Page 54 - WTP Vol.VII #3
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First Encounters (continued from preceding page)
song.” I felt encouraged that poetry as written today was something I could grasp after reading William Carlos Williams’ definition of a poem as “a machine made of words.” This suggested to me that the way a poem worked could be investigated in much the same way as dismantling and putting back together a pock- et watch. As I read further, Dr. Williams went on to explain, “’s not what [the poet] says that counts as
a work of art, but what he makes with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity.” This view of the poet as maker and of poems as hand-crafted objects or mechanisms, each with internal workings uniquely engineered to suit its purpose, brought poetry into the conceptual world I was familiar with.
member about that event.
 All these years later, it is impossible for me to parse which discussion took place in one of Levertov’s classes and which in the other, but, generally speak- ing, poetics and prosody, and the relation of theory to practice were topics addressed in Contemporary Poetry, while the focus of the poetry workshop was the actual making of poems that “had three legs and didn’t wobble”—a phrase that Denise borrowed from Ezra Pound to describe a well-crafted poem.
When Creeley concluded his reading, this student raised his hand and when called upon, asked him point blank, “Why do you read your poems in that halting, staccato way?” Creeley wasn’t the least bit taken aback by the question. He replied that he read his poems just the way they were written on the page. He explained that his poems were made up of short lines consisting of just a couple of words, reflecting the way the poem struck his ear and that that was how he put it down on paper.
Most of the time in both classes, I proceeded each day with a sense of intellectual vertigo. I didn’t feel that
I actually “understood” contemporary poetry or the theories that swirled around it—not, that is to say,
The engineering student looked no less perplexed after this explanation. Noticing this, Creeley invited him to come up to the podium and look at the type- script for himself. The student proceeded to the front of the room and while he was scanning one page, Creeley suggested, “Why don’t you try reading that poem aloud for the audience.” With hardly a mo- ment’s hesitation, the student did so, pausing at the line breaks and reproduced the cadence of Creeley’s own recitation. That did the trick. He thanked Cree- ley and then went back to his seat satisfied, having learned something about modern verse.
in anything resembling the way that I understood relativity, thermodynamics, or quantum mechanics. Rather, I was going on instinct, “flying by the seat of my pants,” lacking, as I was, the kind of navigational instruments I had acquired in all the preceding years I’d devoted to science and mathematics. However, I knew from studying physics—not an easy subject— that if I persisted in puzzling things out, no matter how complex or unfamiliar, the problematic knot would eventually unravel and I would achieve the “Ahah!” of comprehension. In time, I began to rec- ognize the topographical features of contemporary poetry and started to have some success in tacking from one landmark to another.
Denise was charmed by the student’s innocent curios- ity and chutzpa. In the ensuing years, whenever she had occasion to lament a poet’s lack of attention
to craft, especially to line breaks—and there were many such occasions when I was present—she would recount this story. “You remember, Mark,” she’d say. “You were there.” Then Denise would not just retell, but reenact the story of Bob Creeley and the MIT en- gineering student, followed by an approving shake of her head and a hearty chuckle.
What made lasting impressions on me, more than the poems, statements, and essays, were guest visits by practicing poets Jerome Rothenberg, Jackson MacLow, Henry Braun, and Al Young that Denise had arranged. She also hosted public readings by Galway Kinnell, Gary Snyder, and Robert Creeley. As with the others, Creeley’s was the first of many times in ensuing years that I heard him read his work. What occurred during the Q & A after is what I fondly re-
Pawlak is the author of nine poetry collections and the editor of six anthologies. His latest book is Reconnaissance: New and Selected Poems and Poetic Journals (Hanging Loose Press). Pawlak’s poems, essays, and memoirs have appeared widely in literary magazines and journals, and in such anthologies as The Best American Poetry and Writers and Their Notebooks and Denise Levertov in Com-
pany. His work has been translated into German, Japanese, Spanish, and Polish. He lives in Cambridge, MA.
There was in the audience an MIT engineering stu- dent, no different from those of us present who were Denise’s students, but unlike us, he professed to have no interest in poetry, or so he admitted to me when
I talked to him later. He said he had just wandered into the room because the door was open and he saw the crowd inside. He had never experienced a poetry reading and so stayed to listen out of curiosity. Less than a year earlier that description would have fit me.

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