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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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Mark Pawlak


From «Glover Circle Notebooks»


While a sophomore on leave of absence from Harvard University, James Laughlin met Ezra Pound in Rapallo, Italy, and was invited to attend the “Ezuversity” — Pound’s term for the private tutoring he gave Laughlin over meals, on hikes, or whenever the master paused in his labors.

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I was privileged to have Denise Levertov as my mentor. After graduating from MIT in 1970, where I had first studied with her, I was “admitted” to her “Deniversity;” there to devoting myself to poetry instead of pursuing the career in physics for which I had been trained. The instruction she offered me was informal, taking place during my visits to her various residences, during shared meals, on walks, or when attending lectures, movies, or readings together. After college, I continued to live and work in the Boston area, as did Denise. She had first lived in an apartment in East Boston, then in a communal household in Brookline Village, before settling permanently in the house she purchased in 1973 on Glover Circle outside Davis Square, Somerville. This last location allowed me to see her with greater frequency, for a period of time almost daily, since her home/office was just a ten-minute walk from my apartment on Rindge Avenue, across Mass. Ave. in North Cambridge.


My “career” as a poet was already launched, mostly through Denise’s agency, when I first began to record our conversations in 1975. My first poetry collection, The Buffalo Sequence, had been accepted for publication, with an introduction provided by Denise. My future even held the prospect that I might actually be able to support my baby son and his mother on my salary as poet-in-residence for the Worcester, Mass. public schools, a job Denise had recommended me for. My apprenticeship was completed and I was starting out as a journeyman poet; although I knew that I still had much more to learn from her.


In the years preceding, I had absorbed, sponge-like, every utterance that issue from Denise about life and literature, literature and life — and politics, too. The knowledge I acquired fed my growth and development as a poet. But now, teaching poetry to children of all ages, their teachers, and sometimes parents, too, I felt that I needed to be able to articulate what I actually knew about poetry. In an effort to put down on paper what I hade learned from Denise, I began keeping the journal from which the selections that follow are taken.


Another impetus for making this record was my wistfulness about a more carefree time in my life now past when I could just drop in on Denise anytime I knew that she was at home. Commuting by bus and train fifty miles each way to Worcester, three days a week, combined with childcare responsibilities, meant that visits to Denise were now reduced to, at best, once a week and required advanced planning. Had I taken for granted the ready access I had had to Denise? It seemed more precious to me than ever now that the occasions to talk to her about poetry and listen to her expound were fewer and farther between. This gave added urgency to my efforts at recording our subsequent talks and my reflections upon them.


My intention, here, now, as it was back then, is to convey something of the richness and intensity of her conversation.



Undated, 1975


“Reading poems to college audiences, I find, more and more often, I am confronted by uncomprehending stares,” Denise blurted out today, completely out of the context of the conversation we were having. “More and more, I find myself giving long introductions to the poems I am about to read, explaining what certain lines allude to — and not personal or obscure literary references by any means. College audiences strike me, each year, as being less and less literate. Don’t college students read anymore?” she asked, as if expecting me to know the answer because I had been a college student myself not that long ago. “It has gotten to the point,” she went on before I could even respond, “where I felt it necessary to footnote certain of the poems in my most recent book — allusions which five years ago, I would have expected my readers to know.”


September 31, 1975


“You know that I believe one shouldn’t tailor ones writing to the working-class or the poor,” Denise said today. The occasion for this statement was that I had returned her copy of The Political Writings of William Morris, which I had borrowed. The role of the politically engaged poet, or writer has been a long-standing topic of conversation between us going back several years: The poet as witness, the poet as chronicler of struggles for equality and social justice, the poet as voice of the people, the poet as radical visionary, etc. The focus of these discussions have been the poets and writers that one or the other of us were reading at the time, ranging from Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Ernesto Cardenal, and Roque Dalton, to Bertolt Brecht to Mayakovsky, Esenin, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn… and now William Morris. “It is not the responsibility of the individual writer to increase the literacy of the masses,” Denise asserted. “To assume oneself responsible and able to do so would be arrogant. A complete upheaval of the social order is necessary to achieve that. It is rather the individual writer’s responsibility to work toward a revolution. A working person with little education but who is turned on to reading can comprehend the most complicated poem. Those people, poor or working class, for the most part uneducated or poorly educated — miss-educated — who aren’t turned on to reading...the individual writer can’t be held responsible for the fact that they can’t be reached.”


