Denise Levertov in Blue Jeans


I didn't have my driver's license yet, but I convinced a friend who did to take me to Brandeis University to hear the poet, Denise Levertov. I had read some of her poems and all of her book, The Poet in the World. I can still see that cover. Wait! I still have my copy with my name and the date, 1975, written in my best cursive. Almost 50 years later I am still rereading and underlining this same book. 

In 1975, I was 15 years old, what did I know? But I bought myself this book($2.45) with my babysitting money and clutched it tightly. I desperately wanted to be a poet in the world; I didn't know how to go about it but this was my deepest desire. 

Denise Levertov seemed an actual embodiment of the world I wanted to know. She was born in England, and had grown up there, moved to New York City, her family was originally Jewish ( a long legacy of honored rabbis) but her father had converted to Christianity. Most of all, she was a respected poet with poems and essays that astonished me.

In-person, Levertov was more spirit than flesh. The reading was in a nondescript Brandeis classroom and she sat on a small desk, her legs criss-crossed. And yes, she wore jeans, blue Levis (what else existed?) and a casual shirt. I admit, this (at the time) unheard of attire made a lasting impression.

I didn't understand how a famous poet (she had 8 books already) could be so unassuming. No auditorium, no crowd, just a weekday afternoon gathering of likeminded people. I hope she read what was my favorite of her poems, "The Secret." It seemed written just for me...and every other young woman I knew.

The Secret

Two girls discover   
the secret of life   
in a sudden line of   

I who don’t know the   
secret wrote   
the line. They   
told me

(through a third person)   
they had found it
but not what it was   
not even

what line it was. No doubt   
by now, more than a week   
later, they have forgotten   
the secret,

the line, the name of   
the poem. I love them   
for finding what   
I can’t find,

and for loving me   
for the line I wrote,   
and for forgetting it   
so that

a thousand times, till death   
finds them, they may   
discover it again, in other   

in other   
happenings. And for   
wanting to know it,   

assuming there is   
such a secret, yes,   
for that   
most of all.


Yes! That time when a line of poetry can change your life one week and then be forgotten the next. But this poem, with its tight line breaks and quatrains, imprinted itself into my poetry DNA. As did this one: 

Central Park, Winter, After Sunset

Below the
    darkening fading
  (to which, straining
  upward, black
branches address them-
selves, clowns of alas)
the lights

in multitudinous
bells in Java

A sense 
of festival
somewhere far-off;
         sounds from
over water

the frosty field un-
dulates from 
Holland to Mexico:
           space, or
space as dreams
dissolve it.

This one still feels mysterious; a little less so knowing that Levertov spent time living for short stints in Holland and Mexico. Her line breaks, at the time, were revolutionary as much of her work had to do with her "organic form." 

As  I grew older I understood that Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser, and Adrienne Rich all went to Vietnam to advocate for peace as citizen poets.  And later still, that she was a complicated poet in that she seemed blind to issues of gender and was know to be homophobic (see Kate Daniel's review of two Levertov biographies at the Wellesley Center for Women).

When I taught in the Antioch MFA program in Los Angeles, I'd teach a course called "Courting Your Dead Mentor," which was premised on how much easier it was to love a dead poet who you could study after the fact. Reading the books of poems, the critical essays, and the inevitable biographies was a "cleaner" way to approach the poets we admire. I assumed they were less likely to disappoint us from the afterlife.

How I wanted my poets to be heroic!  Yet, Rilke abandoned his family and fell in love with his wife's best friend; Bishop had two lovers who committed suicide (bad luck?) and the male poets who taught me as an undergraduate would exchange one student lover for another on a regular basis. 

And yet.

I want to return to that time when poets were not "professionals." "You don't choose poetry, poetry chooses you," is how Linda Pastan phrased it. I want to time travel back to when I believe poets were the best people on the planet. I want to believe that we are as good as our words.