Tuesday, December 21, 2021

My Deniversity: Knowing Denise Levertov

Before starting on Voltaire, I decided to read this short volume by Mark Pawlak. Pawlak is a poet and math professor, and the book is a memoir about his relationship with Denise Levertov, beginning in 1969 and ending with her death in 1997. I would never have known of the existence of the book if Pawlak hadn't read my review of Dana Greene's biography of Levertov and contacted me regarding the publication of his book. I mentioned Pawlak earlier on this blog when I found an online post about Levertov's view of the New York Times. The same anecdote appears in this book.

Several aspects of the memoir are interesting to me, others less so. Pawlak is two years older than I am and attended M.I.T. as an undergraduate, majoring in physics. During his senior year, starting in 1969, he used one of his few electives to enroll in a poetry workshop taught by Levertov, who was teaching there at the time. The part that interests me the most concerns their milieu as it developed, and particularly how Levertov lived her life. Pawlak got to know Levertov and her family quite well and visited them frequently at their summer home in Maine. A lot of this material is covered in Greene's biography, but Pawlak offers a more intimate portrait of Levertov's daily life.

She was a passionate person and also quite opinionated. Her personality was much stronger than that of her husband, Mitch Goodman, and she was the main breadwinner up to the time of their divorce. I think that she benefited from an early focus on poetry as her vocation, whereas Mitch fumbled around for decades without really establishing himself in any field. Some of this appeals to me because, while Levertov was the same age as Pawlak's mother, she was also the same age as my father, who grew up not far from where she did in the London area. Although my mother was not in the least bit literary, she had a strength similar to Levertov's that allowed her to compensate for my father's inadequacies.

The part that intrigues me the most is the atmosphere in Cambridge, Massachusetts and environs in 1969 that caused Pawlak to diverge from physics to poetry. At the time, there was a strange zeitgeist across the country that existed primarily on college campuses. In a matter of months, Pawlak was transformed from a geeky physics major into an aspiring poet and a political activist, and Levertov was there to facilitate him. My take is that Levertov came from an exotic background that would be impossible to replicate today. She had little formal education and had grown up home-schooled almost exclusively in the arts. Then she moved with her husband to Greenwich Village in the late 1940's and inhabited what was perhaps the only sustained bohemian community ever to exist in the U.S. Her ideas about poetry and social justice have never been popular here, and with her forceful presentation of them to Pawlak, he was clearly smitten. Pawlak himself came from a working-class Polish background, and this would all have been quite new to him.

One thing that intrigues me is that the environment in Cambridge in 1969 was similar to that of Bloomington, Indiana at the time. In the summer of 1970, I briefly lived a bohemian life among potential artists and writers whose attitudes were probably quite similar to those of people in Cambridge. The difference was that in the Midwest this was an ephemeral condition that pretty much evaporated by 1972, while it lived on in places like Cambridge and Berkeley. The aspiring writer I knew joined an ashram and then went to law school. The two artists never had artistic careers. Whatever utopian elements were present in 1970 in Indiana were short-lived. Bloomington is now better known as the birthplace of the smug, reactionary and intellectually third-rate publication, The American Spectator, in 1967. You might say that Pawlak was either blessed or cursed by living in the Boston area when he did.

A lot of the book is devoted to what I would call poetry shop talk. Levertov was quite good at that and was probably a good teacher for aspiring poets. For me, this is of limited interest, because I am not a poet and have no desire to become one. Years ago, I wrote a small number of poems, and, at the time, I found the process interesting. Since then, I have decided that the short essay is a better format for me, and in fact this blog fits me almost perfectly. I am more interested in the development of ideas and the presentation of them in an intelligible manner. Whatever my readers may think, this format fulfills my idea of free speech, which is actually quite important to me.

