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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in william carlos williams (9)


In Which Just When We Think We Are Falling Apart We Suddenly Save Ourselves

This is the first in a two-part series.

Nothing At All Certain

As Alice said of Henry James: "His intestines are my intestines, his toothaches are my toothaches."

The letters of Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore at first reflected a close kinship. The two were always placed in the same sentence despite the vast differences between their oeuvres. Bishop and Moore both eventually chafed at this rotten incorporation, and something of that must have filtered into their relationship. Over time, they found themselves less in unanimity than before. When Bishop moved to South America, she encouraged her friend to come visit her not this summer, but next.

Bishop's letters, whether to Moore or her friend Robert Lowell, were always excessively detailed. Reading them in full they seem a cataloguing of her various thoughts and feelings, usually ones she could not fully come to terms with until she wrote them down. Miraculous moments occur when you least expect them, and the collection of Bishop vignettes that follows includes excerpts from letters to Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell as well as her friend the lesbian poet May Swenson.

I am so sorry we were late last evening  sorry both to have interrupted you and to have missed that much of your talk. We thought we had timed the subway carefully, but I'm afraid we hadn't. You looked so nice down there on the platform: the black velvet is overwhelmingly becoming, and you should not have apologized for the shoes  they looked extremely, small, shiny and elegant, to me. I enjoyed everything you said and blamed the IRT to being so slow and the audience for not laughing more as I thought they should have at your many excellent jokes. And were really quite baffled with admiration when you had to make those impromptu answers.

I enjoyed every moment except the one in which my own name struck me like a bullet, and I felt myself swelling like a balloon to fill the auditorium.

Dr. Williams is even nicer than I had imagined.


The page of reports of my useless, unclean and bad-tempered pet delighted my heart. She had never had a bed before. I have always found that starvation was the best method of inducing her to drink milk. And I know she has a deplorable tendency to eat string - also lick glue from envelopes, etc. Perhaps I should have written to you immediately to reassure you about the constipation but I noticed that always seems to happen when she is taken from one place to another and rights itself which is so much worse in a day or two. I have been haunted by so many of my past unpleasant scenes with her.


In Cuba & Mexico they have special two-pronged forks for mangos, but you can use a kitchen fork. You stick it in the stem end & if you do it right the fork will go in the soft end of the seed & hold the mango firm. Then you peel it down from the top and eat it off the fork like a lollipop, being very careful not to get the juice on your clothes because it stains badly.

You speak of being "handicapped by solitude", but to me you seem the very height of society. It is terribly lonely here & I feel myself growing stupider & stupider & more like a hermit every day. I'm going to try to stay in New York all winter.

I wish you could have seen the beautiful sight I saw from the bus going to Miami nine tall white herons in a group, each on one leg, standing in shallow water where mangroves are just beginning to spring up just an arch here & there with a few leaves on it. The bus was stopped for almost ten minutes only one moved all that time, took one slow step & looked from the bus down into the water.

This is too long, but I want to talk.


Maybe I've felt a little too much the way women did at certain more hysterical moments people who haven't experienced absolute loneliness for long stretches of time can never sympathize with it at all.

I really feel that you should struggle against your feeling about children...but I suppose it's better than drooling over them like Swinburne. But I've always loved the stories about Shelley going around Oxford peering into baby carriages, and how he once said to a woman carrying a baby, "Madame, can your baby tell us anything of pre-existence?"


The missionary is dictating a letter to his wife at the next table. They are so sad, and the worst aspect of the trip has been the two Sundays we've spent at sea on which he held a "small interdenominational service." There are so few of us we all had to attend and sing "Nearer My God To Thee" (after he told the story of how the people on Titanic sang it as they went down). The three tiny boys sang "Jesus loves me this I know" in Spanish, and a song, with gestures, about how the house built on the sand went splash. I'd always wondered how it did go, but I had never thought of it as splash somehow.


