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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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Sam Hamill

In Her Company:

Denise Levertov


When, in 1994, I presented Denise Levertov with a copy of my then new translations of classical Chinese poetry, Midnight Flute (Shambhala Publications), she called a day or so later to say, “Thanks,” and to admonish me: “You spend too much time working on translations,” she said. “You need to concentrate on writing more poetry.” By then we’d known each other casually for twenty years, we’d taught in a few workshops together, and since her move to Seattle, had visited regularly. She knew how important the Chinese and Japanese poets were to me. She nevertheless scolded me with a laugh: “I want to see more poems!”

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Denise was a rigorous taskmaster when it came to critiquing poems — a terrific editor for one who had gone to school on her theories of prosody. And she occasionally sent me groups of her poems to comment on. One such group forms the body of Wanderer’s Daysong, a slim book Tree Swenson and I printed at Copper Canyon Press in a limited letter-pressed, hand-bound edition in 1981. As often as not, however, my comments went nowhere with her. Once, when I complained about an inverted sentence in a poem, she laughed, “Oh, blame it on my mid-Atlantic accent! My syntax is neither British nor, quite, American.”


We shared some “affinities of content,” to borrow the title of her 1991 essay on poetry of the Pacific Northwest, as well as convictions about the role of the “engaged” artist. And we both felt passionately about the necessity of serving poetry[1] — in my case including work as editor-printer as well as poet-translator-essayist. As “engaged poets,” we shared a common struggle to resist bending one’s art to the purpose of mere propagandizing while acknowledging one’s politics within the living arts of poetry.


In our roles of advocacy, we parted ways somewhat. She had become fascinated with Central American “liberation theology” as Ernesto Cardinal and other revolutionaries proclaimed their admixture of Catholicism and Marxist-Leninism. When I asked how she felt about Lenin’s call for “perpetual revolution” and the suppression of liberties for the sake of the “working class,” she replied that perpetual revolution “in spirit” was a good thing, but that liberties must be preserved for everyone. When I asked about armed uprising, as in Nicaragua, she disagreed with my political passivism. “Jefferson and Madison came to the right decision. There comes a time...”


She knew and respected my existential view of life, that I believe in no god, and that even my many years of Buddhist practice are simply applied philosophy, unencumbered by religious faith. So we left her religion — and my lack of same — entirely out of our conversations even though I liked her “religious” poems. We didn’t talk much about poetry, either. Mostly, our visits were all play. She would come to Kage-an to stay in “monk’s quarters,” a small bedroom without facilities in the back of my wife’s painting studio, and we would all sip wine, eat and gossip, and laugh late into the night.


Denise loved Gray, my wife, and when they were together, sometimes they’d giggle like girls, walking arm in arm. Denise had a toy, a stuffed monkey called Monkey, which she would bring on her visits, setting him on a windowsill, exclaiming, “Monkey loves this view of the garden!” On a visit to Denise’s house at the south end of Lake Washington for a “women’s night,” Gray brought Monkey a tiny pair of crocheted booties. Denise was head-over-heels-delighted for a week. She called me: “You really must come see Monkey with his boots! He looks very good in them! Right now he’s gazing out the window at the mountain.” When we did visit her, there was time in her little garden, a walk by the lake, afternoon tea and ice cream. What did we all talk about? It didn’t matter. Our conversations were invariably punctuated with laughter.


When I asked Gray to marry me, I wrote her a poem, “Jubilate Sutra,” that runs several pages and includes some fairly explicit erotica about her/us. Denise advised her, “When Sam reads that poem, you sit up straight, keeps your eyes on him, and breathe deeply.” And when I was trashed ad hominem in a newspaper story, Denise told her, “Don’t say a word; not one word. Don’t acknowledge dirty little people.”


I brought Denise to the Port Townsend Writers Conference for what may have been her last big reading. She read beautifully for over an hour and was thanked with a standing ovation. Afterward she was exhausted. I knew she was sick, but didn’t yet know it was cancer. During her reading, she all but glowed with life; afterward, she suddenly looked old, then, suddenly again, she sparked. “Was my reading all right?” I looked at her. It was a serious question. “Surely, Denise, you know that was a terrific reading!” Her eyes twinkled and she giggled, “I so wanted to be good tonight... Isn’t that awful, to think that... at my age!” She sounded like a sixteen-year-old.


A few months later, she was gone. Gray and I speak of her often and laugh about Monkey, about Denise’s quirky sense of humor and her “mid-Atlantic accent.” We especially missed her when we founded Poets Against War in January, 2003. Denise would have been thrilled by the response of America’s poets to George Bush’s plans to invade Iraq with a “shock and awe” attack. But she would not be pleased with what little we’ve done since. Where are the teach-ins, the protests? She would be furious.


Since her death, her massive correspondence with Robert Duncan has been published, revealing their intense, passionate arguments over poetry, politics, and the role of the poet. It saddened me deeply that they could not simply agree to disagree about a few cherished points, as did Denise and I, and continue their profound conversations and their friendship.


She was sometimes adamant in her opinions. “The ‘New York poets’ pour out chatter and trivia.” At one Port Townsend Writers Conference closing ceremony, she refused to get on the stage with Robert Bly and other faculty members for pictures. “I will not share a stage with that man! I’ll go up when he’s done.” Every now and then a student would give her a poem to critique that was written in metrical form, and she would pass it back, saying, “I don’t critique old-fashioned poetry.”


She was equally unyielding about her commitments. “I can’t come,” she would say, “I have a piano lesson,” or “If I come Saturday, can you get me to Mass Sunday morning?” She didn’t drive. She’d shrug, “I just never wanted to.” She pursued her “Rilke studies” to the very end. Whether it was going to Vietnam or walking a picket line, she was a crusader at heart, and her god was a god of love, a socialist god. Poetry, to her, was “revelation,” (and sometimes revolution) and even her most clearly political poems were written in her quest for revelation. She spoke of an “underlying arrogance in the condemnation of ‘engaged’ poetry...”[2] and asks rhetorically, “Who will set the limits?” Ultimately, poetry was, for her, a philosophy “founded in a sense of the inter-dependence of all things, a sense of belonging to, rather than dominating, an ecosystem; and of the osmosis, the reciprocal nature, of the sustaining relationship between the parts of an ecosystem.”


When she said that in Port Townsend, I laughed at her, “Denise, you’ve become a Buddhist!” She followed her own advice: to “dig deeply, search and research each poem’s event.” Thus her poetry is rich in belonging, rich in reciprocity, rich in its generosity. And Gray and I felt that richness in her, and in ourselves, in her company.


[1] See “Genre and Gender v. Serving an Art (1982)” in New & Selected Essays (New Directions).

[2] See “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival” in New & Selected Essays.

Sam Hamill’s recent books include new poems (Measured By Stone), selected poems and translations (Almost Paradise), and recent essays on poetry and poets including Denise Levertov (Avocations). He is Director of Poets Against War.

Photo, top: Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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