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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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Rachelle K. Lerner

Ecstasy of Attention

Denise Levertov and Kenneth Rexroth


Paragraph 1

This moment of fact and vision
Seizes immortality,  
Becomes the person of this place.

(Kenneth Rexroth, “Incarnation.” Complete Poems. Ed. Sam Hamill, Brad Morrow. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2003, p. 229)

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In July 1997, with the help of Sam Hamill, poet, founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, and close friend of Denise Levertov, I asked if she would contribute some new poems and a written comment for a special American Poets in Focus: the Fifties, its Traditions, Its Inheritors. American Poetry in Focus issue I was gathering for Descant, a Canadian literary journal. (Descant 102, Vol.29, No.3. 1998. Special editor Rachelle K. Lerner. Ed. Karen Mulhallen) On August 21st, an envelope arrived, bearing Levertov’s distinctive large, sloping handwriting. Inside were four long, fine poems and a note: “Here are some poems (4). If you’ll tell me which you’d like to keep, I’ll try to come up with a brief comment, as requested — though it is not easy to do, for me anyway: a poem should speak for itself.” She then underlined her request to proof anything that would be published, remarking that she had received and found the issue of Descant I’d sent her “good,” and told me about Sam’s “fine reading from River of Stars.” In further correspondence, she offered me a paper instead of a comment for the special issue on whether a sense of place is essential for a poet’s identity and strength of voice, the subject of a talk she would first give at a Quaker college, Goshen College, that coming early November.

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I also asked Denise about her relationship with Kenneth Rexroth. She minimized their friendship but emphasized that:

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I was always amazed and grateful… how he continued through the years to bring my name positively into even irrelevant writings — I mean I was irrelevant but he mentioned me anyway… Due to him… New Directions took me on in the beginning. I owe him a lot…. His faith in my work influenced the course of my life. (September 26, 1997)

5

Levertov, nearly two decades earlier, had paid Rexroth homage with two poems, “An Arrival” and “From a Sequence in Progress,” in Geoffrey Gardner’s 1980 festschrift: For Rexroth (New York: The Ark 14). The second, written in her most intense manner, is a kind of tribute to the Rexroth’s own erotic poetry, as well as to his discerning taste for food and his conception of sacramental love:

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Eros, O Eros, hail
thy palate, god who knows
good pasta,
good bread,
good Brie.
                  The flesh
is delicate, we must nourish it:
desire hungers
for wine, for clear plain water,
good strong coffee,
as well as for hard cock and
throbbing clitoris and the
glide and thrust of
sentence and paragraph in and up to the
last sweet sigh of a
chapter’s ending. The beauty
of freckled squid, flowers of the sea
fresh off the boat, graces
thy alter, Eros, which is in
our eyes. And on our lips
the blood of berries
before we kiss, before we
tumble to bed. Our bed
must be, in thy service, earth–
as the strawberry bed
is earth, a ground for miracles. (p. 276)

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At the University of California at Los Angeles, I found forty-eight letters Levertov had written to Rexroth. The correspondence,1947- 1962, begins and ends abruptly — in medias res —  in the first letter, dated 1947, she refers to earlier ones written from Holland that are missing. The existing letters offer a vivid succession of images of Levertov in various landscapes, mapping the changing dynamics of her relationship with Rexroth. Levertov’s habit in her earlier, penniless years was to fit as much writing as possible on the page and the reader struggles some to decipher the many checkered result. No matter — the correspondence yields a graphically etched series of impressions of Levertov’s changing moods, perspectives, impromptu meditations, and colorful renderings of various landscapes. The tempo and flux of her mind in motion are often registered graphically by changes in her handwriting — a darkening staccato for deeply felt thoughts or whimsically trailing off as she traces out her observations of intriguing images.

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Denise’s letters represent her side of the dialogue she carried on over the years with Rexroth, a poet she considered her mentor, whose approval and engagement with her writing she sought, worried over, and finally knew she had secured. One of her abiding concerns was the question of whether a writer needs a sense of place in order to be productive. In her final talk on the subject–lightly edited and revised by Paul Lacey, her literary executor, and myself, shortly after her death–she reconsiders the question and finds it is in the poet’s engagement with language, redeeming particular moments of time and space, that the notion of ‘home’ resides:  “language is my Jerusalem, my language… my home.”


II. Excerpts from A Rage to Order: Kenneth Rexroth
(forthcoming from the U of Michigan Press)

[from: Chapter 4: Parsing Cubist Challenges: 1948 to 1953:]

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… Kenneth Rexroth’s work on his anthology of The New British Poets brought him into contact with a young British poet whose work he admired greatly. Denise Levertov began corresponding with Rexroth in 1947, cramming her large, loping script every which way onto the page to save on postal costs, sharing personal troubles and poetics with shy respect and awe. Sometimes she would add a whimsical illustration. To illustrate how she felt downhearted and directionless, she drew herself being comically caught in the lurch between two mountains. Other times, she included new poems. While Rexroth responded with surprisingly old-fashioned disapproval of Levertov having undergone an abortion, he sympathized with her heartbreak over losing a married lover and her struggles being penniless. Levertov defended her actions, explaining she could not bear to cause her parents the pain and shame of having an unwed pregnant daughter, especially when her sister’s emotional instability was distressing them. Her transparent plea for Rexroth’s understanding mollified him, as she described how she had had to reach the decision entirely on her own, protective of her lover, not wanting her pregnancy to force “En”, as she referred to him, into taking a stance. Rexroth became a loyal supporter of her work…