I am puzzled by what you mean by my poems not appealing to the emotions. (I'm sorry to be so full of myself but your letter has brought it on.) What poetry does, or doesn't? And doesn't it always, in one way or another? A poem like "Never until the mankind making" etc. one feels immediately, before one starts to think. A poem like "The Frigate Pelican", one thinks before one starts to feel. But the sequence, and the amount of either depends as much on the reader as the poem, I think. And poetry is a way of thinking with one's feelings, anyways. But maybe that's not what you mean by "emotion." I think myself that my best poems seem rather distant, and sometimes I wish I could be as objective about everything else as I seem to be in and about them. I don't think I'm very successful when I get personal rather, sound personal one always is, of course, one way or another.


I bought Pablo Neruda's poetry (he & his wife have been very nice to us) & am reading it, with the dictionary, but I'm afraid it is not the kind I  nor you  like  very, very loose, surrealist imagery etc. I may be misjudging it; it is so hard to tell about foreign poetry, but I feel I recognize the type only too well. His chief interest in life (or did I tell you about all this) besides communism seems to be shells, & he has a beautiful collection most of them laid in the top of a sort of large, heavy, specially built coffee-table, with glass over them.


Sammy, the toucan, is fine  a neighbor built him a very large cage in which he seems quite happy, and I give him baths with the garden hose. Someone also brought him a big pair of gold earring from the Petropolis "Lojas Americana" (5 & 10) and he loves them. He has two noises - one a sort of low rattle in his throat, quite gentle, if he is pleased with you, or cranky, if he isn't, and the other, I'm afraid, a shriek. He also has the shortest intestinal tract ever known I think, and has to eat constantly, and is far from neat.

Just a few minutes ago I found a hummingbird in the pantry  quite a big one, yellow and black. I got it out with an umbrella. There are such varieties of them  and now the butterflies have come for summer - some enormous, pale blue iridescent ones, in pairs. I gave Loren one in a box once maybe you've seen it at her house. And I've never seen such moths  I wish I had my equipment with me & I'm going to try to get some in Rio. The house is all unfinished and we're using oil lamps so of course we get thousands and mice, and large black crabs like patent leather, and the biggest walking-stick bugs I've ever seen well it is all wonderful to me and my ideas of "travel" recede pleasantly every day.


The first time I met Dylan Thomas, when he spent a day with me doing these recordings in Washington, he and Joe Frank and I had lunch together, and even after knowing him for three or four hours I felt frightened for him and depressed and yet I found him so tremendously sympathetic at the same time. I said to Joe later something trite about "why he'll kill himself if he goes on like this" etc, etc and Joe said promptly, "Don't be silly. Can't you see a man like that doesn't want to live? I give him another two or three years..." And I suppose everyone felt that way, but I don't know enough about him really to understand why. Why do some poets manage to get by and live to be malicious old bores like Frost or probably pompous old ones, like Yeats, or crazy old ones like Pound and some just don't?


"Why I Had To Go" - Bishop Allen (mp3)

"Good Talk" - Bishop Allen (mp3)



In Which We Pay Respect To The Doctor

This is the second in a series about the poet Robert Lowell. You can find the first part here.

Dr. Williams


Dr. Williams and his work are part of me, yet I come on them as a critical intruder. I fear I shall spoil what I have to say, just as I somehow got off on the wrong note about Williams with Ford Madox Ford twenty-five years ago. Ford was wearing a stained robin's-egg-blue pajama top, reading Theocritus in Greek, and guying me about my butterfly existence, so removed from the labors of a professional writer. I was saying something awkward, green, and intense in praise of Williams, and, while agreeing, Ford managed to make me feel that I was far too provincial, genteel, and puritanical to understand what I was saying. 

And why not? Wasn't I, as Ford assumed, the grandson or something of James Russell Lowell and the cousin of Lawrence Lowell, a young man doomed to trifle with poetry and end up as president of Harvard or ambassador to England?

I have stepped over these pitfalls. I have conquered my hereditary disadvantages. Except for writing, nothing I've touched has shone. When I think about writing on Dr. Williams, I feel a chaos of thoughts and images, images cracking open to admit a thought, thoughts dragging their roots for the soil of an image. When I woke up this morning, something unusual for this summer was going on! - pinpricks of rain were falling in a reliable, comforting simmer. Our town was blanketed in the rain of rot and the rain of renewal. New life was muscling in, everything growing moved on its one-way trip to the ground. I could feel this, yet believe our universal misfortune was bearable and even welcome. An image held my mind during these moments and kept returning - an old-fashioned New England cottage freshly painted white. I saw a shaggy, triangular shade on the house, trees, a hedge, or their shadows, the blotch of decay.