September 9, 1975


“I have started a new sequence of poems,” Denise told me today. “It will be titled “Homage to Pavese” [later published in Life in the Forest, ND 1978], inspired by a collection of his poems in translation that I have been reading. He is much better known for his prose. There’s little of his poetry in translation.” I know a little about Pavese from reading several of his poems printed in a recent APR [American Poetry Review] in English versions by William Arrowsmith. They were a selection from his forthcoming translation of the complete Lavorare Stanca (Hard Labor). But Denise was referring to a British Penguin edition in her possession translated by Margaret Crosland.


“I was inspired by how Pavese writes about other people,” Denise went on, “instead of writing about himself always. He does of course write about himself, but somehow his writing has the quality of presenting himself as one among many, rather than being so overly ego centered as are so many contemporary American poets.”


“There are only four poems in this sequence so far,” she told me as she handed over the manila envelope containing the typed copies. “There is the poem about my mother [“The 90th Year”] which you saw before; the poem to Aaron [“Writing to Aaron,” addressed to Aaron Shurin]. I showed you that poem didn’t I ? A poem titled “Woman Alone;” and a poem I wrote this summer while visiting my mother in Oaxaca , about a serape hawker who I’d seen in the Zocolo there for years and years [“A Mystery”]. There has always been something mysterious to me about that man, shouldering his heavy load of serapes from early morning until very late into the night, even wondering about the Zocolo when everything, or nearly everything is closed up and there are no longer any tourists about to spread open his serapes before. There is a poem in my latest collection (freeing of the dust, ND 1974) which is sort of a precedent for these poems, particularly the one about the serape hawker, but it doesn’t have the same depth or detailed imagining into the life of another as the serape hawker poem has.”


“These poems are, I feel, a reaction to the intensely personal poems I had been writing this past spring, in particular, that batch of love poems I wrote [“Modulations for Solo Voice”]. I am comfortable now, with my position as a ‘woman alone’. I enjoy being able to sleep late if I wish to on Sundays when I am not teaching; not having to prepare dinner at a certain hour; or like this not eating dinner at all but for a little salad late in the evening.”


At this point, we were interrupted by the telephone ringing in her dining room. Denise returned to the kitchen after fifteen minutes on the phone and explained: “That was your countryman, Jerzy Kosinski.” We both laughed at the word ‘countryman’. This was a private joke between us referring to my renewed identification with my Polish heritage and insistence on the Polish pronunciation of my surname, Pav-lak, instead of the Americanized Paw-lack.


“He and I will be reading the same weekend at a conference for English teachers, in Falmouth, Mass. I was curious for more information about him and his writing, since I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of him.”


“Suspicious?” I asked. “I know that censorship is pretty stiff in Poland,” was Denise’s reply, “but nowhere near so bad as in the Soviet Union. I wouldn’t deny anyone leaving the country if they are given an opportunity; but as along as there is some chance to change things, to challenge the authority of the bureaucracy, I feel one should stay and fight. I mean...all right, things are pretty bad, and one may have to leap at any opportunity to leave that comes ones way, but why come here? Why come to killer America? I can’t believe that people behind the Iron Curtain are all that naive, or that the censorship is so great that writers don’t understand what American symbolizes. Why can’t they go to Sweden? Anywhere but here!”


