This is the second part of a series about the letters of Denise Levertov and Williams Carlos Williams. You can read the first part here.
Agonies of Indecision
The letters of the poets Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams quickly grew familiar. In Levertov, the aging Williams found a like mind eager to take up his artistic sensibilities. Because Denise disliked long phone conversations, she put it all into the letters to her mentor, impressing both with the poems that inevitably accompanied the correspondence as well as descriptions of her life in Mexico married to the woefully mediocre Mitch Goodman. The letters below chronicle her departure from Mexico in the late fifties after Bill first wrote her following an introduction by Robert Creeley.
My dear Denise Goodman,
A man should be able to react "big" to his admirers, it's due them, they do not throw their praise around carelessly. And so I always feel mean when I look into the back of my own head and see what a small figure I make to myself. I am not what they think. I am not the man I should be for THEIR sakes, they deserve something more. It is in fact the duty of the artist to assume greatness. I cannot. What a fool.
I can't believe even what I know be the truth of my own worth. When an individual says he or she "lives" by what I exhibit I get a sudden fright. But at the same time if I myself live by certain deeds why should not others do the same? But we are so weak, what we do seems the worst futility. I am willing to go down to nothing but I don't want to feel I'm dragging anyone down with me.
Here I sit in my little hole like a toad. Thank you for your letter.
November 13th, 1951
Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
First, thanks very much for subscription to "Naked Ear." That's very kind of you. He has an extraordinary mixture of good & bad in there, hasn't he — mostly bad — but yet it's so open & simple (like, I've heard, the man himself) that one always feels better things may show up. And in fact they do, e.g. Bob's poems. Bob Creeley spent the 3 days after Xmas with us & he was describing Judson Crews whom he likes very much.
Coming to Guadalajara & finding us gone to the coast & the house empty, Creeley broke a window, entered, & did all the Goldilocks things including a little laundry. When the maid's husband came to make his daily inspection & water the lawn, there sat Bob at table with some food & a book propped up; with his one eye and his beard you can imagine the sensation he must have caused.
He was lucky not to have been shot for there've been robberies in the neighbourhood and Mexicans are gun-happy. Bob's inability to prove to Soledad & her husband that he really was a close personal friend of ours, & their agonies of indecision as to whether to treat him as a guest or a bandit (they arrived at a compromise) make a comic piece in the genre of Pirandello's The Jar.
At the beach we ate fresh coconuts & lobsters, saw a most beautiful insouciant armandillo, swam every day, walked in the palm jungle, caught some inedible fish (tho' the water teemed with edible ones) from an unbalanced & unresponsive canoe (on the lagoon) and in addition I distinguished myself by getting a bad attack of malaria, complete with nephritis, hepatitis, & gastritis. The day before we left the bay filled up with enormous sharks, something I wouldn't have missed seeing for the world, tho' I didn't care to swim any more after that. Once or twice we swam at night — once while Bob was with us.
We were obliged to go to bed early as the candles flickered in the sea wind & hurt our eyes, so we got up in the time to see the sun rise, most days.
The most delightful twinkle-footed little pigs of all colors & their lean long-snouted medieval-looking parents, were constantly wandering through the sandy village of palm-huts & snuffing abut the beach.
I have some poems to send you but Mitch has the typewriter and won't be back for another week so I'll wait till then.
The book from Ferlinghetti was to have been out by Xmas but there was some trouble about the typeface & cover so it will be a while longer.
John & Ruth Herrmann & Juanito have gone to Houston Texas where they intend to remain 6 months & then return to Mexico. John is going into the V.A. hospital there for another hernia operation, & hopes as a result to have his pension augmented. He spent a little time at the beach with Mitch before leaving. We hope, & so do they, that the complete change of scene (after 8 yrs in Mexico) will help Ruth who has just been killing herself with drink. I went into a spin over it for a while, until I realized that no one person, least of all an emotional one like me, can do anything to help a person in that condition.