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Despite his complicated personal schedule–including the simultaneous perturbations of the end of his second marriage and his affair with the young woman who would become his third wife–Rexroth thought he was having a long-distance affair with Denise Levertov. He welcomed this diversion from his own fragile finances as he awaited the arrival of Guggenheim fellowship money, still fretful over having faced the threat of eviction midway in the year…

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… Levertov’s letters had quickly captivated Rexroth with their kaleidoscope of pensive, skitterish, confessional, and flirtatious moods, stirring a romantic interest he admitted to another of the British poets, Wrey Gardiner. Diplomatically, Gardiner agreed, “certainly Denise is a very lovable person,” dryly observing it was “a bit unsatisfactory to carry on a love affair by post.” (September 18, 1947) Levertov’s topsy-turvy existence tickled Rexroth’s imagination as he visualized on one day her pauper’s feast on a loaf of French bread tucked under her arm, snatching a piece whenever hunger struck, and the next day, gorging on a fine dinner at the British Embassy’s expense. Her enchantment with passing moments in nature was a welcome antidote to some of Rexroth’s more rancorous exchanges with his wife. Levertov’s enthusiasm was infectious: “I’m full of green sunlight…. It is too lovely to have enough sun and air to come in at night and instead of going over old problems or working up new ones, just to say ‘it is good’ like a god, and go to sleep.” (August 1947) Intrigued, Rexroth asked for photos and she complied, apologizing for their poor quality, also offering up two poems, “A Dream of Cornwall” and an early version of  “So You, Too, are a Part of Me.”

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Levertov’s penniless circumstances, feeling adrift, doggedly looking for work in Paris, won him over as much as did her comic descriptions of short-lived disastrous jobs, as a companion to a dipsomaniac and nanny to a “filthy” French family. That she had settled into a nursing job at the Hertford British Hospital seemed yet another point in common since Rexroth had worked as a hospital psychiatric orderly several years earlier, and he approved her resolve to “learn how to be free within bonds.” (UCLA Kenneth Rexroth Special Collection: 175. Series 1. Box 7. folder Denise Levertov: June 1947)

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Rexroth soon confided to Levertov that he was thinking of moving to New York City or–unbeknownst to either his wife or his lover–going to Tokyo. Rexroth had been corresponding with several Japanese writers, in part to improve his facility in the language, while also sending foodstuffs and other homely goods to ease the wartime restrictions they were living under; among them was Kitasono Katue, editor of VOU, an avant-garde Japanese magazine.[a] Levertov, with youthful impetuosity, implored him to reconsider, explaining her plan to arrange passage to America through the American Embassy, “So please don’t go to Tokyo,” adding that his “real presence,” vividly manifest in his poems and letters, made him “one of my most important people.” (July 3, 1947) Her words were heady stuff for Rexroth who shot off a letter to Gardiner, asking for her whereabouts so he could track her down once he arrived in Europe. Gardiner could only profess she was last heard from in the south of France and, bemused by Rexroth’s infatuation, awkwardly noted an age difference “badly under the waterline.” (September 18, 1947) Before Rexroth could complicate his love life further, Levertov shared her excitement about her imminent marriage to Mitch Goodman, an American reporter, expressing her eagerness in having Rexroth meet him, sure that he would approve. (1948)

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Crestfallen, Rexroth reacted as if he were a jilted lover rather than Levertov’s pen pal and literary advisor. With ruffled feathers, he chided her for being impulsive. She, in turn, was baffled, oblivious that they had been having a mail-order romance. She had regarded Rexroth as a mix of literary paterfamilias, father confessor, and revered elder poet, having tactfully ignored any of the flirtatious overtones of a suitor-in-waiting in his avuncular approaches. But Rexroth soon recovered sufficient good humor, remarking airily to Robert Creeley: “Denise is one of the few people I ever completely loved at first sight–maybe I am jealous of her husband. Everybody–at least all men–… speak of her as though they had once seen Dante’s B’ice [Beatrice].” (UC Stanford: Robert Creeley papers ca. 1950—1997, Collection M0601. Series 1. Subseries a: 1950—1997: Box 128, folder 32: Kenneth Rexroth: June 30, 1951) Levertov’s adulation had nonetheless flattered him and helped raise his somewhat battered spirits….