As far as poets and poetry are concerned, I can only go by how I react to particular poems. I like several of Levertov's poems, which is probably enough to make her my favorite poet. Then there are other individual poems by other poets that I've posted on this blog that I also like. I'm not interested in all the parsing and discussion that poets engage in with the aim of developing their craft, because, whatever they do, there are too few good poems to go around. I may be a poetry snob, or perhaps I'm just poetically illiterate, but I have enough reading experience to know that no one is going persuade me to like a poem if I don't like it after a careful reading. 

Pawlak also mentions that his poetry apprenticeship with Levertov occurred before M.F.A. programs became popular. I would think that that would have been a better time to learn poetry, especially with Levertov, because, besides being a good poet herself, her pedagogic style required a sort of communality that would be nearly impossible to replicate today. She really cared about her students and made sacrifices in order to support them. On the other hand, I am in no position to say whether or not that turned out to be worthwhile. I don't think that I've ever read a poem by any of her students. Nevertheless, that era isn't completely dead, because Levertov's publisher, New Directions, is still around in New York City and publishing authors such as László Krasznahorkai, who seem like a mirage of the exotic bohemians of yesterday.

From the foregoing, you can judge for yourself whether you would want to read this book. I think that it would appeal mainly to poetry historians and poetry students and to people like me who appreciate Levertov, who still isn't all that popular.

Saturday, December 11, 2021


As previously, I'm not enjoying the pandemic much. Though I feel fairly safe, having had my booster shot and wearing a mask when appropriate, I feel constrained. As mentioned earlier, being limited in activities tends to weaken relationships. When things aren't going well, which currently also includes the political state of the country, I automatically start thinking about Plan B options. At my age, inertia is usually the best choice. I think it usually takes several years to develop a good relationship, and, when you have perhaps only twenty years left to live, relationship changes are a big gamble. Then there is the question of where to live if political conditions continue to deteriorate. I keep thinking about Flaubert, whose character, Pécuchet, said "America will conquer the earth....Widespread boorishness. Everywhere you look will be carousing laborers." This reminds me of the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6. If conditions got really bad, Scotland would be an option for me, but I'm not sure that it would be much of an improvement over the U.S. Theoretically, Scotland could split from the U.K. and become part of the E.U., which is generally more civilized than the U.S., but I may be dead by then. Another factor is the location of family members. Although my family has always been geographically spread out, like many people, I value it more as I grow older. Of course, my theory is that there is a genetic basis for being able to relate better to close relatives than to others, even those with whom you have a similar cultural background. One of my pet peeves about political correctness is that, not only are most people significantly different from others, but that it is common to dislike or underappreciate human characteristics that are different from your own. I currently have only ten close living relatives, including their spouses and children, and six of them live within 250 miles of here. Though there are always some family conflicts, those pale in comparison to the problems that arise when interacting with people who have different family predispositions from yours and who actually prefer their families to you. However, one of the advantages of being old is that you don't have to plan very far into the future. The idea that dying will allow me to escape future unpleasantness is becoming more appealing.

Under these circumstances, I tend to go into more of an escapist mode than usual. I have three new nonfiction books on hand, but I don't feel at all like reading any of them at the moment. I don't actually like the state of the contemporary world and would rather not think about it. For this reason, I'm going to delve into the Enlightenment again. I very much enjoyed reading about Rousseau, Diderot somewhat less so, but, as of yet, I haven't read much about Voltaire. As with Rousseau and Diderot, I'm not particularly interested in his writings, but he was a key figure during that period, and knowing more about him would help me understand that environment better. In many respects Voltaire had a sharper mind than Rousseau or Diderot, so it is possible that he had greater insights into the period. To this end, I will be reading a Voltaire biography next. It is refreshing to me to delve into a period during which intellectuals were important contributors to the conceptual schemas of their societies. There are no equivalents today, and what you get is a collection of academic hacks who know far less than they think they do and are generally ignored anyway. I still give credit to writers such as E.O. Wilson and Robert Sapolsky, but in the end they are primarily academic researchers and are not really equipped to address many of the issues of our times. To me, Wilson's main message currently is that we're ruining the planet for all life forms, and Sapolsky's main message, to the extent that there is one in Behave, is that we are nothing more than biological entities who are trapped within the web of our evolutionary past. Although these are important, actionable scientific findings, scientists are generally not well-suited to effect policy changes. Influential thinkers tend to be the ones who come up with slightly ridiculous but appealing phrases such as "liberty," which are effective in the same manner as advertising campaigns. Rousseau would have done well at an advertising agency, and he could even have written the jingles. In my view, the world might have been a better place if no one had ever paid attention to popular authors. The best ideas are usually ones of scientific origin, and they tend to be unpopular. "You are a stupid animal" – which sums up many of the findings that I've discussed on this blog – hasn't caught on.

