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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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Ron Silliman

Unerasing Early Levertov



One of the interesting facets of the 1999 UC Press reissue of the Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, is not the new afterword by Donald Allen, but the smaller items of difference, starting with Allen’s dropping of his middle initial M from the cover of the 1960 Grove Press edition — “Evergreen Original 237.” The original version had nothing but the title, editor & the list of contributors against red & white stripes intended to suggest the flag. The UC Press version looks more cool — a deep blue cover with red title & editor text, actually a larger point size than the earlier one, the names of its 44 contributors white against the blue field with little colored stars — red, yellow, green — to function as separators. The green stars in particular disappear into the deep blue and the fact that names often run over from one line to the next, the list has an irregular feel to it, nearly as ragged on the left as on the right.

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But what is most different about the two covers is the addition in 1999 of two marketing claims:




in a box above the title, and in another betwixt title & editor’s name:


The visionary
that influenced
two generations
of poets and readers


Both statements are yellow against the blue background — they have the highest contrast & are thus the most readable words here, title included, the first statement all in caps and boldface, the second one in upper & lower case, without the bold, and with a wider leading between lines.


Inside we find four sections of the book quite transformed, tho most readers will barely notice this.



What interests me most here, tho, are the acknowledgements and permissions. I wanted to test my presumption that, in 1960, when this paradigm-setting anthology first appeared, that the most well established of its four women contributors was Denise Levertov. For one thing, two of the poets, Madeline Gleason & Helen Adam, were Denise’s elders, born in 1913 & 1909 respectively, and it was conceivable that they had been active early enough that one of them, especially Gleason, could make such a claim. For another, Barbara Guest was born the same year as Levertov and arguably is the poet who today has the strongest reputation and widest influence, especially with younger writers.


But if you look at the Acknowledgements and Permissions, it’s no contest. In 1960, Denise Levertov is easily the most established of the four. She’s the only among the four, in fact, who acknowledges book publication for any of her poems. Helen Adam’s lone poem is credited to the journal Extansis, Gleason’s lone poem to Botteghe Oscure, and Barbara Guest credits two works to the journals Evergreen Review and Yügen. Guest’s other two poems were previously unpublished. Levertov, on the other hand, credits three different books as the source for her ten poems: Here and Now, from City Lights; Overland to the Islands, from Jonathan William’s Jargon Books; and With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, from New Directions.


So not only did Levertov have 10 of the 16 poems published by women in this important collection, she had just published three books in three years — their copyright dates are 1957, ‘58 & ‘59 — from three important independent presses, one of which could be called, even in 1960, a significant trade press. It’s not that the other poets had not had books — Adam had had a collection from White Rabbit, Gleason two volumes, both printed in the 1940s, and Guest had had a pamphlet printed by the New York gallery Tibor de Nagy. But it would seem that for these other three poets such books did not yet have the status of gathering their “anthology pieces.” None was used as a source for their contributions to the Allen anthology.


Levertov in 1960 stands out not just from her three female peers in this collection, but pretty much from all but a handful of her fellow contributors. The number of poets who exclusively credit books for the prior appearances of these poems is quite few: Brother Antoninus, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder. Notably absent from this list are any of the New York School poets — Ashbery credits his Yale Younger Poets for two of his three poems, but the third is assigned to Big Table. O’Hara is all over the place, including Poetry and Partisan Review. Most of the others are mélange of small press editions, magazines & previously unpublished works. Jack Kerouac, probably the most famous participant in the anthology on the day it was published, credits “The Sterling Lord Agency” for his selection from the then-unpublished Mexico City Blues.


Nearly one half century hence, it is easy to forget that when Allen first issued this book, only a handle of its contributors were established as writers. Others, including Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, Jimmy Schuyler & Kenneth Koch, in addition to the aforementioned Ashbery & O’Hara, were really just starting to make their name with books that you could get reliably get hold of. In Spicer’s case, he would be dead ten years before that really happened with the publication of The Collected Books in 1975. Ed Dorn’s first book of poems, The Newly Fallen, is listed in the first edition’s bibliography tho it wouldn’t appear for another year.


So, my conclusion is that not only was Denise Levertov the most well-known of the book’s female contributors, she was in 1960 one of its most well established poets, period, full stop.