The house might have been the house I was now living in, but it wasn't; it came from the time when I was a child, still unable to read, and living in the small town of Barnstable on Cape Cod. Inside the house was a bird book with an old stiff and steely engraving of a sharp-shinned hawk. The hawk's legs had a reddish-brown buffalo fuzz on them; behind was the blue sky, bare and abstracted from the world. In the present, pinpricks of rain were falling on everything I could see, and even on the white house in my mind, but the hawk's picture, being indoors I suppose, was more or less spared. Since I saw the picture of the hawk, the pinpricks of rain have gone on, half the people I once knew are dead, half the people I now know were then unborn, and I have learned to read.

An image of a white house with a blotch on it this is perhaps the start of a Williams poem. If I held this image closely and honestly enough, the stabbing detail might come and with it the universal that belonged to this detail and nowhere else. Much wrapping would have to be cut away and many elegiac cadences with their worn eloquence and loftiness. This is how I would like to write about Dr. Williams. I would collect impressions, stare them into Tightness, and let my mind-work and judgments come as they might naturally.

When I was a freshman at Harvard, nothing hit me so hard as the Norton Lectures given by Robert Frost. Frost's revolutionary power, however, was not in his followers, nor in the student literary magazine, the Advocate, whose editor had just written a piece on speech rhythms in the "Hired Man," a much less up-to-date thing to do then than now. Our only strong and avant-garde man was James Laughlin. He was much taller and older than we were. He knew Henry Miller, and exotic young American poetesses in Paris, spent summers at Rapallo with Ezra Pound, and was getting out the first number of his experimental annual, New Directions. He knew the greats, and he himself wrote deliberately flat descriptive and anecdotal poems.

We were sarcastic about them, but they made us feel secretly that we didn't know what was up in poetry. They used no punctuation or capitals, and their only rule was that each line should be eleven or fifteen typewriter spaces long. The author explained that this metric was "as rational as any other" and was based on the practice of W. C. Williams, a poet and pediatrician living in Rutherford, New Jersey. About this time, Laughlin published a review somewhere, perhaps even in the Advocate, of Williams's last small volume. In it, he pushed the metric of typewriter spaces, and quoted from a poem, "The Catholic Bells," to show us Williams's "mature style at fifty"! This was a memorable phrase, and one that made maturity seem possible, but a long way off. I more or less memorized "The Catholic Bells," and spent months trying to console myself by detecting immaturities in whatever Williams had written before he was fifty.


Tho' I'm no Catholic
I listen hard when the bells
in the yellow-brick tower
of their new church
ring down the leaves
ring in the frost upon them
and the death of the flowers
ring out the grackle
toward the south, the sky
darkened by them, ring in
the new baby of Mr. and Mrs.
Krantz which cannot
for the fat of its cheeks
open well its eyes . . .

What I liked about "The Catholic Bells" were the irrelevant associations I hung on the words frost and Catholic, and still more its misleading similarity to the "Ring out wild bells" section of In Memoriam. Other things upset and fascinated me and made me feel I was in a world I would never quite understand. Was the spelling "Tho'" strange in a realistic writer, and the iambic rhythm of the first seven words part of some inevitable sound pattern? I had dipped into Edith Sitwell's criticism and was full of inevitable sound patterns. I was sure that somewhere hidden was a key that would make this poem as regular as the regular meters of Tennyson.

There had to be something outside the poem I could hang on to because what was inside dizzied me: the shocking scramble of the august and the crass in making the Catholic church "new" and "yellow-brick," the cherubic ugliness of the baby, belonging rather horribly to "Mr. and Mrs. / Krantz," and seen by the experienced, mature pediatrician as unable to see "for the fat of its cheeks" - this last a cunning shift into anapests. I was surprised that Williams used commas, and that my three or four methods of adjusting his lines to uniform typewriter spaces failed. I supposed he had gone on to some bolder and still more mature system.

