#46 “They Feed They Lion” (Philip Levine)

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.


10 responses to “#46 “They Feed They Lion” (Philip Levine)

  1. When I first read any poem, I do as most people do, try and determine just exactly what the poem is expressing or trying to express or of the issue it is addressing. Reading “They Feed They Lion” for the first time, I come across many issues and emotions; the desperation of the poor to live, the industrialization of America, the overworking of all social classes and the increasing power of the government on its people. Yet, it baffled me for a moment that I could not pinpoint just exactly what it meant. And then, I thought, why must I pick one? Couldn’t the actual point of the poem be to have many points? It is clear, as with many authors, that Levine left this up entirely to the imagination. So sure, ‘From “Bow Down” come “Rise Up”’ could be addressing the issue of government’s power on people but it could just as easily be referring to trees coming down and buildings “rising up” in their place. The line, “Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch,” could describe the animalism of those desperate to survive and could also mean that people work their bodies to the bone. We may never know for sure exactly the meaning of this particular poem but I think that is exactly what the point is and where its beauty comes from.

  2. “They feed the Lion” by Philip Levine is definitely confusing because no-one knows what the writer or speaker is referring to. But as I was reading the poem again, I got this feeling that “They” used here refers to us as human beings; and the “Lion” refers to our desires–physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual, and so on. So in a way I got the feeling that the poem could be about how we humans usually or almost always satisfy our desires when we have the urge to. At the end of each stanza–except for the last one, when the speaker says “They Lion grow”, that’s what gave me an inkling to the idea of the poem. “They Lion grow” to me is referring to how our urges and desires tend to increase regularly. I think that a “Lion” is used here because considering lions are the kings of the jungle, sometimes our desires are the most influential in our lives. For example, when one desires to be successful, they fulfill that desire by motivating themselves to study better and harder; or when one’s hungry they fulfill that desire by eating. So in a way, our desires is what determines how we live our lives. But then again that’s just my take on what the idea of the poem is.

  3. The poem “They Feed They Lion” is quite different from poetry I’m used to. Usually I can see multiple meanings in a poem but for this poem I found it hard to find sense in even one stanza. When I first read the title I thought this may be about feeding the soul or feeding “hunger” but once I read the poem I was completely lost. I had questions like, “why is the L in Lion capitalized?” and “would lion spelt in a different form with a similar sound make it easier to understand the poem?” The only sense I could make out of this poem, if any was that the world was evolving and the lion still needed more and more and more, feeding the “Lion” inside them as the world evoloves.

  4. I found it very difficult to determine what this poem was all about. I read and re-read the poem, and the only thing that I can come up with is that “They” is referring to a group of people, and that the “Lion” is referring to some sort of mental state or some sort of object (I highly doubt that it is an actual lion), though I have no idea if that is anywhere close to being correct. Even though I really could not determine the purpose or subject of the poem, I did find it very enjoyable. The way the poem was written, and the way it was read in class really added a lot of emphasis that I really was not expecting.

  5. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/levine/lion.htm

    I got curious about this poem while we were in class, so I thought I would get online and see if I could find an interview with Phillip Levine where he explains where this poem came from. The website above is to the first one I found. I had thought that this might be about some sort of racial uprising when were were in class. In the interview, he states that it was about the riots in Detroit after he had been working there. Long story short (you can read it at the webpage above if you really feel like it) Levine got the idea for the language from a man he was working with not too long before the riots. He was an African-American, and they were sorting old car parts. They were throwing some of the parts into burlap sacks, and the African-American man noted that one of the sacks said “Detroit Municipal Zoo”. The man looked at Levine and said “They feed they lion they meal in they sacks.” Levine said that the sectence stuck with him, and a few days after the riot, he had the poem. He goes into detail about other things like the rythmn and timing of the poem, which is very unlike his other work. After putting the words in the poem into context, I think it helps make a lot of things make more sense.

  6. “They Feed the Lion” was a very interesting piece for me. Levine’s language, and his “greatest weapons”, the way he writes the poem makes the way you read it seem harsh and powerful. It interesting the way there is no real meaning you can see when you first read the poem but as you begin to analyze it you can get multiple meanings from it. I mean what does one get from “West Virginia to Kiss My Ass”? One thing I thought of though when referring to the Lion is the Devil, and it seems with the imagery that Levine puts out there that this Lion might refer to him. The problem with that though is the “they” that comes right before it. Though with the ability of everybody to sin it could be said that there is a bit of the devil in all of us, which could attribute to the use of “they lion”. The negative imagery in here seems to me show that all these things might be a way of saying we feed the lion, or we feed ourselves and lead ourselves to our own downfall.

  7. “They feed the Lion” is hard to determine the meaning. It is confusing and i really dont care for this particular poem. The only feeling i got out of it was anger. If i had to choose what i think the poet is talking about, i would say humans. I say this because Lions is capitalized and he could be talking about a specific person. The poem doesnt really make sense or have a meeting. Most poems i read bring a message or feeling but this one does not.

  8. I really enjoyed the ambiguity of this poem Phillip Levine makes it a point to paint vivid images. The images are extremely hard to interpret into what he is actually saying. I get a picture of an apocalyptic time where things are in shambles. I see decaying buildings and wrecked cars polluting the streets. I see overgrown vegetation, then I thought about how human nature is. How we consume without regard to consequence or consideration of scarcity. We just consume until it is used up and then we move on to something else or to some other place. This is what I think Mr. Levine is saying metaphorically with the animal the Lion. The Lion represents the primal instinct in us to dominate everything and it is revered as a beautiful, but extremely deadly creature.

  9. They Feed They Lion is as stated during our discussion is a very confusing yet interesting piece of work. It’s meaning has probably been discussed for as long as the poem has been in existence.
    My personal opinion on what the poem is about centers around man and his dominance and wastefulness. Just as a Lion rules the jungle, man rules the earth. The statement “They Lion grow” refers to mans insatiable appetite for natures assets. We continue to purge the earth of her resources wasting as we go. “My five arms and all my hands” refers to the fact that we desire to have more and more using all of our extremities to obtain it.
    As difficult as it is to grasp what this poem is about, it is equally as powerful. The poem reads with great emotion and authority ehich makes it one of the better poems we’ve read.

  10. “They Feed They Lion” by Philip Levine is a very unique and interesting poem. Even though much is said about the definitive meaning of “They Lion Grow”, the real importance should be put on the bigger picture. I believe that the great thing about poetry and other forms of art is that it blazes its own path for definition. Like many of my peers have written in their blog posts, it does have to do with the animal inside us and the instincts of the beast. It could also mean the evil of man or the fact that we are the closest thing to a virus or a bug, in comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom. “They Lion Grow” is the pinnacle example of the hunger and greed of man. The Lion is the perfect animal, being the king of the jungle. But the one animal that is the real alpha species on this planet is human. I truly enjoy poems like this because it does let you think, while guiding you down a philosophical path. In the case of this poem, Philip Levine did a great job of letting you feel the theme of feeding the beast!

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