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Levertov's Final Interview

A Poet's Valediction
by Nicholas O'Connell

In a final interview, poet Denise Levertov discusses the egotism
of modern poetry, the sacredness of writing, and the spiritual hunger
of our technologically dependent society.

Denise Levertov, who died on December 20, 1997, was much loved by her readers and an inspiration to several generations of poets. She forged a middle path in modern poetry, marrying the hard, dry objective style of the Imagist poets with the music and metaphysical yearnings of figures such as T.S. Eliot. Like her mentor, William Carlos Williams, Levertov excelled at the direct presentation of the object, and yet she went further, endowing such objects with rich metaphorical significance. Born in England, she emigrated to America with her husband after World War II, and spent the last years of her life in Seattle, Washington, near one of her most profound influences, Mt. Rainier.

During her lifetime, Levertov published more than 20 books of poetry as well as translations and essays. Her most recent publications are The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature and The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, both published by New Directions in 1997.

The following interview was conducted on October 27, 1997, at Levertov's home, a cozy brick house in the Seward Park neighborhood of Seattle. Levertov still retained British mannerisms—a soft English accent, a humorous, conspiratorial tone, and a preference for Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar, which she served throughout our talk.

O'Connell: When did you first start writing poems?

Levertov: As a small child.

Why did you write them?

I had the impulse to do so.

You never asked why?


Were you good at it?

I was secretive about it, actually. From a very early age, I knew that I was going to write poetry. I also thought I was going to be a painter and I spent several years studying ballet. But when you have a real vocation, a lot of the other things fall by the wayside and you're left with the main thing.

How did you learn your craft?

By writing and a lot of reading.

Did you have teachers?

No. I hardly even went to school. I did lessons at home with my mother. I didn't attend school ever, except ballet school.

How did that influence your approach to poetry?

I think it was beneficial. With my particular abilities, I was very fortunate. I never had to read anything I didn't want to read, or write anything I didn't feel like writing. Of course I came from a very literate and somewhat literary background. I grew up in a house full of books where everybody read. That's how evenings were spent by the family. It was like a Victorian childhood.

We were not an English family. My parents had lived in so many places, and the people who visited us were from all over Europe.

My father was a Hassidic Jew, who had a very pious ancestry. He had converted to Christianity while at the university in Germany. By the time I was born he had settled in England and become an Anglican parson. He was a very well known preacher and scholar but was looked at askance, because if you weren't Oxford and Cambridge and Eton and Harrow, they didn't know what to make of you. So I had the feeling of being European, although I adore the English countryside and English literature.

When did you first start publishing your work?

The first poem I published was written when I was sixteen. My first book, The Double Image [1946], was written between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one. It came out when I was twenty-two. That was published in England before I came over here.

Was William Carlos Williams an important early influence?

When I was a greenhorn in America trying to come to grips with my new situation in life, his influence was very immediate and imitative. You can see it in some of those early poems. It's very clear. It sticks out.

He was very fond of me and amazed that someone who understood what he was talking about and writing in ways that he approved of would come out of England. He was pretty anti-English.

I first read Williams in a bookstore in Paris. My late ex-husband and I were living there then. I started reading him and Stevens around that time.

What did you find attractive about his work?

After I got over here, I suffered from undiagnosed culture shock. The rhythm of people's walk, speech, and everything was entirely different. We'd been living a student life in Paris, staying in pensions, with parents, and not living a regular married life. Then we came over here. Suddenly I was pregnant. I had to learn how to buy groceries on a shoestring and things like that.

Williams was a sort of gateway into my own development as a poet. He opened up a new way of handling language. His essays and ideas were important and influential for me too. And when I got to know him, he became a wonderful friend.

Did you feel an equal pull in the direction of T.S. Eliot?

I had grown up with T.S. Eliot as an important figure and started reading him at a somewhat precocious age. I was influenced by him by osmosis. Growing up, we thought of him as an English poet, just as we thought of Henry James as an English novelist. It's amazing to look back on. At that time, there were very different ideas about literature in England and America. But after I got to know Williams's work, I really went off Eliot, because he comes to a slump at the end of every line. It's only in recent years that I've been able to appreciate Eliot again.

Do you choose the subjects of your poetry, or do they choose you?

There's very little strictly deliberate about anything I do.

Did you approach the subject of Mt. Rainier deliberately?

No, I came to live here and there it was. I keep on writing poems about it.

I've taken a vow not to desecrate it by going up there. People should stop trampling all over it, leaving their garbage behind, and necessitating the placing of comfort stations around so-called wilderness. They should let wilderness revert to being wilderness.

How do your poems about Mt. Rainier start?

