I have less than no idea what “They Feed They Lion” by Philip Levine is supposed to mean. I doubt if it would be much help to call up Philip Levine and ask him.
“The Feed They Lion” reminds me of one of those creatures on Star Trek: a being of pure energy. Its four main weapons are repetition, ferocious insistence, short attention span, and indeterminate reference.
“They” is undefined. “Lion” is undefined. But it has affinities with other large predators in English-language poetry:
somewhere in 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 […]
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”)
The setting is undefined (middle America, Appalachia, the country, the poor, the desperate, some source of wicked and frantic power, but nothing definable). The intention of They Lion is undefined. There’s a sort of Old Testament prophetic feel in the invocation of They Lion, but no visible rhetorical target, no nation to be saved if we do the right thing. It’s a Jeremiad without a problem and perhaps even without an audience.
But what a ride. On the octane meter of poetic rhythm creating emotions from pure sound with almost no middleman of meaning, “They Feed They Lion” tops the charts.