November 25, 1975


Nik is in town visiting [Nikolai Goodman, Denise’s son, a year my junior, who was then living in NYC]. My arrival at Glover Circle had interrupted their discussion of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, which Nik had been reading. He took up where he had left off when I arrived, explaining Don Juan’s philosophy to Denise: ordinary reality, according to Don Juan, is merely illusion. “Like the Hindu concept of Maya,” Denise offered, “the phantasmagoria or illusionary dream of duality in the phenomenal world.?” “Yes, that’s right,” Nik, responded. “But then how is it,” Denise asked, “that this man who lives in harmony with his surroundings, with the flora and fauna, and who sees our world, our reality as illusory, how is it that he speaks of himself as a warrior? I would have thought, Denise continued, “that someone who is in harmony with his environment would be compassionate or at the very least non-aggressive.” Nik patiently explained that Don Juan’s self-image, as ‘warrior’ is a defensive stance against the people he lives among who see only the illusory world of ‘reality’; being a warrior is his response to them. He is not passionately engaged in his ‘warrior’s’ persona; rather he is a disinterested warrior.


Something about this conversation struck a sympathetic note in Denise. Her eyes lit with excitement as she raised both her hands above her head and exclaimed, “Oh!” Then, after a moment’s pause, she began to rummage in her book bag, which sat beside her on he kitchen floor. “Let me show you something I read to my freshmen class today,” she said. “It has a very similar idea in it...from Yeats’s well known poem, ‘The Fisherman.’ Imagine a Irish peasant fishing in a stream by some boulders.... and the poet says:


… Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.


“‘Cold and passionate’, Denise went on. ‘We normally associate passion with heat; if not always hot, then at least warm. But Yeats is accurate in his observation that the dawn is cold and that it is also associated with passion...the color of light at dawn. Cold passion has embodied in it that idea of standing back from the illusory world. It is a theme common in Yeats’s work.’”


Fishing in her book bag again, Denise pulled out her well-worn cloth-covered copy of Yeats’s Essays and Introductions. “Let me read you something from an essay Yeats wrote titled, ‘The Moods’:


“...argument, theory, erudition, observation, are merely what Blake called “little devils who fight for themselves”, illusions of our visible passing life, who must be made serve the moods, or we have no part in eternity. Everything that can be seen, touched, measured, explained, understood, argued over, is to the imaginative artist nothing more than a means, for he belongs to the invisible life, and delivers its ever and ancient revelations.”


After reading this passage, Denise laid the book upon the table, her right hand resting on the open page. She looked past me out the window, lost in thought. Then, turning her attention back to Nik and me, she stated buoyantly: “You know, I really sounded forth to my freshman class today. I think I astonished them. There was a dull glazed look in their eyes when I had finished. Perhaps in doing so I didn’t allow for any response. No one said a thing. It wasn’t, however, a full class because of the holidays, and most of the brighter students were absent, the ones who I rely upon to read as a barometer of whether or not I’m reaching the class.” Denise stopped speaking, having caught herself sounding condescending. She laughed; then added self-deprecatingly, “I sound as if I had dropped pearls of wisdom in the mud.” Then, correcting herself, she added, laughing again and imitating the tone of an intellectual snob “No. No. I sound as if I had dropped pearls of wisdom into a pen of intellectual swine.” At this we all three rocked with laughter.


When our laughter had subsided, Denise again picked up the book of essays and thumbed through its pages looking for something, saying as she did so, “I read my class a passage from another Yeats essay today called ‘Symbolism in Poetry.’ Here it is...let’s see, he wrote it in 1900, so that would be 5 years after the first passage I read. It explains why in contrast, ‘The Moods’ is a much less mature statement of the same thing:”


“All sounds, all colours, all forms, either because of their preordained energies or because of long association evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions, or, as In prefer to think, call down among us certain disembodied powers, whose footsteps over our hearts we call emotions; and when sound, and colour, and form are in a musical relation, a beautiful relation to one another, they become, as it were, one sound, one colour, one form, and evoke an emotion that is made out of their distinct evocations and yet is one emotion. The relation exists between all portions of every work of art, whether it be an epic or a song, and the more perfect it is, and the more various and numerous the elements that have flowed into its perfection, the more powerful will be the emotion, the power, the god it calls among us.”