An image that lingers with me: — her blurred voice & tousled gray hair, her ravaged face from which glowed one beautiful eye (the other half-closed from a terrific shiner) as she recalled you coming up to her years ago at some meeting & saying, "Ah, Ruth, your lovely face — your lovely face makes it worth while having come..." And the strange dignity she retained in her degradation, in the dirty chilly kitchen among the flies & the giggling servant-girls. Somehow she pulled up when John came back from the beach & left for the States in pretty good shape. John himself aside from his poor health is O.K.
I feel ashamed to be so remote, to have given so little thought and feeling, to the Hungarian rising — but it's from the feeling of distrust one has of all the reports — not of the fact of what happened, essentially, but to the way it is used by the worst people. For example I picked up eagerly a sort of supplement to Life consisting of pictures & history of the whole affair — and dropped it without looking because however many true photographs could have been taken there's always the sickening feeling that, in the Time-Life context, they're fixed. So that natural impulse to sympathy, indignation, etc, gets turned back on itself. All the passion and illusion of the thirties that fizzled out with the war is denied to one in the 50s because one's damned if one's going to be tricked and bamboozled. (Of course I was a child in the 30s, but I lived some of it through my sister, 9 years older than I — walked in May Day parades, held the soap box steady in Hyde Park etc) And then one feels ungenerous & introverted. Well, Schuhmacher, bleib bei dein Last, I guess.
Hope Xmas & New Years were happy for you and Floss, to whom please give my love as always.
January 17th, 1957
I just mailed you a note about the certificate to be returned to me, thank you. But in the same mail with your letter telling me of my mistake in sending came Cid Corman's Origin with your poems — which you had sent me earlier in manuscript, at least the one called "Tomatlan."
Reading the poems it came over me how almost impossible it is to realize what it is that goes over from a writer into her poem. And how it gets there. Even the alertest reader can miss it. The poet herself might miss it and quit trying. And yet if it is important enough to her she will never quit trying to snare the "thing" among the words. Where does it lie among the words? That is the critic's business to discover and reveal that. You do not make it easy for.
I have never forgot how you came to me out of the formalism of English verse. At first as must have been inevitable, although I welcomed you I was not completely convinced, after all I wasn't completely convinced of my own position, I wanted you to convince ME.
Even recently I fight against accepting you unconditionally. It must always be so with a person we love and admire. It must be in the words themselves and what you find to do with them and what you have the spirit and trust to rely on the reader to find what you have put among them.
Where is it? In detail. Microscopically.
To take that poem apart or before that to view it as a whole, what do I see? But before that where else in this issue of that magazine is there something to challenge it. I'll have to pass that one up because I have not read those poems as carefully as I have yours.
Returning to that particular poem I have spoken of, to read it gives me a sensation of calm, of confidence. A countryside, a tropical jungle appears to me into which with my imagination I enter. It is done with the fewest possible words, with no straining after effect without the poet's apparent consciousness of making any effect at all.
The words used are copied direct from a vision seen, actually seen. The transition between the reader and what is being put down for him is direct, nothing extraneous has been allowed to creep in. This is a great preliminary virtue. It makes the final picture fresh as is anything seen for the first time, by a child, but let's not overemphasize that.
What, granted that, has the poet selected to use in her picture? She looking at the original picture must have selected significant details because after all she cannot see everything and what she seizes in her imagination reveals in the first place her intelligence and emotional range and depth. Her sight is keen, her mood relaxed.
I think the trick is done in the second stanza with the words "its silky fur brushes me". And later on "the palms shake their green breasts,"... Effortlessly, is the impression in the instantaneous exchange that takes place in the metaphor flares as a flash in our minds.
But a poet is not to be trapped so easily (it is all a flight and an escape) an internal battle of wits and the intelligence, a man and woman competing, wrestling for the crown of laurels, and some men and women write for cash. Denise Goodman has the ability to bundle the whole mess into one, balance calmly on her head, not giving herself away.