To explain the full punishment I felt on first reading Williams, I should say a little about what I was studying at the time. A year or so before, I had read some introductory books on the enjoyment of poetry, and was knocked over by the examples in the free-verse sections. When I arrived at college, independent, fearful of advice, and with all the world before me, I began to rummage through the Cambridge bookshops. I found books that must have been looking for a buyer since the student days of Trumbull Stickney: soiled metrical treatises written by obscure English professors in the eighteen-nineties. They were full of glorious things: rising rhythm, falling rhythm, feet with Greek names, stanzas from Longfellow's "Psalm of Life," John Drinkwater, and Swinburne. Nothing seemed simpler than meter.

I began experiments with an exotic foot, short, long, two shorts, then fell back on iambics. My material now took twice as many words, and I rolled out Spenserian stanzas on Job and Jonah surrounded by recently seen Nantucket scenery. Everything I did was grand, ungrammatical, and had a timeless, hackneyed quality. All this was ended by reading Williams. It was as though some homemade ship, part Spanish galleon, part paddle-wheels, kitchen pots, and elastic bands and worked by hand, had anchored to a filling station."

In "The Catholic Bells," the joining of religion and non-religion, of piety and a hard, nervous secular knowingness are typical of Williams. Further along in this poem, there is a piece of mere description that has always stuck in my mind.

grapes still hanging to
the vines along the nearby
Concordia Halle like broken
teeth in the head of an
old man)

Take out the Concordia Halle and the grapevines crackle in the wind with a sour, impoverished dryness; take out the vines and the Concordia Halle has lost its world. Williams has pages and pages of description that are as good as this. It is his equivalent of, say, the Miltonic sentence, the dazzling staple and excellence which he can always produce. Williams has said that he uses the forms he does for quick changes of tone, atmosphere, and speed. This makes him dangerous and difficult to imitate, because most poets have little change of tone, atmosphere, and speed in them.

I have emphasized Williams's simplicity and nakedness and have no doubt been misleading. His idiom comes from many sources, from speech and reading, both of various kinds; the blend, which is his own invention, is generous and even exotic. Few poets can come near to his wide clarity and dashing Tightness with words, his dignity and almost Alexandrian modulations of voice. His short lines often speed up and simplify hugely drawn out and ornate sentence structures. I once typed out his direct but densely observed poem, "The Semblables," in a single prose paragraph. Not a word or its placing had been changed, but the poem had changed into a piece of smothering, magnificent rhetoric, much more like Faulkner than the original Williams.

The difficulties I found in Williams twenty-five years ago are still difficulties for me. Williams enters me, but I cannot enter him. Of course, one cannot catch any good writer's voice or breathe his air. But there's something more. It's as if no poet except Williams had really seen America or heard its language. Or rather, he sees and hears what we all see and hear and what is the most obvious, but no one else has found this a help or an inspiration. This may come naturally to Dr. Williams from his character, surroundings, and occupation. I can see him rushing from his practice to his typewriter, happy that so much of the world has rubbed off on him, maddened by its hurry. Perhaps he had no choice. Anyway, what other poets have spent lifetimes in building up personal styles to gather what has been snatched up on the run by Dr. Williams?

When I say that I cannot enter him, I am almost saying that I cannot enter America. This troubles me. I am not satisfied to let it be. Like others, I have picked up things here and there from Williams, but this only makes me marvel all the more at his unique and searing journey. It is a Dantesque journey, for he loves America excessively, as if it were the truth and the subject; his exasperation is also excessive, as if there were no other hell. His flowers rustle by the superhighways and pick up all our voices.

A seemingly unending war has been going on for as long as I can remember between Williams and his disciples and the principals and disciples of another school of modern poetry. The Beats are on one side, the university poets are on the other. Lately [in the sixties] the gunfire has been hot. With such unlikely Williams recruits as Karl Shapiro blasting away, it has become unpleasant to stand in the middle in a position of impartiality.

