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.

Where this resonates with me is that the environment in Cambridge is 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.

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