When she had finished reading this selection, we all sat silent savoring the way Yeats articulated these beautifully wrought ideas. Then Denise opened her volume of Yeats’s Collected Poems and read aloud “The Fisherman” poem again, this time in its entirety.




I asked Denise why it is that I have never seen one of her books reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. “About ten years ago,” she explained, “they used to regularly ask me to write reviews. I did it for a while but found such reviewing to be the making of catty remarks about other authors, and that became distasteful to me. I eventually made a pact with myself not to do so any longer and began to turn down he offers from the Times, until they realized what was up and they stopped asking me. I think the editors were offended that I would turn them down because they never once since have run a review of any of my books, which they always used to do.”




I told Denise that at a recent poetry reading by Robert Bly, which I attended in Worcester, he lectured the audience about Yeats’s style of oral reading, and demonstrated how Yeats would accentuate the vowel sounds in his lines. Bly went on to claim, I continued, that Yeats was the first one since the Beowulf poet to discover and make use of the vowel sounds in English. However, a few days after I had heard Bly say this, I happened to be reading Ford Maddox Ford’s reminiscences of his childhood in which he describes just this a style of reading as a ‘fad’ among dilettante poets in drawing rooms of the ‘80s [1880s], all of whom were imitating Tennyson. “Yes, yes,” Denise said. “There is a recording in the Lamont Library at Harvard of Tennyson reading aloud. I happened to have heard it played over the radio the other day. You can distinctly hear him drawing out the vowel sounds.” Denise went on: “But of course it was Yeats who wrote about that style of reading, and if you listen to recordings of Pound reading his own poetry, you will notice that his style of reading is in a direct line from Tennyson by way of Yeats. I respect Bly’s love for poetry, which I feel is genuine and sincere,” Denise added, “But most everything he claims to have — quote — discovered — unquote — Robert Duncan knew twenty-five years before him.”




Denise often drops tidbits about her childhood when I’m in her company, such as this one today: “As a child, I used to listen to the radio quite a lot. One time I happened to catch the broadcast of one of the big horse races and picked to myself the name of the winner. The horse I picked had a seafaring name. I wanted as a child to be a sailor for some reason, although living in the suburbs of London I’d never seen a sailor. In any case, my horse was not one of the two or three favored to win the race, but it won anyway. You can imagine how surprised I was. So there was a short while that I would everyday look in the newspaper at the racing listings and pick a horse whose name struck my fancy, and invariably I won — childhood intuition! So you see, for a time, was a sort of ‘rocking horse winner’, but mind you, one unexploited by adults; neither of my parents being very worldly: my father a scholar and a clergyman, and my other...well, a virtual innocent.”




Denise came to dinner to see our new apartment. Afterward I drove her home. During the car ride, I asked whether, in addition to her creative writing workshop, she would be teaching a large lecture course on literature again in the spring semester [at Tufts]. I expressed my concern that the work of preparing such a class and grading student papers without the aid of a T.A. had seemed to severely tax her energies this fall. No, she told me, she would not be repeating that course. Although she still wouldn’t have a T.A.’s help in the spring, the class she was slated to teach was limited to only fifteen students. It shouldn’t be that much work, she added, since it was the kind of course she liked teaching, one in which she planned to match poems written by a variety of poets with their statements about poetics. “We will read such things as Lorca’s Duende essay,” she told me knowing that it was one of my favorites. Denise added, “I’m at my best as a teacher when I can think out loud and my audience finds it interesting.” The aftertaste of her first disappointing performance as a teacher lingered in her voice. Last week she had received her student evaluations from the lecture course she had taught. There had not been one good word in any of them. “Surely,” she had said aloud, as much to herself as to me that day in her office, where I was visiting, pushing the pile of evaluations across her desk in my direction, “surely, I couldn’t have misread all those expressions I took to be excitement and interest?” As my car neared her house, Denise added this final note to the topic: “I am best before an audience of students who are self-motivated and present because they are interested in what I have to say. Ones who don’t need to be told what to do, but can think for themselves.”