The war is an old one for me. In the late thirties, I was at Kenyon College to study under John Crowe Ransom. The times hummed with catastrophe and ideological violence, both political and aesthetical. The English departments were clogged with worthy but outworn and backwardlooking scholars whose tastes in the moderns were most often superficial, random, and vulgar. Students who. wanted to write got little practical help from their professors. They studied the classics as monsters that were slowly losing their fur and feathers and leaking a little sawdust. What one did oneself was all chance and shallowness, and no profession seemed wispier and less needed than that of the poet.

My own group, that of Tate and Ransom, was all for the high discipline, for putting on the full armor of the past, for making poetry something that would take a man's full weight and that would bear his complete intelligence, passion, and subtlety. Almost anything, the Greek and Roman classics, Elizabethan dramatic poetry, seventeenth-century metaphysical verse, old and modern critics, aestheticians and philosophers, could be suppled up and again made necessary. The struggle perhaps centered on making the old metrical forms usable again to express the depths of one's experience.

For us, Williams was of course part of the revolution that had renewed poetry, but he was a byline. Opinions varied on his work. It was something fresh, secondary, and minor, or it was the best that free verse could do. He was the one writer with the substance, daring, and staying power to make the short free-verse poem something considerable. One was shaken when the radical conservative critic Yvor Winters spoke of Williams's "By the road to the contagious hospital" as a finer, more lasting piece of craftsmanship than "Gerontion."

Well, nothing will do for everyone. It's hard for me to see how I and the younger poets I was close to could at that time have learned much from Williams. It was all we could do to keep alive and follow our own heavy program. That time is gone, and now young poets are perhaps more conscious of the burden and the hardening of this old formalism. Too many poems have been written to rule. They show off their authors' efforts and mind, but little more. Often the culture seems to have passed them by. And, once more, Dr. Williams is a model and a liberator. What will come, I don't know.

Williams, unlike, say, Marianne Moore, seems to be one of those poets who can be imitated anonymously. His style is almost a common style and even what he claims for it the American style. Somehow, written without his speed and genius, the results are usually dull, a poem at best well-made but without breath.

Williams is part of the great breath of our literature. Paterson is our Leaves of Grass. The times have changed. A drastic experimental art is now expected and demanded. The scene is dense with the dirt and power of industrial society. Williams looks on it with exasperation, terror, and a kind of love. His short poems are singularly perfect thrusts, maybe the best that will ever be written of their kind, because neither the man nor the pressure will be found again. When I think of his last, longish autobiographical poems, I remember his last reading I heard. It was at Wellesley. I think about three thousand students attended. It couldn't have been more crowded in the widegalleried hall and I had to sit in the aisle. The poet appeared, one whole side partly paralyzed, his voice just audible, and here and there a word misread. No one stirred. In the silence he read his great poem "Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," a triumph of simple confession - somehow he delivered to us what was impossible, something that was both poetry and beyond poetry.

I think of going with Dr. Williams and his son to visit his mother, very old, almost a hundred, and unknowing, her black eyes boring through. And Williams saying to her, "Which would you rather see, us or three beautiful blonds?" As we left, he said, "The old bitch will live on but I may die tomorrow!" You could not feel shocked.

Few men had felt and respected anyone more than Williams had his old mother. And in seeing him out strolling on a Sunday after a heart attack: the town seemed to know him and love him and take him in its stride, as we will do with his great pouring of books, his part in the air we breathe and will breathe.

Robert Lowell died after suffering a heart attack in a New York City taxi in 1977.

"The Relatively Fair" - Will Stratton (mp3)

"If You Wait Long Enough" - Will Stratton (mp3)

"At the Table of the Styx" - Will Stratton (mp3)


In Which We Choose Our Proteges Ever So Wisely

The Perfect Driving Disposition

This is the third and final entry in a series about the letters of Denise Levertov and Williams Carlos Williams. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

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

Dear Denise:

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

Dear Bill

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.

With love,

from Denise

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

Dear Denise:

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.

Spring 1957

Dear Denise:

" ...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

Dear Denise

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

Dear Denise:

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 poemsmaybe 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,


in 1906 with a donkey

April 9th, 1960

Dear Denise:

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.

With love


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


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.

Denise Levertov

September 22nd, 1960

Dear Denise:

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

Dear Denise:

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

Dear Denise:

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. 



The letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams were edited by Christopher MacGowan, and you can purchase them here. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

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