Jun 29, 2010

When the Levee Breaks - Levees, Literature, and Symbolism of the South, by William Lusk Coppage

My good friend and classmate William Lusk Coppage has answered my call to trade posts during my summer blog tour. The following post is his view on levees and southern poetry, among other things... J

When the Levee Breaks – Levees, Literature, and Symbolism of the South
by William Lusk Coppage

I came over to check out J Bruce’s blog, and I noticed one very
important characteristic. Both him and I have a picture of a body of
water. His picture portrays Lake Pontchartrain, and my picture shows
the Mississippi River Bridge (old and new) between Greenville, MS and
Lake Village, AR. Each of these bodies of water has levees around
them. I would like to think that is more than a coincidence. This
made me start thinking about the symbolic power of the levee. Since
both J Bruce and I are from the south, he being from the New Orleans
region and myself from the Mississippi Delta region, we both have
close ties with the Mississippi River and its levee system.

It is safe to say that the levee that surrounds the stained coffee
brown water of the Mississippi represents security, but in writing
what is its higher function? Many poems that both J Bruce and I write
use the levee as an image. And while we might attack the image from
different ways, I believe the core imagery is there. The levee
represents power, but this power has many different faces.

Many of J Bruce’s poems deal with the 1927 flood. When the levee
broke, the remnants of Southern farming/way of life at the time were
in jeopardy. The breaking of the levee introduced a new angle to the
power struggle of the farmers and their “workers.” Horror stories
exist of levee camps built on the little land that existed on the
levee tops. The farmers were afraid there workers would leave the
delta and not return; therefore, against the workers will, they were
held to stay and put the land back together. So looking at the
levee’s imagery shows a tension of slave/master, but it also goes
beyond and represents not only the struggle, but almost as a totem of

The levees are the power of the South. Without the levees, the land
would be washed away and uninhabitable. Therefore, they also
symbolize control and order. The river that runs right next to them
is a demon. The current is rough, whirlpools are visible and the
water is a dense murky fog of anger. The levees keep a watchful eye
and keep order.

One aspect that the levees represent in my own work is the safety of
experience. Growing up right next to a levee and in a port town, the
levees allowed the “uncontrolled” youth of the area to congregate.
These were the days of testing boundaries, and while I am blessed that
I survived, the levee provided a mystic atmosphere. For those that do
completely not understand this, think of whatever “Strip” you drove down as a
teenager. The levee was outside the city limits and
allowed us to think we were adults and exude reckless power for a
brief moment.

And in that same vein, the levee offers escape. Growing up, and still
to this day, driving on the levee clears the head, just like a
meditation or a walk. In high school, the levee was “home base” where
I could get away from everyone. When I visit home now, within the
first hour, I am in the passenger seat on my father’s truck. We drive
the levee to our hunting land. He points out the changes in the land,
and we get to pause from the rest of the world and talk.

The levee is a multi-faced beast that holds so many meanings. I want
to take a moment and show what others have said about the levee.

It was a special place along the Mississippi (River) behind the
levee where everyone went to have fun.
John Magnie
Our worst fears came true. The levee will breach if we keep on the
path we are on right now, which will fill the area that was flooded
Barry Guidry
We need this levee. We respect it.Gerard Roper
The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering
skill can persuade it to do otherwise...
Mark Twain in Eruption

I want to leave you with a verse from the song “When the Levee Breaks”
by Kansas Joe McCloy and Memphis Minnie. The song was also
popularized by Led Zeppelin.
Oh cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do no good
Oh cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose

William Lusk Coppage’s poetry has appeared in Blue Earth Review and
Mikrokosmos. He was raised in the Mississippi Delta, but was lucky
enough to travel the globe in the United States Air Force. Currently,
Coppage is back in the South completing his MFA in poetry at McNeese
States University in Lake Charles, LA. For more information, please
visit him at http://williamluskcoppage.blogspot.com. You can also
follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/WilliamLCoppage.


Charles Gramlich said...

They play that song on the classic rock station every time we get a hard rain. I don't mind. I like the song alot.

Jan Rider Newman said...

Interesting post. Levees are controversial symbols for me, but they have a kind of beauty and symmetry. I've never heard the song you reference. Will have to look for it . . . listen for it?