I was ‘guest poet’ at Denise’s Tufts writing workshop today. Evidently some of the students had told her that they liked my poem from The Buffalo Sequence that she had tacked to her office wall, so she thought to invite me to read poems to the whole class. After doing my part and answering their questions, I stayed for the remainder of the class.
At one point Denise addressed the group: “I should think that a young American poet could get a complete and fully rounded education in poetry by reading no other Twentieth Century poets than William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens — so wonderfully complementary they are. Stevens, delicate, sensual, with a tendency toward verbosity, is able to touch his subject so lightly, so subtly. And Williams...spare, energetic, not that he isn’t sensual, too, but his touch is never soft like Stevens, he tends rather to be more earthy.”


Two students read aloud poems they had written in response to an exercise in syllabics that Denise had given them in a previous class. In the discussion that followed, Denise talked about the advantages and disadvantages of artificial structures when writing poetry. This led her to the subject of rhyme. “One must be careful if one is to use rhyme,” she warned, “not to be lured into saying, for the sake of it, what one had not intended to say; that is, being seduced into placing words in the poem solely for the sake of the patterned rhyme that have no relation to what you feel and perceive.”


“On the other hand, rhyme used properly and effectively has the advantage of leading the poet to images and/or symbols perfectly suited to the poem; sometimes leading the poet to real discoveries he would not otherwise have come upon. I’m thinking specifically of the greatest poet to write rhymed poetry in English in he Twentieth Century — though he did have his roots firmly planted in the Nineteenth Century — William Butler Yeats.”


“So unobtrusive is his use of rhyme, that, often, it is only after rereading one of his poems that one discovers there were rhymes present at all. He was unique, I think, in that he was seldom, if ever, led to say what he hadn’t meant to say by the need for a rhyme. His poems are like the clothes sown by a master seamstress: the pockets and zippers are so carefully disguised that one doesn’t at first notice there are any at all. It looks, at first glance to be a seamless garment.”


Undated 1975


“.... No! No! The poem is about actual wood doves,” Denise corrects, “actual wood doves in the woods of Temple , Maine.” Denise is sitting at one end of her living room couch facing another woman, seated at the opposite end, who had misunderstood her poem “Knowing the Way” [from Footprints] as only metaphorical, and not about real wood doves seen, observed. Denise is being interviewed, there is a cassette tape recorder between them. The woman is French, but speaks English fluently and with a noticeable British accent.


“Of course, the poem is metaphorical on one level,” Denise continues. “The dove being a symbol of peace. I wrote it at a time during the anti-war movement when I felt that aggressive action had to replace passive resistance as a strategy. Against our common association of the dove’s soft cooing utterance with passivity, I wanted to contrast the swift, bold flight of the wood dove of my actual experience. A poem can have only literal meaning and still be a poem. I think of such poems as ‘plain’ poems. But, myself, I prefer that layering of meaning upon meaning which metaphor allows. However, any metaphor deserving the name must in poetry arise from the literal; and the layering of one meaning upon another must never obscure the literal; reading of the poem.”


How quick Denise is to leap upon misconceptions about poetry or on attempts to mystify The Poet, with a capital P. As the interview progresses, I notice Denise fidgeting, growing impatient. Is the interviewer asking he wrong questions? More likely, I think, she is impatient with the answering the same questions others have asked, topics and themes she has moved on from. The interviewer wasn’t aware that Denise has published a new collection of poems [Freeing the Dust] and so keeps asking questions about her previous books, Footprints and To Stay Alive. Her impatience leads Denise to anticipate the woman’s questions before she has completely framed them, and, more often than not, I think that Denise mis-anticipates what would have been the thrust of the question. The French woman is nevertheless, very polite and doesn’t reveals her frustration when Denise takes off in a different direction with her answer.