Of the Allen anthology poets in 1960, Levertov, Corso & Ferlinghetti are the three who had already been picked up by New Directions. Add Ginsberg & Kerouac and you have the full list of poets who were already famous, in that minor key poetry sort of way, the day the anthology was released. Snyder’s books were from smaller presses, Origin and Totem / Corinth, neither paragons of distribution. Olson was in a similar situation, tho he did credit his Grove Press volume for two of his poems. Antoninus, who had published a book with New Directions in the 1940s, got all of his work for Allen from a University of Detroit Press volume that gathered his writing from the early 1950s — it was probably the most obscure press that any of them had used.


In 1960, there was no way really you could redact the New American Poets to a cluster, say, of six or seven “famous” examples and not have included Levertov. Her early books are the ones that made her reputation, enabling her to become the poetry editor for The Nation — not an inconsiderable accomplishment — and get a string of teaching jobs year after year without ever having graduated from high school. Yet in her Selected Poems, issued by New Directions five years after her death, these works take up just 16 of its 202 pages. “Scenes from the Life of the Peppertrees,” the poem everybody my age knew & could quote at least in part during the 1960s (the way they could Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Creeley’s “I Know a Man,” or Corso’s “Marriage”), arguably the best single poem Levertov ever wrote, is not included at all.


These poems are of course still available in The Collected Early Poems, which brings together precisely the books published prior to the Allen anthology plus some other pieces. And it is plausible, certainly, that the short shrift given her early writing in the Selected doesn’t reflect Levertov’s later views at all, since the volume was edited some years after her death by Paul Lacey, one of her executors, an English professor at Earlham College, a small Quaker school in Indiana. Lacey is at pains in his afterword to distinguish Levertov from her early reputation as “a ‘disciple of Williams’ in the same way she is attached to ‘the Black Mountain School’.”


Beyond his editing of Levertov’s work — the Selected and her posthumous The Great Unknowing — most of Lacey’s own publications have been on specifically Quaker topics: Quaker education, Quakers & the Fifth Amendment, Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation — with the exception of one critical volume published by Fortress Press of Philadelphia in 1972. The Inner War: Forms and Themes in Recent American Poetry has an essay on Levertov as well as others on Anne Sexton, William Everson, James Wright & Robert Bly. Even by 1972 standards, this is a fairly fusty gathering. Only Everson had appeared in The New American Poetry (under his monastic name, Brother Antoninus), where he’d been one of the few poets not visibly touched by the Pound-Williams tradition, coming as his work does out of the writing of Robinson Jeffers. Wright & Bly could be read as apostate Boston Brahmins, who’d rejected the old closed formalism of the Lowell group (as had W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich & Donald Hall) without signing up for the New American counter-tradition in the process. But you couldn’t even say that much about Sexton.


Like Amiri Baraka & Ed Dorn, Levertov turned away from her roots in the New American scene during the Vietnam period, becoming first a political poet & finally a writer of personal lyrics that were, in fact, much closer to Lacey’s Quietist conception of her writing. In her last years, Levertov, the daughter of a rabbi turned Anglican priest, converted to Catholicism, a move that seemed at odds not just with her “beatnik youth,” but also with the feminism of her middle years. Her battle over aesthetics with one-time best friend Robert Duncan has been documented in excruciating detail with the publication of their correspondence. And once Duncan had broken with her, Levertov had little ongoing contact with poets of the Allen anthology.



So who was that masked woman? How was it that “Denny” Levertov (pronounced as tho it rhymed with “tinny”) was established, even famous, before so many of her peers, and what does it mean that this part of her career has been at least half-erased? What are we missing?


The Denise Levertov of the 1940s is remembered by Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night as an adjunct to her husband, the novelist Mitch Goodman:


a charming and most attractive dark-haired English girl with a characteristic space between her two front teeth. Everyone called her Dinny. Everyone in Paris liked her. She was pure as a bird, delicate yet firm in conscience.


Mailer has no clue that this depiction is as demeaning as he intends it to be flattering. This cameo positions Levertov as connected to the writing scene — at the right place at the right time, so to speak — & as someone some people, men in particular, might want to do a favor.


Square this with rather wide-eyed and passive person who lets publishing just happen to her, the Levertov conjured by Denise herself in the introduction to her Collected Earlier Poems. She has sent some poems to a magazine and the editor — she can’t remember which publication nor which editor — suggests she take the manuscript over to  “a friend of his at Sylvan Press.” But she learns the press is about to go under. On a whim, she walks into “the offices of The Cresset Press, which I caught sight of at the corner of the square upon completing” an interview for a nursing job. But, not knowing what she’s doing, she comes “by way of the stockroom.” One of the editor’s chastises her, but takes the manuscript and a “few days later she called to say John Hayward had read the poems and accepted them for publication.” Levertov is just 21.


