Continuing our spotlight on vintage tv, WNET’s extraordinary USA Poetry series. Today (this weekend), we continue with Denise Levertov and Charles Olson, (the Olson segment is excerpted (as most of these are) from a much larger filmed trove – in Olson’s case, a much larger filmed trove! – the extraordinary complete footage, out-takes et al, are available at the San Francisco State University Poetry Archives)
For today – part one – Denise Levertov
DL: “I always took it for granted that I was a poet. I mean, I knew from an age before I had a concept, I accepted the fact that I was a person that who wrote poems and I thought, at various stages, that I was also going to be a ballet dancer and then that I was also going to be a painter because I painted all through my teens. But I always felt, without question, that I was going to write poems, and I had begun at an early age, and I never stopped writing poems. I didn’t write very frequently, I guess, in certain years, but this was something that was always going on. But there did come a point where that became the central thing tho’.”
Introduction: “On Greenwich Street, not in the Village but on the Lower West Side of New York City, the poet Denise Levertov lives with her husband the novelist Mitchell Goodman. The Goodmans live on the top floor and there’s no elevator. The sign on the door (AIR3) is a housing authority sign meaning Artist-In-Residence. Although she is without question an American poet, Denise Levertov was actually born in England in October 1923.”
DL: “My mother was Welsh and my father was a Russian Jew who settled in England and became an Anglican parson. So I grew up in England, but I didn’t go to school and therefore I don’t think I was ever very English. I mean, I felt Welsh and I felt Russian-Jewish, you know. I loved England. I love the English country and the English language, but I didn’t really share a background with other English poets that I knew. So that when I came to America I was sort of fit material for the melting pot, you know, especially as I was… I was quite young, but not really that young, in years, I was about.. what was I? – twenty-four, I guess, when I came to England, but I was very young for my age.. (came) to America, I mean. My.. Mitch and I, my husband and I, are the same age, and we were twenty-three, I guess, when we met, and we.. in Michael Rumaker’s phrase, referring to himself, we feel that we were “twenty-three-going-on-sixteen” when we met, you know. So I was, actually, I think, very immature when I came here, and therefore able to become an American poet , as, perhaps someone who comes here when they’re older and more developed as a person never gets to be. (English, English writers, I mean, who settle in America, you know).”
Interviewer: Mitch, where did you meet Denise?
MG: We met in a youth hostel in Geneva, in Switzerland, very much by accident. There was a mixed company of many kinds of Europeans moving around the Continent after the war, and we had been, separately, hitch-hiking around Europe, in 1947, with friends.
DL: In opposite directions.
MG: Going in opposite directions, yeah, and we met there. After we met, I left and got on the road, and after I got on the road, I thought twice about it and decided to come back.
DL: And yes, we’re married eighteen years actually,. It’s rather startling. Living in New York has been, in some ways, a somewhat arbitrary thing for us because we don’t live here all the year round, we have an old farmhouse in Maine and we go up there in the summer. I feel a great need to be in the country, and to see trees, and walk on earth and grass instead of on concrete, but… I do feel very much at home in New York, I’m sort of a New Yorker, I know my way around on the subway, the streets, and so forth.
MG: I do more work in Maine than I do here.
DL: With me it probably varies but I think the most work I ever did in any year was the year that I had a Guggenheim Fellowship (1962), and the most work that I did during that year was done in the part of it spent in Maine.
MG: It was interesting that, as a woman-poet, Denise was.. in that Guggenheim year, she put a lot of that money into machinery- like a washing-machine and a dryer – and it really made a lot of difference, you know!
DL: If you look in the kitchen, in fact, you’ll see that the washing machine says “John Simon Gugggenheim Memorial Washing Machine”, the dishwasher says, “the John Simon Gugggenheim Memorial dishwasher”. And this is not as flippant as it sounds, I’m really very grateful to have had these things. And they’ve made a great difference to my life (there’s a drier in the bedroom!).
“I copy it out by hand several times usually before I get to the point of typing it, and then, in typing it, I make various corrections, and then, when I think the poem is done, I copy it into this notebook because I always lose typescripts, and this is something, you know, that I don’t lose (touch wood! – I don’t tend to lose these (kind of) books) –
[At approximately five-and-three-quarter minutes in, Levertov begins reading “The Ache of Marriage“ ] -(“The ache of marriage…”….. “two by two in the ark of/the ache of it.”) and (“and you also wanted me to read think the one called “Losing Track”) – “Losing Track” (“Long after you have swung back/ away from me/ I think you are still with me…”… “mud sucking at gray and black….timbers of me/ a light growth of green dream drying”)
“I don’t have so much current work. I sort of got hung up this winter on wanting to.. feeling I had to write a poem about the war (Vietnam War) and not being able to do it, and being unable to do anything else as a result, until a certain point when I did do a poem that was totally unrelated to anything like that, and writing that one seemed to make it possible to write the one I’d been hung up on all the time.
Do you have it?
DL: Yeah I can find it….. god..where is it?… I… [at approximately eight-and-three-quarter-minutes in, Denise Levertov finds the poem and begins reading] – This one doesn’t have a title, as yet, I have to find a title for it. [Editorial note – she subsequently titled it “A Vision”] – And this was not a dream. It was a sort of a waking vision – (“Two angels among the throng of angels/ paused in the upward abyss/ facing angel to angel”…….”and they remained free in the heavenly chasm/remained angels, but dreaming angels/each imbued with the mysteries of the other”) .
“The other poem, the one I’d been hung-up on, which I wrote after that. It’s called “Life At War” – (“The disasters numb within us/caught in the chest,rolling/in the bran like pebbles..”….”nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness/the deep intelligence living at peace would have.”)
“I thought, I’ve only just begun to have some understanding of what the end of the poem’s about, and not enough understanding to want to talk about it, because it was a mystery to me. I hadn’t been thinking about angels. The vision of angels appeared, as far as my consciousness was concerned, out of nowhere, and it seemed at the time of writing, quite unrelated to anything that I had consciously in mind. Since they were written very close to one another, and since one seemed to pave the way for the other to be written, I presume that there is, actually, some underlying relation between them, but I don’t feel… I don’t understand what it was. The angel poem is a mediumistic kind of poem, and the war poem is a… a poem that expresses what I know I think and feel.”
to be continued tomorrow (part 2 – on Charles Olson)