Saturday, December 4, 2021


 As we move into December, COVID-19 is breaking records in Vermont, though, fortunately, since the beginning of the pandemic Vermont is still the second-to-last state in the number of cases per hundred thousand, with Hawaii retaining the best state record. As in other states, the most conservative counties have the highest rates of cases, and they are driving the numbers up. Although cases have also increased in Addison County, it still has one of the best records of any county in the country. Like everyone else, we are waiting to see how the situation develops with the Omicron variant. During the spring, summer and fall, life was beginning to return to normal, and I ate at restaurants three times, but now we are reverting to the earlier protocol. The governor, Phil Scott, a Republican, is looking less exceptional currently. The previous success in the state may have had little to do with him, and, like most politicians, he is reluctant to introduce mask mandates, because they are unpopular and unenforceable. In this and many situations, a fair, science-based authoritarian regime could produce far better results than what we've seen in the U.S. and Europe. It is too early to tell, but I think it is possible that Asia may emerge as the world power within a few years.

We have reached the point at which the federal government has become so transparently inept that it is difficult for me to take it seriously anymore. While the pandemic was broadly mismanaged under Trump in 2020, Biden seems only marginally more effective. Of greater concern are Congress and the Supreme Court. Congress is unwilling and unable to pass necessary and basic laws, usually as a result of political ideology rather than reason. As time passes, the Republican Party is evolving into one that supports anarchy and the elimination of taxation, along with an incoherent form of Christian fundamentalism that would be unrecognizable to Jesus Christ. Strangely, their political ascent coincides with a decline in the popularity of their ideas in the majority of the population of the country; the Republicans have been far more skilled than the Democrats at exercising unscrupulous methods. On top of this, the Supreme Court is now controlled by Republican fantasists who are denying that women have the right to control their bodies and are declaring that fetuses are people. These views can only be supported by an assortment of religious biases that have no place in a government that was specifically designed to separate church from state. Moreover, the Supreme Court is unwittingly displaying its intellectual bankruptcy by failing to recognize that by encouraging unwanted births they are supporting the growth of an underclass which will inevitably increase suffering and social costs for future generations. In my understanding, judicial proceedings are meant to weigh evidence, and the majority of the current justices seem to believe that their positions are supported by a being that does not exist and whose existence can never be proven. In the current situation, with intellectually incoherent Republicans dominating Congress and embarrassingly ignorant conservatives dominating the Supreme Court, the future of the U.S. is looking increasingly dire as time passes. Things could change, but perhaps not without a fear-inducing collapse of some nature.

On a more positive note, family members who had been living in Bellingham, Washington have moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire, a short drive from here.  I will be seeing a lot more of them, and, besides generally enjoying their company, I will have additional opportunities to discuss issues that interest me with a like-minded person. Often, I have been constrained to write what I think in raw form on this blog, because I have lacked the opportunities to develop my views in the course of routine conversations. The visitors, who came in two waves, have all departed, along with their cats. We had to keep the three cats apart from William in order to prevent fights. In one instance, a cat got loose, and, within moments, the fur was flying, literally. Fortunately there were no injuries. William doesn't like having his routines changed by visiting cats and is pleased that they are gone. As an outdoor cat, he generally eschews fights: it is the indoor male cats that are the instigators.

As far as reading is concerned, I do have a couple of books on hand, but I'm not as yet terribly excited to read them. I may start one soon.