The Perfect Driving Disposition
The last letters of the poets Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams ("Bill") come at a time of incipient illness for the elder Williams. The aftereffects of several strokes were beginning to show in his memory, and he rarely left his Rutherford, New Jersey home. Yet he and the British-born Levertov shared an incandescent artistic communion, a mind melding that established solid pillars where flaky walls had once held all the confidence in their own art that could be spared. Williams' penultimate letter to Levertov before his death in 1963, included here, displays a shattered mind but an unflappable spirit.
Denise Levertov left her improvised home of Mexico in 1958. Before she moved herself and her husband Mitch to New York, Robert Creeley had visited the Levertov family in Oaxaca. WCW reacts to Levertov's description of Bob in the following letter.
January 23rd, 1957
What the hell did you have to get malaria for? Of course you were treated at once and properly with all the latest medical advice you could muster. If you had a severe case as you have indicated that you had it can take it out and may be hard to get rid of. I hope you took it seriously enough to get properly rid of it.
At that you probably had a swell time at the shore or bay or whatever you call it with Creeley. The people who take over your place for you must have been driven to distraction at sight of such a man. Lucky they didn't shoot him. He sent me a couple of poems recently, short lyrics on an enormous page which after all were very good . but so few on such a big page! Maybe that's the way to do it to give full dignity to the art. I hope so. Must be expensive.
I'm anxious to see your own book. Ferlinghetti is also I think printing my own, or reprinting them, Improvisations. Maybe they'll come out together or fail to come out together.
Thanks for your congratulations on the award, I can always use the cash.
I'm sending you under separate cover (if it ever gets there) a poem I translated from the Greek. I don't know any Greek but scouted around among my professor friends until I was satisfied that some of the classic translations I have seen were horrible then made my own transliteration. Hope you like it it may not be Sappho but I guarantee that it is in the spirit which moved her. Keep it, I'll have more copies later.
Take care of yourself.
Denise reacts to WCW's translation of Sappho and warily asks his opinion of Allen Ginsberg in this 1957 letter.
February 7th, 1957
How lovely — your poem, the Sappho. Thank you very very much. I tacked it up where it gives lustre to all around it & great joy to me. It came today.
In your last letter you mentioned an award — I didn't know about it for we rarely see an American paper — what was it? Our glad congratulations anyway.
Yes I think I got good treatment for the malaria, & I'm going to get a checkup (blood-count etc.) in a week or so, also.
Glad you liked Creeley's If You — I did too.
It seems Allen Ginsberg is conducting a regular propaganda campaign. I saw his picture, & Jack Kerouac's, in the Feb. issue of Mademoiselle. He has been rooting for me too, which is very kind — but I don't feel happy about it. He will damage his work surely if he puts so much energy into advertising, however generously. Or don't you think so?
I discovered 2 books by a Southern woman writer, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, who wrote with a dense, packed, and evidently true-to-herself style. (The Time of Man and Black is My True Love's Hair) She died 10 years or so ago & I guess is quite well-known (perhaps to the wrong people, for the wrong reasons) but new to me.
Am sending you some poems separately. How I wish I could come see you & Floss.
P.S. Did you know you wrapped the poem in a Law Degree? Was it a mistake or did you want to get rid of it?
Denise would end up reading the following letter at WCW's memorial service.
February 11th, 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.
The praise included in the following WCW letter to Denise must have been overwhelming for her.
" ...and all / who sit on benches in the morning" It's a beautiful book! and that doesn't begin to say it. It's a wise book and reveals a mind with which I am in love. What is love? a fellow feeling, something We can understand and acknowledge as part of one's own being.
I haven't even finished reading the book and shall not finish reading it soon (maybe) keeping it to enjoy slowly, stretching it out to make it go slow to enjoy as I would a delicious dish of food. It is really a beautiful book. The fine points! I am really amazed and a little in awe of you. I didn't realize you were so good though I had an intimation of it on that day in our front room when you were reading to me and I saw that you were really a poet.
This letter from Bill's wife Florence "Floss" Williams explains some of her husband's illness of the time, and precipitates the conversation between Denise and Bill's widow that would continue after his death. Here she does not seem to view Denise as a threat.
May 23rd, 1959
It was good to see you on Thursday — looking beautiful & cheery as usual — You were a tonic to us. I hope you & Mitch will want to come again.
There is one thing I must tell you about Many Loves. You asked Bill about the opening — he said it was not his idea. I didn't want to contradict him because it upsets him so. It was his idea and is in the published scripts as printed by New Directions Annual 1942. Get hold of it and read it. — It's sad to see a man like Bill fail — slowly — gradually — and know that there is nothing one can do. —
You are a good poet — we enjoyed so much hearing you read. — and thank you for the pleasure.