When it's out, I can see it from my work room and my kitchen window. I usually take paper and pencil in my pocket when I go down to the park. Often something starts as I'm walking around there.

An idea or a line?

A line. Sometimes more than a line. Sometimes a whole draft.

How do you get the second draft?

Well, it depends. I might see that the punctuation isn't right, or the line break isn't quite right, or I may want to add or subtract something. If you copy something out by hand, before you move onto the typewriter, you've already gone on making minor changes. This is an intuitive part of the creative process, and one that's eliminated by the use of word processors. People get such a completed-looking copy that they think the poem is done. The word processor doesn't take as much time as actually forming the letters with your hand at the end of your arm which is attached to your body. It's a different kind of thing. They don't realize that this laborious process is part of the creative process.

Do you consciously examine the imagery as you're putting a poem together?

No. I've been writing poetry for many, many decades. In talking about the process, I'm almost obliged to say, "First you do this. Then you do that. Then you stand back. Then you do that." But these things overlap and flow into each other. One has to use that linear description of a process that is actually much less linear, much more intuitive, doubling back on itself. But it's only for convenience sake that one has to talk about them as a sequence of discreet events, because they really aren't.

How about the sound of the poem? How do you work that out?

One has to have a good ear, but you also have to read what you're working on aloud. Even if you have a good inner ear there are certain awkwardnesses that only become apparent when you speak out loud. At some stage, you have to at least mutter to yourself. When I'm writing it out, I do a lot of muttering.

In the essay "Some Notes on Organic Form," you talk about finding a form that grows out of an experience. Is that what you try to do in each poem?

Yes, it's discovery, being attentive to the form that emerges. Critics always talk in such a deliberate way as if poets write with the same methodology that people write criticism. One doesn't write poetry that way, or fiction.

Some poems come into being and don't need revising. They emerge out of nowhere. You have to recognize they are complete and not mess around with them. This certainly doesn't happen with every poem. But you would be mistaken to suppose that every poem has to go through many revisions. You're bound to develop some craft confidence in all this after you've been doing it for a while.

Does your emphasis on a metaphysical dimension in poetry distinguish your work from that of William Carlos Williams?

There is more of such a dimension in his poetry than many readers and critics have noticed. They get stuck on that damned red wheelbarrow and those stupid plums and they never look any further.

In the essay "Some Affinities of Content," you spoke about how you responded to the goal of Northwest poets to submerge themselves in something larger than individual ego, in their case, nature. Do you try the same approach in your poetry?

I hope I do. I'm certainly very tired of the me, me, me kind of poem, the Sharon Olds "Find the dirt and dig it up" poem, which has influenced people to find gruesome episodes in their life, whether they actually happened or not. Back when Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were the models for neophytes, you had to have spent some time in a mental hospital to qualify as a poet. Now you have to have been abused. I know perfectly well that lots of people really have been abused, but it's unfortunate to use the fact of abuse as the passport to being a poet. I'm certainly tired of that kind of egotism.

Does this desire to submerge the ego involve a kind of spiritual quest, whether explicitly religious or not?

I think that's true, don't you? It's in the air. When I started writing explicitly Christian poems, I thought I'd lose part of my readership. But I haven't actually. I think interest in religion is a counterforce to the insane, rationalist optimism that surrounds the development of all this new technology. This optimism is a twentieth-century repeat of attitudes in the nineteenth century, when they thought that steam, electricity, and telephones were going to make for some kind of utopia. There's a lot of dependence on technology today, and a willful ignorance that it's messing up resources, may end up destroying life on this planet, and then we'll have to start over without it. Our ethical development does not match our technological development. This sense of spiritual hunger is something of a counterforce or unconscious reaction to all that technological euphoria.

Did your understanding of poetic inspiration help to imagine what it would be like to have religious faith?

That's one way of putting it. When you're really caught up in writing a poem, it can be a form of prayer. I'm not very good at praying, but what I experience when I'm writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer.

Is prayer similar to poetic inspiration, in that you can't force it, but simply must wait and hope for it?

But you do have to focus your attention. I was really amazed at how close the exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola were to a poet or novelist imagining a scene. You focus your attention on some particular aspect of the life of Christ. You try to compose that scene in your imagination, place yourself there. If it's the Via Dolorosa, you have to ask yourself, are you one of the disciples? Are you a passerby? Are you a spectator that likes to watch from the side, the way people used to watch hangings? You establish who you are and where you stand and then you look at what you see. -

from O'Connell, Nicholas. At the Field's End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (University of Washington Press, 1998). Reprinted in Poets & Writers Magazine (May/June 1998) Copyright 1998 Poets & Writers, Inc., New York, NY. Online Source

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