“One cannot sustain ‘lyric intensity’ in a poem of considerable length; or, if one could, that quality we think of as ‘lyric intensity’ wouldn’t remain the same throughout the poem. The reader would soon become numb to it.” Denise is responding to questions about her long notebook poem that makes up the better part of her book, To Stay Alive. The interviewer had spoken about its documentary qualities and had asked why some sections of the poem appear in verse while others are in prose.


“There have always been ‘filler’ sections between moments of lyric intensity in long poems,” Denise explains, choosing her words carefully, while kneading the air between them with her hands. “Even in classical epic poems, even in Dante, there are filler sections that serve as bridges between the lyrical parts. But, whereas the poets of the past felt they needed to turn these connective passages into verse, that is, felt the need to versify their prose, modern poems, following the example of Williams’s epic Paterson, for one, incorporate the actual prose. The modern long poem, “Denise went on, “is composed by a method very similar to collage painting. Juan Gris, would for example, glue an actual bus ticket to his canvas when painting a Paris street scene instead of painting the ticket. Quoting from newspapers or from letters, from journals or from other prose, I didn’t versify, that is, break into poetic lines the texts I was incorporating in my long poem unless I wanted to give the quotation a particular emphasis. For example, I might break the prose into verse lines if I wanted to give the quoted text the same emphasis that I would were I reading it aloud to demonstrate a point to another person or to an audience.”




I stopped by Glover Circle to return to Denise her copy of Discretions by Mary de Rachewiltz [a memoir, largely about her father, Ezra Pound], which I had borrowed. It was dusk. There were no lights visible in her house as I entered the alley, so I assumed no one was at home. I thought to enter by way of the back door and leave the book on the kitchen table for her to find. But it turned out that Denise was at home, in the kitchen preparing dinner, so that I startled her when I opened the door with my key. I apologized for bursting in, explaining that since she is usually still at Tufts at this hour, and not seeing any lights on, I had assumed she was not home yet.


After her initial surprise passed, Denise told me that she had stayed home all day, ill with a cold and sore throat. She elaborated, saying that me that she had simply lounged about the whole days listening to music while correcting student papers. “In fact,” she added, bending from the waist and making a grand, swooping gesture with her hand and arm, theatrically pointing to her pants legs, “I had just this moment changed from my lounging clothes into these slacks. I had thought that I would go out and keep an engagement I’d made weeks ago, but having done so, I now think that I’m still not well enough and ought to stay in.”


Denise asked me what I thought of the book I had laid on the table. I told her that my previous impression of Pound as a cold, gruff man was somewhat tempered by his daughter’s portrait of him. “Yes,” Denise remarked, “considering that they [Pound and her mother, Olga Rudge] weren’t going to bring her up themselves, they probably did the next best thing by shipping her off a Tyrolean foster family.” She added, “But then when she was older, they shouldn’t have been so ruthless in taking her from the only security she had known, at Gais.”


Denise, unprompted, continued talking about her friendship with Mary de Rachewiltz, — cooled of late — and what news she had of her through their mutual friend Jay Laughlin. All the while that she was talking, Denise moved back and forth in the kitchen removing plates and pots from the stove top and placing them in the sink to be washed. I remained standing at the kitchen table, knowing that if I sat down I would stay too long to run the other errands I had yet to do this evening.


“It’s a tragedy for Mary, as it would be for any writer, that she has virtually no ‘mother tongue’ other than the Tyrolean dialect,” Denise told me. “The cultural uprooting she continually underwent at her parents’ whims left her without one. Her English is always a bit off, as is her Italian. And although her friends have suggested that she make Tyrolean her literary language, I doubt that she will.”