[from: Chapter five: Sparks in the “Tinder of Knowing”: 1953 to 1956:]

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… Rexroth had decided to do his utmost to put forward Levertov’s work, offering practical tips on whom she should ask for references for her Guggenheim fellowship grant application in addition to himself, and directing her to send a selection of poems to James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions books, at his farm in Connecticut with the envelope marked conspicuously “personal.” He had been urging Laughlin to publish her, but Laughlin was still involved in other work with the Ford Foundation, and Rexroth did not have much pull with Bob MacGregor, who in the interim was running New Directions on Laughlin’s behalf.[b] (Griselda Ohannessian, telephone interview July 30, 2007) Rexroth also asked Levertov for a tape recording of her reciting some poems, which he then played on his KPFA book review program. (September 1954) He deeply admired her style:

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clear, sparse, immediate and vibrant with a very special sensibility and completely feminine insight. She is not only the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, she is far and away the most profound, and what may be more important, the most modest and the most moving. She can communicate the same vertiginous rapture as the great imagist poet H.D. [Hilda Doolittle]. (“The New American Poetry” originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (12 February 1961) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1961. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.)

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… Throughout this period, Rexroth relished the improving attendance at poetry readings, the popularity that Dylan Thomas had garnered, and, most of all, Levertov’s poetry and that of other women poets. Writing to Denise, he discounted any partiality due to “my highly sexed nature,” thinking instead that “girls feel the impending doom less–or have better biological equipment for coping with it.” (Stanford University Special Collections M0601: Levertov 1/87/12: K. Rexroth letter to Denise Levertov ca. September 1954) His affection and respect for her were unqualified:

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Candy lamb, don’t even think I’m putting you down. I get all wrought up just hearing your name and as far as I am concerned, you can write or print anything your little heart desires. That you do write very beautiful poems, only adds more copasetic. (Stanford University Special Collections M0601: Levertov 1/87/12: K. Rexroth letter to Denise Levertov ca. September 1954)

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He kept on encouraging her:

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Honey, you get a nice clean, well-organized typescript together to send it to Weldon Kees just now (I just divulged your address). . . .You can send him the stuff and then withdraw it if you get a better deal. . . . Let’s hope this letter don’t come back. . . . I love you, Kenneth. (August 25, 1955)

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Again: “Dear girl, yes send the poems to that [New Directions] contest.” He thought it ‘insulting’ that she would have to undergo that process but did explain that Laughlin “is a very harassed man nowadays.” (August 25, 1955)

22

As usual, Rexroth was going against the grain of the literary establishment. His vociferous support and favorable reviews of women poets, Louise Bogan, Babette Deutsch, Mina Loy, Josephine Miles, Kathleen Raine, Levertov and others, were truly remarkable at a time when the pronoun “he” stood for both genders, and when “poets” meant “male poets” whom critics generally favored. His review of poems by Leonie Adams, Bogan, and Deutsch was boldly titled: “Among the Best Women Poets Writing Now in America”.[c] (New York Herald Tribune Book Review, XXX, July 4, 1954, p. 5) American reviewers mostly marginalized female and gay poets during the 1950s, paying slight attention to what they deemed effusive or elaborate baroque poetics. (Brunner, Edward. Cold War Poetry. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.) The ideal image of the poet was the professional male instructor or professor who produced meticulously sculpted aesthetic products, with just the right dash of irony and dollop of complexity, but not so much as to perplex all those eager minds flocking to universities…


III. Postlude

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Denise Levertov’s move from New York City to San Francisco in the sixties, and her later home in Seattle, charted her increasing commitment to political, pacifist, and environmental issues, and to a spiritually drawn poetry (Prayers for the Oblique, for example). Rexroth had early on directed Denise to D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1929), and to the writing of William Carlos Williams and of Robert Duncan. She developed her own mode: “form as a revelation of content” in comparison with Charles Olson’s tenet for projective verse, “form as an extension of content.”) She sidestepped, against the flowering of the San Francisco Renaissance, the Black Mountain poets, and the eruptions of the Beats, any affiliation that would stultify her growth while participating in the vitalities of an emergent, experimental poetic community. From Rexroth’s poetry, Levertov integrated the passionate particulars of his intensely realized microcosmic-macrocosmic portrayals of visionary experience. With magnanimous sensibilities, Rexroth and Levertov found in each immediate moment an enraptured perception of the organic vitality of nature and its instructions for living fully despite the alienations of the modern world.

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In 1969, Denise Levertov dedicated “3 a.m., September 1” to Kenneth Rexroth:

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Warm wind, the leaves
rustling without dryness,
hills dissolved into silver.

It could be any age,
four hundred years ago or a time
of post-revolutionary peace,
the rivers clean again, birth rate and crops
somehow in balance…

In heavy dew
under the moon the blond grasses
lean in swathes on the field slope. Fervently
the crickets practice their religion of ecstasy.

                    (Denise Levertov, Summer Poems/1969. oyez/Berkeley, 1970)


Notes

[a] UCLA 175/1/6: Kitasono Katue's letters to Rexroth, February 1, 1950, May 17, 1951. Also UCLA #1000: VOU no. 35 (1951).

[b] Rexroth enjoyed teasing MacGregor about being gay, much as he would do with Duncan, but unlike Duncan, he did not take the teasing in good humor.

[c] Leonie Adams, Poems, a Selection. Louise Bogan, Collected Poems, 1923–1953. Babette Deutsch, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.

Rachelle K. Lerner, independent scholar and poet, is finalizing A Rage to Order, the literary biography of Kenneth Rexroth being published by the University of Michigan Press.

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

 
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