WCW was very enthused about Denise's latest book.
December 31st, 1959
There is about your most recent book of poems, With Eyes at the Back of our Heads, a frightening quality which marks you as a serious poet and a woman to be contended with in any discussion that has matters of art as its topic. The words, the choice of words you use is disturbing to a man. It is linked to something unknown to the male wonderfully well used. As an independent artist you hold the key to the attack, and it is an attack as long as you shall live.
The first 5 or six poems of this book challenge me so that I am glad I am not younger. It's a strange thing to have the attack come from that quarter: pure poetic excellence, quality which men have almost always reserved for themselves.
You have not always written written so excellently, as always one thinks that there is something unrevealed in such writing by a man or a woman, something deeply buried. When it is a woman that is involved the mystery deepens, it is something cryptic which the world solves by calling her a whore. But the unresolved element of superlative artistic excellence, forces a reevaluation upon us.
I am going to read these first half dozen poems — maybe more — until as an old man I have penetrated to where your secret is hid. It may be a druidic or perhaps an hebraic recrudescence but it's impressive and good for the art of poetry. You have the head for it, an impressive head which I have been long conscious of but that's only an accessory phenomenon, that curious artistic ability that flares in the words themselves is the thing to be treasured. It may at any time be lost, see that it isn't, at any cost!
I'm quitting for now.
With love and respect,
April 9th, 1960
Bravo! the last issue of Poetry shows you to be the most accomplished practitioner of the art that we have about us. "Come into the animal presence" is accomplished work but no finer than "Map of the western part etc" You have been going ahead every time you put ink to paper. You know yourself better than anyone else can ever know you. And you have the perfect driving disposition for a poet, and I think the depth of human experience on which to draw from. It's all a mystery where it comes from, as you know yourself, no one can instruct you but gratuitous advisors will for some reason attempt to. To hell with them when they attempt to lead you into one or another camp, because I see it coming.
I just wanted to say hello and to congratulate what you have already accomplished. I know you have recently lost your mother-in-law whom you really loved and respected. What can one say? We have been to Florida but a cold wind dominated most of our stay. Take care of yourself my dear and keep on with your writing. Because we love you. And don't bother to come out to the suburbs where you can do nothing to help us find ourselves in this mystifying dilemma in which we all find ourselves.
The poet is the only one who has not lost his way, and you are a poet. We must look to you. Keep on doing what you are already doing for us.
WCW had some harsh words for Denise about the language in her poem "The Jacob's Ladder." She responded, explaining where she was coming from.
September 21st, 1960
Dear Bill & Floss,
I have been incredibly sloppy about all letters this summer — please forgive my rudeness in not writing back sooner to thank you for The American Idiom & to answer your remarks on my recent poems.
By way of excuse, the truth is I was having such a good time out of doors in Maine, swimming & swimming and walking & just looking, that I hated to spend any time indoors in my rather stuffy little study there-also, at the last, we were in a state of paralyzing tension over the question of whether we should put every penny we have (& it's the first, fortuitous, & perhaps last time we had the extra money at all) on an old farmhouse. Well, we've done it — at least I think so — negotiations were to have been completed a couple of days ago, Mitch having remained up there for that purpose — but I haven't heard yet.
Now, about The American Idiom. I agree that there are very many young writers (older ones aren't likely to change anyway) who need to have this said to them because they start out writing in a borrowed 'literary' style that doesn't have roots in their own life & doesn't correspond to how they feel and how they talk. Also I agree that there is marvellous poetry in common speech, painful heartbreaking human poetry only to be heard & cherished if the poet hears and frees it — your life's work evidences that.
But-for me personally, I cannot put the idea of "American idiom" first. For you it has always been a focus, almost a mission. But each person must know their own needs. My need and desire is in each poem to find the tone and measure of what I feel, whether the language, word by word or measure by measure, strikes the reader as 'American' or not.
That poem you were distressed by, "The Jacob's Ladder," has to be the way it is because it sounds the way I think and feel about it, just as close as I can make it. My shaking up of its structure into something else would be a betrayal of what I know I must do. You must take into consideration that I grew up not in an American, and not in an English, but a European atmosphere; my father was naturalized in Eng. only around the time I was born — his background was Jewish, Russian, Central European — and my mother, herself proudly Welsh; had lived in Poland, Germany, & Denmark etc all the years between 1910 & 1923. And then, when I came to the U.S., I was already 24 years old — so tho' I was very impressionable, good melting-pot material, the American idiom is an acquired language for me.