"New peace shades the mind here, the jungle shadows frayed by the sea winds." The test of how the poet is going to divide her lines is the test of what she or he is.
February 11th, 1957
Dear Bill & Floss
It's a long time since I last wrote — you'll have just about written me off as having disappeared into the Sierra Madre.
We had a long meandering bus trip down here stopping at different places & seeing a beautiful variety of landscape — the best being that between Mexico City & Puebla, which has not only its own riches, but the two snowy volcanoes Popocatepetl & the Sleeping Woman at its horizons. I had just received $80 for 2 poems from Mademoiselle, so in Mexico City we had a little leeway with money & bought a whole lot of books (since Oaxaca has no American library) which was fun. I don't mean eighty dollars' worth of course!
Finally we got down here to find that the house wasn't ready for us owing to a typical Mexico mishmash — that was the first week in July — now we've moved into 2 rooms & the kitchen & they're rebuilding the rest around us — it will be nice when it's finished but meanwhile the sounds (beginning at 6:30 am — continuing till sundown) of plastering, sawing, plumbing, whistling, singing & cement mixing (by hand) are driving us nuts, especially Mitch, and especially since the patio is almost completely obstructed by rotten beams (removed from the original structure) metal rods) to be used in the present structure) huge mudpuddles (it is the rainy season) and our landlord's family washlines (the landlord & family are charming friends and have adopted my mother for life, which makes it almost impossible to complain, especially since all this is not the fault of anyone in particular).
Anyway — Mitch is restless & wants to get back to New York; so he's probably going to drive up with some friends in a week & stay a couple of months. I guess we will all 3 be back next spring. The prospect of going back to N.Y. gave me the shakes as recently as a week ago, but I've now realized that it is inevitable because Mitch needs it, it is his native ground & he comes to a standstill when he's away too long. For me it is rather bad than good but I'm very adjustable once I can see there's no way out. So now I'm beginning to think of the good things about a return — the chance of seeing you for one. And seeing paintings, hearing music. Nell Blaine has been painting down here & I've gotten a kick out of her work (& finding what a good person she is too, after years of mere acquaintance) — & it makes me realize how much I miss that.
Here, even in Mexico City, there's nothing. The Mexican painters don't interest me, except some of the engravers. Oaxaca itself & the great archeological sites nearby I love, but somehow none of it has the impact on me that the bare dry prairie & distant mountains around Guadalajara had a year & 1/2 ago — bitter & almost ugly, they seemed the right place to come at a bitter time. However once this damn house is fixed I mean to suck whatever savor is to be had from the remaining months here, if I can.
Today I discovered something odd — H.L. Davis whose poems (published by Harriet Monroe in the twenties) I'd found in an anthology & liked very much, also a book of his called Winds of Morning, & to whom I'd been meaning to write to ask if he still wrote poetry, is living right here just outside Oaxaca. I haven't met him yet but am going out there in a day or 2. It was rather like finding John Herrmann, to find him living here — tho I don't expect him to be such a nice person as poor John (from whom we haven't heard recently — & in his case that's not a good sign).
The electricity just gave out (see "The Plumed Serpent," very little has changed) and there's about 1/4 inch of oil left in the lamp. We were very glad to read about that Award they gave you. I hope you've both been well — has it been a good summer for you? — not that it's ended but there's a feeling here of summer visitors departing & fall beginning. I've been dyeing curtains all sorts of unexpected colors. We have a 16-year old maid called Lydia, she has terribly bandy legs but such a nice face. The workmen's wives and families come twice a day & they all have long civilized picnics among the rubble.
With love, always,
August 25th, 1957
In a diary entry from November, Levertov wrote, "went to San Felipe to visit H.L. Davis. Liked him — gave him my book."
The letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams are edited by Christopher MacGowan. You can read the first part of this series here.