Page 51 - WTP Vol.VII #3
P. 51

 had written.
At one point in the interview, Denise asked me where I grew up.
“I see that you have a rather eclectic taste in English poets,” she probed. “Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, Graves, Eliot...?”
“Buffalo,” I answered, at which she crossed her arms and grasped her shoulders in the gesture of someone shivering from cold.
I confessed that until very recently, my exposure to poetry was through reading standard high school an- thologies. My interest in modern poetry, I explained, was sparked by two elective courses I had taken my junior year, one devoted to the collected works of Yeats, whose poetry I professed to like a lot; the other, to the poetry, plays, and prose of T.S. Eliot.
“Whenever I think of Buffalo,” she said, “I recall the bitter, bitter cold and the wind-whipped, chest deep snow drifts.” She told me that she had once visited my hometown to give a poetry reading at the university. What she remembered of that experience was that her ears and nose had nearly become frostbitten while she had scurried between buildings.
Denise misconstrued the mention of Yeats and Eliot together as my thinking of Eliot as an English poet. “Growing up in London,” she interjected, “I thought Eliot was British, too. It was only after I came to America and started to read contemporary American poets that I learned he was born and grew up in St. Louis and attended Harvard.”
When the interview concluded, I retraced my steps through the battleship-gray “Infinite Corridor,” con- necting one MIT building to the next and the next, passing large stainless steel canisters of liquid nitro- gen, resembling oversized milk bottles, and torpedo- shaped tubes of acetylene that stood sentinel beside the lab doorways. Outside once again, amid the world of trees, grass and sunlight; sailboats on the Charles River; joggers, strollers, loungers along the Esplanade; of auto, bus and truck traffic, I reviewed what had just taken place.
Offering this personal note helped to put me at ease. I told her my English major girlfriend had read aloud to me poems by the British romantics Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, and by such nineteenth-century Americans as—Longfellow, Lowell, Emerson, Dickin- son, and Poe; but that I had discovered Whitman on my own.
Halfway across the Mass. Ave. bridge spanning the river, headed back to my frat house in the Back Bay, I began
to feel disheartened. Although Levertov had been very personable and had made every effort to put me at ease, I was convinced that I had made a poor impression.
Denise chuckled when I related the story of my sum- mer job back home, when I had worked on the maintenance crew of the Cheektowaga Town Hall. Most afternoons, I told her, the regular employees, who referred to themselves as “lifers,” quit early and headed to a bar across the highway. I seldom joined them. Instead I’d retire to the seclusion of a tool shed with my copy of Leaves of Grass, which I read cover to cover those sweltering afternoons. That same sum- mer, I told her, I had also read Robert Frost’s Collected Poems, sometimes with the book propped open on the steering wheel of the tractor as I mowed the town hall lawns at a leisurely pace.
My reaction to that first encounter with Denise Lever- tov is ironic given that I was daily in the presence
of eminent scientists at MIT. More than once I had
had the occasion to discuss physics with Nobel Prize winners. They represented everything I aspired to become and more. To my mind, they were the epitome of scientific and philosophical thinking. But, although in awe of them, I nevertheless did not feel tongue-tied, the way I inexplicably did during this one brief face-to- face meeting with the poet Denise Levertov.
“Good choices, but what made you pick those two poets, in particular,” she asked?
The intelligence I encountered in her was of a kind alien to my rational, scientific world, and, the more formidable for its novelty. I perceived her as sur- rounded by an aura of charged emotion that set my nerve ends to tingling. That night she appeared to me in a dream: first, as the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, Kali; then, as a manifestation of the hoo- kah smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland (the animated Disney movie version), blowing smoke rings out the gap between her teeth as she interrogated me,
“Of all the poetry we sampled in high school English, only Whitman’s stirred me. I wanted to find out more about him, to read more of his poems.”
“And Frost?”
“I took out a Book-of-the-Month Club subscription a few years ago, you know, just to broaden my reading. It was one of the selections.”
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