Page 52 - WTP Vol.VII #3
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First Encounters (continued from preceding page) “”
essays that had appeared in journals (The Poet in the World in which they were later collected wouldn’t see print for another four years), but in Contemporary Poetry, we surveyed vital strands of current Ameri- can poetry. We read texts like Donald Allen’s The
 Imagine my surprise then, when a few days later I found my name included on the class list posted outside the Humanities Office. Denise couldn’t have seen much promise in the poems I had given her. They were juvenilia, love poems addressed to my girlfriend, written in a dreamy nineteenth-century mode. Denise admitted as much to me about a year later in a letter in she sent me in response to a batch of my new poems I’d shared with her. She remarked then at how far my work had come, adding, “and you started at almost zero.”
New American Poetry: 1945-1960 and the then newly published Naked Poetry, edited by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey. Karl Shapiro’s anthology of histori- cal essays, Prose Keys to Modern Poetry was recom- mended but not required reading, offering some of the theoretical underpinnings of then contemporary poetic practice.
What had tipped the balance for her in favor of admit- ting me to her poetry workshop was the lengthy term paper written for a contemporary literature course I had included along with the “required” submissions for her scrutiny. This paper had earned me my first
Debates about free verse traditional verse, the finer distinctions between organic form, composition by field, and other open forms were very much alive and in flux when I first set foot in Levertov’s classroom. There I was introduced to these ideas for the first time in all their varieties and shadings, including the ways that they were put into practice—or not—by living poets.
A in humanities at MIT. It was a passionately argued comparison of Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In it, I had discussed Ginsberg’s debt to Whitman, and compared “Howl” unfavorably to “Song of Myself.”
My background didn’t make it easy for me to wrap my mind around each poem or idea about poetry that I came across in the readings, but I did like the intel- lectual challenge they presented. According to Richard Feynman, one of my science heroes, a Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist, finding out how things work was “the real fun of life.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I applied that principle to all the high school science projects I had undertaken. In each instance, with an obsessive zeal, I learned everything I possibly could about each of them. These teenage investiga- tions led me to the realization that nearly everything can be interesting in a profoundly satisfying way if only you delve into it deeply enough—poetry and poetics for instance, especially when your guide is a practicing artist.
“I found your reading of the two poems very insight- ful,” Denise told me; “and your conclusion is right on the mark.” She added, “Much as I value Ginsberg’s work, I agree with you that Whitman is far the greater poet.”
I looked forward to the start of her class with eager anticipation, curious about what it would be like to study with a living, working artist. I couldn’t begin to imagine back then that taking this elective course dur- ing my final semesters at MIT would radically alter my thinking and influence the future direction of my life.
That’s not to say I found contemporary poetry easy to grasp; quite the opposite. At first, I was intimidated by the many different approaches poets took to writing in open forms. The fact that there was no single right way to bring emotions, experiences, and observations together in a poem was unsettling. As a person used to the directness and certainty of scientific laws and mathematical proofs this was disconcerting. I was
Having already studied Eliot and Yeats, two long-dead poets whose work was “meant for the ages,” I was curious to know what was happening in poetry now, beyond my limited knowledge of the Beats, and so I also enrolled in Contemporary Poetry. No other elec- tive course listing that semester sounded as appeal- ing. It happened to be a course also taught by a Denise Levertov, though that wasn’t why I chose it.
too new to poetry then to realize that doing science and writing poetry could share the common aesthetic experience of getting something “right”; i.e. construct- ing a theory or experiment, or making a poem that is both elegant and, as Einstein had said, “as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Whereas the poetry workshop was intentionally small, a baker’s dozen, Contemporary Poetry was three times as large and conducted in a more-or-less traditional lecture and discussion format with weekly assignments. In the poetry workshop, Denise only oc- casionally assigned outside readings, mostly her own
But my interest was piqued by the statements about

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