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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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Tino Villanueva

Poet in the World:

A Tribute to Denise Levertov

October 24, 2007:
Cambridge Friends Meetinghouse, 5 Longfellow Park , Cambridge

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I must thank at the outset the organizing committee for having invited me to participate in this “Celebration of the Work of Denise Levertov,” whom I first met 24 years ago exactly, in October of 1973, when we both participated in the Pablo Neruda tribute at MIT. From then on I began to read, and appreciate her rich and varied work. Later in the decade she was instrumental in bringing me to Tufts University twice — once for a reading on campus, and a second time to meet and hear her creative writing students read their poems, and for me to share my work with them. On this occasion we met at Mark Pawlak’s apartment, at 173 Rindge Avenue, and if memory serves me right, both Denise and Mark read a poem or two as well.


On April 28, 1979 (I have since framed the poster), I had the great honor of reading alongside Denise, Father Philip Berrigan, and Mark Pawlak at Boston University’s Hayden Hall in celebration of The Year of the Child.


In the early 1980s I invited Denise on two occasions to my apartment in Boston, making it possible for a couple of students to meet her. (I distinctly recall making chicken tacos for dinner — my culinary specialty, if I may interject gratuitously.) Later in the decade — it must have been 1988 — she invited me to her home in Davis Square to meet none other than New Mexican poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, present here this evening, and who the year before had published Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, which Denise had prefaced, and which went on to win a 1988 American Book Award.


So imagine the great pleasure I took in having been asked to participate this evening in this tribute to Denise, a writer I have admired both as a poet and the human-being-in-the world that she was.


“I believe any space and comma,” Denise Levertov said, “is a living part of the poem and has its function, just as every muscle and pore of the body has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem’s life.” [1 ] This is but one of a host of artist’s statements Denise Levertov made during her writing career concerning the craft of poetry.


Some of you are already familiar with Denise’s many and sundry articles on the fine points of poetry writing. One has but to look in one of her books of collected essays, Light Up the Cave (1982) where are found such articles as, “The Nature of Poetry,” “On the Function of the Line,” and “Technique and Tune-Up.” In these she reminds us that, “[p]oetry makes more use of silences in its structures than prose does”; and that “[m]ost poetry is more directly derived from the unconscious than most prose.” In her “On the Function of the Line,” an insightful eight-and-a-half-page essay, she arrives at the striking conclusion that “[t]he linebreak is a form of punctuation additional to the punctuation that forms part of the logic of completed thoughts.”


In her own practice, whether she was writing an intimate lyrical poem or a narrative one driven by some social or political concern, it was the well-wrought line that stood out as well as the substance of the poem. For her it could be no other way: the strength of content in tune with the power of the form; the relevance of the message merged to the structure of language; social realism abetted by aesthetic realism; sexual politics and textual politics fused.


It is with this in mind I have chosen to read, for this tribute to Denise, parts i and ii of a poem, from To Stay Alive, and one poem from Candles in Babylon. All three address the issue of language. Let me begin with the first two sections from “Prologue: Interim,” concerning the use and mis-use of language, its background clearly that of the Vietnam War:


Prologue: An Interim


While the war drags on, always worse,
the soul dwindles sometimes to an ant
rapid upon a cracked surface;

Lightly, grimly, incessantly
it skims the unfathomed clefts where despair
seethes hot and black.


Children in the laundromat
waiting while their mothers fold sheets.
A five-year-old boy addresses
a four-year-old girl. ‘When I say,
Do you want some gum? Say yes.’
‘Yes...’ ‘Wait! — Now:
Do you want some gum?’
‘Yes!’ ‘Well yes means no,
so you can’t have any.’
He chews. He pops a big, delicate bubble at her.

O language, virtue
of man, touchstone
worn down by what
gross friction...

‘“It became necessary
to destroy the town to save it,”
a United States major said today.
He was talking about the decision
by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town
regardless of civilian casualties,
to rout the Vietcong.

O language, mother of thought,
are you rejecting us as we reject you?

Language, coral island
accrued from human comprehensions,
human dreams,

you are eroded as war erodes us.[2]


I shall end my remarks by now reading “Writing in the Dark,” which centers on the process of creating a poem — sound advice on how one might help develop a poem even in sheer darkness:


Writing in the Dark

It’s not difficult.
Anyway, it’s necessary.

Wait till morning, and you’ll forget.
And who knows if morning will come.

Fumble for the light, and you’ll be
stark awake, but the vision
will be fading, slipping
out of reach.

You must have paper at hand,
a felt-tip pen — ballpoints don’t always flow,
pencil points tend to break. There’s nothing
shameful in that much prudence: those are your tools.

Never mind about crossing your t’s, dotting your i’s —
but take care not to cover
one word with the next. Practice will reveal
how one hand instinctively comes to the aid of the other
to keep each line
clear of the next.

Keep writing in the dark:
a record of the night, or
words that pulled you from depths of unknowing,
words that flew through your mind, strange birds
crying their urgency with human voices,

or opened
as flowers of a tree that blooms
only once in a lifetime:

words that may have the power
to make the sun rise again.[3]


[1] Denise Levertov, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973, Eds. Richard Ellmann, Robert O’Clair, p. 1056.

[2] Denise Levertov, “Prologue: Interim,” To Stay` Alive (New York: New Directions Books, 1965), pp. 21–22.

[3] Denise Levertov, “Writing in the Dark,” Candles in Babylon (New York: New Directions Books, 1982), p. 101.

Tino Villanueva is the author of six books of poetry, among them Scene from the Movie Giant, which won a 1994 American Award. He teaches at Boston University.

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

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