Denise paused midway in her rounds between stove and sink whenever she need to search within herself for the right phrase, sometimes gesturing vaguely in the air as if to give shape to her impressions of her friend. At one point, vigorously wiping stains from the stove top with a piece of crumpled paper towel she added, “That she has something of a Puritan spirit to her is the only explanation I can give for the way she idolizes her father — her virtual worship of his image and her dedication to translating the Cantos into Italian.” Noticing some stains on the linoleum floor, Denise stooped and now even more vigorously began rubbing them out as she continued to speak. “She refuses to think of pursuing her own writing until she has finished translating the Cantos in their entirety, which I have argued with her to no avail is foolish. But she will at the same time complain that she never gets down to her own work, to satisfying her own creative needs.”


At one point, Denise mentioned that Mary de Rachewiltz lived in Cambridge. This came as a surprise to me. I had always thought that she lived in her castle [literally] in the Italian Tyrol. I had this impression from a postcard Denise had sent me during one of her European summer trips a few years ago, when she had visited Mary there. The postcard showed the castle perched on a mountainside and Denise had circled with ball point pen the very window of the guestroom room in which she slept. I found nothing in reading Discretions that would have led me to think otherwise. Compounding this misconception on my part was an occasion when I had met Mary’s son, the young Baron de Rachewiltz. This occurred when he was passing through Boston and was the guest at dinner at Denise’s Brook Street commune in Brookline. He had talked about his collection of tools used by the Tyrolean peasant farmers and of his plans upon returning home to open a museum of these farm implements in one wing of the castle as soon as he returned home.


Another misconception of mine that this same conversation dispelled, was that Denise and “Pound’s daughter,” as I had thought of her, were, if not intimate friends, then at least on very good terms. I knew that Mary was the translator into Italian of Denise’s poems and I felt certain that she had spoken of her with affection. The coldness with which Denise now described Mary de Rachewiltz’s hang-ups about her father and her inability to get down to her own work surprised to me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, given that I have observed Denise on other occasions express impatience with any talk about ‘writer’s block’. I have heard her speak derisively when someone has mentioned their fear of never writing another poem, or never finishing another book. This seems to be something Denise has never experienced, something she has little sympathy for in others. Whenever Denise has gone without writing any poems for a stretch of time, rather than complain of ‘writer’s block’ or express anxiety about writing new poems, she has instead spoken positively about such fallow periods as times when she is assimilating new influences, ideas, and experiences — the stuff of future poems. She has as much as said that the creative unconscious has a natural rhythm of its own that cannot be rushed. Because one is not putting pen to paper, she has explained to me, does not mean that there is inactivity in the unseen depths of ones being, activity that might eventually surface as poems.


Spring 1976


Denise was bursting with joy this morning after the poetry reading given by Judy Katz-Levine and Steve Blevens [her secretary]. How to explain the exuberance she greeted me with when she opened her front door? I’m sure was the very first person she saw this morning. She was like a child who has been watching for weeks the robins in the eaves of the house outside her bedroom window, first building a nest, then attending to the eggs, watching all the while in agitated anticipation, and then literally bursting at the seams with excitement and joy to tell someone when she hears the first peeps from the hatched chicks. Denise took my hand and pulled me through the front hallway into the kitchen where she was having breakfast, all the while dancing or skipping with excitement. “Didn’t they read marvelously!” She exclaimed. “How they’ve grown in their writing! They’ve really come into their own as poets!” Then she added pensively, “The things that young poets attempt and succeed at in their writing inspires me unlike anything in the work of my contemporaries anymore. When I listen to one of my contemporaries read their poems, I find I am saying to myself, ‘I could do that just as well or better.’ But listening to younger poets read, I don’t feel competitive, but inspired. The things they try, neither I nor any of my contemporaries with think of.”

Mark Pawlak’s fifth and most recent poetry collection is Official Versions (Hanging Loose Press). He supports his poetry habit by teaching mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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

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