Coming to America at 23, “I took no steps towards publication of another book.” But she doesn’t need to. Kenneth Rexroth includes her in his anthology, New British Poets, she becomes friends with Robert Creeley & then receives


a letter from Weldon Kees, who was only a name to me, saying that he’d read and liked my work and wanted to publish a book of it in a small press series he and a friend were planning.


But Kees kills himself before he can take action. This hardly thwarts Levertov.


Perhaps a year later, one “Larry Ferling,” as Lawrence Ferlinghetti then called himself, wrote to say that my poems had come into his hands after Weldon Kees’ death and that he would like to publish them.... Not much later Jonathan Williams wrote to say he would like to do a book.


She credits Rexroth with bring her “to James Laughlin’s attention, and so ... to the happiness and honor of becoming in 1959 a New Directions author.”


Levertov is someone to whom, if we take this account as gospel, books happen. This unwilled approach strikes me as hard to square with the 12-year-old who sent her poems to T.S. Eliot and who is, in her very first letter in the collected Duncan correspondence, already is apologizing for offense given in some prior assessment of Duncan’s poetry. There is, or was, more push in her approach than she is willing to acknowledge.


Levertov may be right about Rexroth serving as her advocate with James Laughlin. Rexroth obviously took her seriously. In a 1957 deceptively titled “Disengagement: the Art of the Beat Generation,” Rexroth writes:


the most influential poets of the youngest established generation of the avant-garde are Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Philip Lamantia.


Nor is he alone in putting Levertov first into such a list. Hayden Carruth, introducing her work in The Voice That Is Great Within Us, his 1970 anthology of 20th century American verse, writes that


she, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan are the three poets most centrally identified with the “Black Mountain” movement.[1]



I have a theory. Levertov’s success during the first decade of the New American Poetry and well into the next came because her verse, and perhaps even her presence, served the interests of others, above and beyond its (her) own accomplishments. It is precisely because her work is far less innovative than Olson’s long — and sometimes inchoate — poem Maximus, or the dense language-centric writing that would characterize Creeley by the time he got to Pieces, let alone the dense theosophical trappings that sometimes gave Duncan’s work the air of a séance, that everyone turned to Levertov. She held the visible connection back to a poetics of William Carlos Williams, with its premise of discourse built upon “plain speech.”


This is visible in two ways. Perhaps most important is the degree to which her poems commit themselves to closure. For example, the way a poem like “Action” is hoisted upon its own final couplet:


I can lay down that history
I can lay down my glasses
I can lay down the imaginary lists
of what to forget and what must be
done. I can shake the sun
out of my eyes and lay everything down
on the hot sand, and cross
the whispering threshold and walk
right into the clear sea, and float there,
my long hair floating, and fishes
vanishing all round me. Deep water.
Little by little one comes to know
the limits and depths of power.


This is far from a perfect poem, and what’s wrong can almost invariably traced back to an anxiety in the writing — the excessive & anthropomorphic whispering, the return to punctuation at poem’s end, the entire last two sentences, neither of which add much to what has gone before. Think of just how much strong this all could have been had it simply ended, sans punctuation, after vanishing all around me.


Over & over in these early poems one sees this sort of twitch of closure. It’s a different move than, say, the whip of it that one finds in some of Creeley’s early poems. Consider the refrain that haunts “The Dogwood”:


The sink is full of dishes. Oh well.
Ten o’clock, there’s no
hot water.
The kitchen floor is unswept, the broom
has been shedding straws. Oh. well.

The cat is sleeping, Nikolai is sleeping,
Mitch is sleeping, early to bed,
aspirin for a cold. Oh well.

No school tomorrow, someone for lunch,
4 dollars left from the 10 — how did that go?
Mostly on food. Oh well.

I could decide
to hear some chamber music
and today I saw — what?
Well, some huge soft deep
blackly gazing purple
and red (and pale)
anemones. Does that
take my mind off the dishes?
And dogwood besides.
Oh well. Early to bed, and I’ll get up
early and put
a shine on everything and write
a letter to Duncan later that will shine too
with moonshine. Can I make it? Oh well.


This is in fact an interesting document of the issues facing pre-feminist woman in the 1950s, yet its recurrent tone might as well be a gong of depression: Oh well. The implicit anger — the poet is responsible for everything in the lives of her family, her husband is as infantilized here as her son — never comes through. Rather, like the extraordinary visual overload that was the anemone, it doesn’t quite come through. Or it’s perceptible more as absence than presence — why, after all, is this text called “The Dogwood”?