Certainly I am an American poet, if anything — I know I am not an English one — nevertheless I feel the great European poets "belong to me" as an inheritance too.
It may perhaps not be a good thing to be without deep local roots, to be at home everywhere & nowhere, but if one's life has made one be such a person, & one is a poet by natural aptitude & constitution, one surely must accept it: for instance, my daily speech is not purely American — I'm adaptable & often modify it to fit with whoever I'm with, but in speaking to Mitch or to myself my vocabulary is a mixture of different elements-more American than anything else but still not standard American so to speak — if such a thing existed, which of course it doesn't.
And I believe fervently that the poet's first obligation is to his own voice — to find it and use it. And one's "voice" does not speak only in the often slipshod imprecise vocabulary with which one buys the groceries but with all the resources of one's life whatever they may be, no matter whether they are 'American' or of other cultures, so long as they are truly one's own & not faked.
Add to this the fact that 'The Jacob's Ladder' was written in a church in Mexico (begun there, at least, looking at a primitive painting). Also, it is most certainly not in iambics. When I come to see you (soon, I hope) I'll read it to you & if you are still interested we'll battle it out.
Glad you liked some of the other poems and hope you don't feel I am defecting from all you hold dear — your own work remains as rich and necessary to me as it has since I first began to read it 13 years ago but I cannot simply go along with all you say about the American Language, even though I think it is healthy for those who grow up entirely in that language to realize it & use it.
And I think you have to grant that I'm a special case anyway — I'm a later naturalized, second-class citizen, not an all-American girl, & I'm darned if I'm going to pretend to be anything else or throw out what other cultural influences I have in my system, whatever anyone says.
Much love always Denise
P.S. Gee, just realized as I dated this letter that your birthday was on Saturday. Please accept my wishes for a year of good health and of many poems and joys.
Please save me some copies of The American Idiom because I have some college reading dates & can give them away to students.
The Jacob's Ladder
by DENISE LEVERTOV
The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence
for angels' feet that only glance in their tread, and
need not touch the stone.
It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a doubtful,
a doubting night gray.
A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next, giving a little
lift of the wings:
and a man climbing
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past him.
The poem ascends.
September 22nd, 1960
Thanks for your explicit letter about your family history and your life after coming to America as it applies to your language. It is very enlightening. So our language has been made up, there is one thing that draw us together: the spoken language.
Congratulations on your purchasing for yourselves a home. May you have much happiness from living in it. Come see when you have the time.
October 8th, 1960
Dear Bill & Floss,
I'm writing this in the bus on the way back from reading at Bard. Stayed with Ted Weiss & had a good time — tho' I know I read too fast, darn it, & didn't space the poems out enough.
We're in the process of moving. Left the apartment yesterday with every drawer hanging open, boxes all over the place, packed and half-packed — trunks with clothes lolloping out of their open mouths, etc. It is fatiguing but also exhilarating.
I found Mary Ellen Solt's approach (in her letter) a little Germanic & pedestrian, in other words academic-the prose about poetry of a non-practitioner. The point gets lost among so many words.
Here is a poem you may like — I hope.
I want to see you both. This household removal — I have to get that over first.
Bus is close to Rutherford now — wish I cd jump off & come over — but back to the boxes —
With love —
WCW seems to apologize for his first appraisal of "The Jacob's Ladder" in this dispatch.
November 6th, 1960
Our talk yesterday afternoon was very important and rewarding to me, it put me straight on a subject on which I was too lazy to have made up my mind, a subject of utmost importance to me.
It had directly to do with that second poem which I had slighted but which I now see is one of the best you have ever written, employing the very understanding I am most eager to see in a poet — his relationship with the art itself rather than any topical matter which curses even our most promising artist.
The measured way in which you handled your material of the Jacob Ladder incident until the very scraping of the angels' wings upon the stone makes me cringe with embarrassment that I should have missed it in the first place.
The clean handling of the language is brilliantly deployed — you are an artist who it does my heart good to have seen in action. That's not half of it. Your criticism of my own short comings is noted. I'll pay attention to what you say.
On June 2nd, WCW suffered his final cerebral hemorrhage. His last letter to Denise records such pain.
June 21st, 1961
I have gone far back since we last corresponded. It is not possible for me to describe what exactly has happened to me. It has happened very fast. Bon voyage.
"Fall Aside" - Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions (mp3)
"Satellite" - Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions (mp3)
"Blue Bird" - Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions (mp3)