Page 50 - WTP Vol.VII #3
P. 50

 “Why don’t you try to get into Denise Levertov’s cre- ative writing class? She’ll be writer-in-residence next year,” suggested my college roommate sometime in April of 1969, near the end of my junior year. I’d asked Joe for help in planning my final semesters of undergraduate studies at MIT. He was a physics major like me, but outside physics, we shared a common interest in folk music and literature. Joe was an exam- ple to me of how one could be serious about science and pursue art and literature as an avocation, too. A straight-A student, he also wrote poetry as well as played guitar, performing in coffee houses, singing folk standards along with his own compositions.
First Encounters of the Poetry Kind
My remaining physics courses were prescribed, but I had room each semester to choose two electives. Joe knew that I wrote poems, having critiqued a few that I had the temerity to share with him. Until he made that suggestion, I had not taken my own poetry writing se- riously enough to think of showing it to anyone other than him and my BU English major girlfriend, least of all to a professional writer, a real poet. Until he men- tioned her name, I had never heard of Denise Levertov.
I was struck by her stature—small-boned, thin, almost petite—and by the sense of compressed energy like
a coiled spring that she conveyed as she expounded. She didn’t so much converse as dramatize what she was saying, her face animated, her hands gesticulat- ing. She fairly bristled with electricity. I was entirely unprepared for the kind of vitality she exuded and a bit frightened by it. She had a presence the likes of which I’d never encountered. Barry Levine, another MIT student who became part of the same poetry workshop, told me years later that “Back then, Denise seemed more intense than any person I had ever met.” It was a revelation, he said, that “someone could have that kind of life energy. It changed the way I looked at the world— to realize it was possible to be that way.”
In September, just before the start of fall semester classes, I stood in the hallway outside Levertov’s office door in Building 14, Killian Hall, the humanities build- ing, where I’d gone to submit to an interview in the hopes of gaining admission to the writing workshop she would be offering.
I had no idea what to expect when I had penciled my name on the sign-up sheet in the Humanities Office for the interview. I had never met a real poet face-to- face. The closest I’d come was when, with roommate Joe, I had attended a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg to an overflow audience of hundreds at Harvard’s Sanders Theater the previous year. It had impressed me as more of a counter-cultural happening than an artistic performance, Ginsberg, wild hair and beard, playing a harmonium and chanting as much as recit- ing poems. Excepting Ginsberg, Corso, and Ferlinghet- ti, I had had little exposure to contemporary poetry or poets. Of Levertov’s work and reputation, I was entirely ignorant.
I announced my presence with a knock, feeling a bit anxious about encountering this exotic breed of person, the “practicing poet.” I had never had to pass muster before to gain admission to a class and I was without a clue as to how to conduct myself.
“Mark Paw-lack?” she inquired, stressing the first syl- lable, speaking with a distinctly British accent.
“Come in. Come in. Pull up a chair.” And once I was seated, “Tell me about yourself.”
In advance of the interview, Denise had requested that each applicant submit a sheaf of sample poems, plus
a brief written statement describing one’s favorite poets and one’s reasons for wishing to enroll in her poetry workshop. I don’t recall whether she asked me that day to read aloud any of the poems I had submit- ted. I do, remember, however, that she plied me with questions, asking me to elaborate on the statement I
Ms. Levertov— “Call me Denise”— sat behind the desk in the otherwise bare office, where she had only re- cently taken up occupancy. A handful of books lay on a shelf on the wall beside her, giving the impression that they had just been unpacked hurriedly. The walls were bare of pictures or decorations of any kind. Her back was to the room’s one window, which opened to the
grassy courtyard where Calder’s sculpture “Great Sail” loomed.
She was dressed in a tight-fitting, white jersey or sweater with horizontal black stripes, a dark-color skirt and striped stockings. Her black hair was cropped short. I noticed right off the distinctive gap between her upper front teeth—“a sign of good for- tune,” she liked to tell people, I would later learn; and she was surrounded by a cloud of smoke. She chain- smoked, exhaling as she talked.
mark PaWlak

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