This poem has all the surface features of the archetypal Projectivist Poem — it’s notational, it uses names without explaining them, the line lengths vary greatly, It wants to turn that epiphanic anemone into an objective correlative, yet it ultimately rejects the gesture. What it doesn’t reject is the need to close on that mantra of depression — Oh well.


“The Dogwood” manages to situate itself precisely between the open poetics of the New Americans and an even earlier, even pre-Poundian mode in which all poems sought closure (think Housman or Levertov’s first real mentor, Herbert Read, coiner of the adage “Art is an attempt to create pleasing forms”). This push-pull aspect is an important dynamic for the Projectivists in the 1950s. Creeley, after all, is even better at this than Levertov:


For love — I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
behind the eyes.

Love is dead in us
if we forget
the virtues of an amulet
and quick surprise.


In addition to closure, Levertov’s poems during this period often correspond — the allusion in “The Dogwood” to Duncan & Mitch, a poem elsewhere entitled, a la Williams, “Pure Products,” another — “A Story, a Play” — that bows to Williams’ A Dream of Love and Creeley’s Jardou in a footnote. Or even the way Levertov deploys the verb (and image) split in “The Third Dimension”:


Who’d believe me if
I said, ‘They took and

split me open from
scalp to crotch, and

still I’m alive, and
walk around pleased with

the sun and all
the world’s bounty.’ Honesty

isn’t so simple:
a simple honesty is

nothing but a lie.
Don’t the trees

hide the wind between
their leaves and

speak in whispers?
The third dimension

hides itself.
If the roadmen

crack stones, the
stones are stones:

but love
cracked me open

and I’m
alive to

tell the tale — but not

the words
change it. Let it be —

here in the sweet sun
— a fiction, while I

breathe and
change pace.


Given the importance of that key image in one of Creeley’s two most famous poems of the 1950s — it gave the title to his first big Scribners collection, For Love — it’s hard to imagine readers at the time not catching the echo of the word split here, tho to very different effect. It’s a move that binds Levertov to her fellow Black Mountaineers — a school with which she was associated without ever actually studying or teaching there — while moving to a very different conclusion. Again the poem turns on a symbol — in this instance the comparison of a woman with a stone. It’s neither as sharp nor as shocking as jack-o-lantern invoked by Creeley, but in the long run might be even more disturbing.


One might argue (and might well be right) that all the seeds are here indeed of the poet who will reject (or at least minimize) her Projectivist Period work come the turbulent late sixties & seventies, that the feminist Levertov is at least implicit if not yet active. Yet what must have been visible during the 1950s to readers would have been quite the opposite — all the ways in which these poems connect up with other things they were reading in little magazines or had already read before. It’s a social role not unlike the one I’ve sometimes heard in more recent years ascribed to Rae Armantrout, Bob Perelman or Michael Palmer — the “I don’t like language poetry, but X is okay” reaction. And it’s not dissimilar from the reading someone like Charles Simic offers vis-à-vis Creeley, that he was an interesting poet in his first big book, but not in the more radical work that came later.


For Levertov, the duality of her role offered some real rewards — literally jobs & prizes.[2] Yet as the Duncan correspondence shows, it also entailed her feeling deeply at odds with some of the very people to whom she was most closely tied. It would enable The Nation to make a New American its poetry editor without having to open its pages to barbarians such as Jack Spicer[3]. Working with W.W. Norton, Levertov was able to get the short poems of Louis Zukofsky and the first books of Ronald Johnson into print. But to the degree that the personal cost would lead Levertov to later minimize the role of her early books, or to put her estate in the hands of an editor with no particular insight or sympathy to that part of her career, it’s had the curious impact of making Denise Levertov seem far less important than she once really was.


[1] Elsewhere in the volume Carruth does write that Charles “Olson exerted, through his poems, criticism, and personal connections with younger poets, a more profound influence than anyone else on the course of poetry in America during the fifteen years past.”

[2] E.g., the Lenore Marshall Prize in 1975, with Hayden Carruth heading up the prize committee, and the Guggenheim Fellowship that enabled her at one point to buy a washing machine.

[3] That would have to wait over 40 years for Peter Gizzi to take on the poetry editorship to happen.

Ron Silliman’s most recent book is The Alphabet (University of Alabama Press). He is part of the Grand Piano collective and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

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

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