We may not be considered the cultural Mecca of the country, but Cleveland has an inarguably strong history with the arts. While taking nothing away from former Top 5 contenders that offer the glitz of movies shutting down downtown streets to film, or from the slew under-the-radar clubs hosting live music, Cleveland’s poetry circles are more subversive and often more substantive. Here are Pressure Life’s Top 5: Cleveland Classic Poets…
I’m sure we missed a few of your favorites. Be sure to set us straight in the comments section…
5) Mary Oliver (1935- ) Mary Oliver lived a rather nondescript suburban life growing up in nearby Maple Heights. Like me, she attended several state colleges but left before receiving a degree. Unlike me, she was able to parlay her raw talent into accolades well removed from the limits of academia; including a 1983 Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times is quoted as describing her as, “far and away, this country’s best selling poet.” Oliver’s work champions the natural world. Her writings’ pastoral settings offer a nostalgic admiration to her youth in Ohio and New England.
Selected Works: The Night Traveler; American Primitive
4) Langston Hughes- 1902-1967) Hughes bibliography speaks for itself. He would have ranked much higher had he been a native son of Ohio, but we’re glad to claim his as one of our own. As it stands, the Missouri transplant made his home in Cleveland during his formative high school years. Hughes often argued against the hypocrisy and racism, both implicit and inherent, he endured for much of his life. He often collaborated with Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman and other great African American thinkers of the 1920’s to create the magazine, Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists. In the 1930’s, he created the “New York Suitcase Theatre”, and formed the Skyloft Players in the 1940’s, which served to highlight black playwrights.
Selected Works: Shakespeare in Harlem, Laughing to Keep from Crying
3) Richard Howard (1929- ) Born of poor Jewish immigrants, Richard Howard never even knew his own real name or parents. His given name came from the young Cleveland couple that adopted him, with our city all the better for it ever since. Howard’s work cut a sharp wit. He was unapologetic toward the nature of his intellect as well as his sexuality, a brave act for a Jewish European immigrant during the 1930’s. Howard has won a Pulitzer Prize, was knighted by the French government in 1982, and served as New York state’s poet laureate for 1993-1995.
Selected Works: Untitled Subjects; Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950
2) Daniel Thompson (1935-2004) Cuyahoga County’s first poet laureate, Thompson spearheaded social issues including housing, economic disparities and speaking out against the continued use as Chief Wahoo as the Cleveland Indians mascot. Thompson often contributed his works for the Homeless Grapevine newspaper, and was also the mind behind Junkstock, a poetry based festival that was held in a junkyard on Pearl Road in the 1980’s. Travel through Downtown and you’ll come across Daniel’s Way, a street named after the poet to honor the many contributions he has made to our city.
Selected Works: The Rain Poet, The Big Book of Daniel: Collected Poems of Daniel Thompson
1) D.A. Levy (1942-1968) No one has lived the poet’s life truer than Levy. A desperate seeker of truth, Levy became disillusioned as a young Jew coming of age in Cleveland and turned to Buddhism as well as psychoactive drugs. He was the classic archetypal penniless beatnik and was considered the champion of the mimeograph revolution that saw hand-printed “zines” flood the streets from erstwhile scribes. His newsletter, “The Buddhist Third-Class Junkmail Oracle”, was an unapologetic and graphic exploration of sex, drugs, life and beyond that eventually uncovered a housing scandal that rocked Cleveland City Hall for years and put a target on his back. Not soon after making enemies with city officials, Levy was targeted for multiple raids, arrests and a failed obscenity trial before he took his own life in 1968.
Selected Works: The North American Book of the Dead; Cleveland Undercovers; The Buddhist Third-Class Junkmail Oracle: The Selected Poetry and Art of D.A. Levy