google Pollock. I thought about Levine’s admirable mission to read every plaque in the Met, not as a pretentious auto-didactic project, but as—you guessed it—a sort of poetic practice. I wanted them to take me there and maybe read to me, but our trip was stymied by homework and Levine’s formidable February social calendar. At least we bumped into each other at an après-ski–themed party in the wee hours of my deadline. While we lounged on a couch—vodka-cran for them, whiskey for me—I turned to them and demanded the highest form of ekphrasis: the party report, a genre at least as old as Plato’s Symposium. Not all EC events are worthy of a drunken close read, but if hordes of seniors in white cable-knit sweaters don’t constitute an objet d’art, I don’t know what does.
“There are no flashing colored lights, which I consider a huge element of a good party,” Levine, ever the epicurean, said. “One bright white light—it’s like the moon. A bunch of people are moving!” Levine’s buddy, by the door, motioned for them. “Oh, shit. We’re gonna go.” And just like that, they were off to a party down the hall, their description still dangling as lightly as one of the cut-out snowflakes affixed to the cement walls.
“My way of accessing truth about the world … is by paying better attention,” they told me in Hungarian. After that chat, I told a friend that Levine is remarkably articulate. Just then, déja vù: I said the same thing to their face on Rockaway Beach a couple of years ago, stopping them mid-sentence, as if the spirit moved me. I had to say it! Even in languid summer conversation, their precision was astonishing, distracting. And as I caught myself marveling too myopically at their diction, I got a little anxious: Shouldn’t I be listening to what my friend is saying? Maybe; too bad. Their words became, Stein-like, too vital and pleasurable to tamper with, like sea glass or the carrot salad that Patti Smith is known to eat at Uma’s, just up the boardwalk.