’s Final Interview Essay, Research Paper
A Poet’s Valediction
by Nicholas O’Connell
In a final interview, poet
Denise Levertov discusses the egotism
of modern poetry, the sacredness of writing, and the spiritual hunger
of our technologically dependent society.
Denise Levertov, who died on December 20,
1997, was much loved by her readers and an inspiration to several generations of poets.
She forged a middle path in modern poetry, marrying the hard, dry objective style of the
Imagist poets with the music and metaphysical yearnings of figures such as T.S. Eliot.
Like her mentor, William Carlos Williams, Levertov excelled at the direct presentation of
the object, and yet she went further, endowing such objects with rich metaphorical
significance. Born in England, she emigrated to America with her husband after World War
II, and spent the last years of her life in Seattle, Washington, near one of her most
profound influences, Mt. Rainier.
During her lifetime, Levertov published more than
20 books of poetry as well as translations and essays. Her most recent publications are The
Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature and The Stream & the Sapphire:
Selected Poems on Religious Themes, both published by New Directions in 1997.
The following interview was conducted on October
27, 1997, at Levertov’s home, a cozy brick house in the Seward Park neighborhood of
Seattle. Levertov still retained British mannerisms—a soft English accent, a
humorous, conspiratorial tone, and a preference for Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar,
which she served throughout our talk.
O’Connell: When did you first start writing
Levertov: As a small child.
Why did you write them?
I had the impulse to do so.
You never asked why?
Were you good at it?
I was secretive about it, actually. From a very
early age, I knew that I was going to write poetry. I also thought I was going to be a
painter and I spent several years studying ballet. But when you have a real vocation, a
lot of the other things fall by the wayside and you’re left with the main thing.
How did you learn your craft?
By writing and a lot of reading.
Did you have teachers?
No. I hardly even went to school. I did lessons
at home with my mother. I didn’t attend school ever, except ballet school.
How did that influence your approach to
I think it was beneficial. With my particular
abilities, I was very fortunate. I never had to read anything I didn’t want to read, or
write anything I didn’t feel like writing. Of course I came from a very literate and
somewhat literary background. I grew up in a house full of books where everybody read.
That’s how evenings were spent by the family. It was like a Victorian childhood.
We were not an English family. My parents had
lived in so many places, and the people who visited us were from all over Europe.
My father was a Hassidic Jew, who had a very
pious ancestry. He had converted to Christianity while at the university in Germany. By
the time I was born he had settled in England and become an Anglican parson. He was a very
well known preacher and scholar but was looked at askance, because if you weren’t Oxford
and Cambridge and Eton and Harrow, they didn’t know what to make of you. So I had the
feeling of being European, although I adore the English countryside and English
When did you first start publishing your
The first poem I published was written when I was
sixteen. My first book, The Double Image , was written between the ages of
seventeen and twenty-one. It came out when I was twenty-two. That was published in England
before I came over here.
Was William Carlos Williams an important
When I was a greenhorn in America trying to come
to grips with my new situation in life, his influence was very immediate and imitative.
You can see it in some of those early poems. It’s very clear. It sticks out.
He was very fond of me and amazed that someone
who understood what he was talking about and writing in ways that he approved of would
come out of England. He was pretty anti-English.
I first read Williams in a bookstore in Paris. My
late ex-husband and I were living there then. I started reading him and Stevens around
What did you find attractive about his work?
After I got over here, I suffered from
undiagnosed culture shock. The rhythm of people’s walk, speech, and everything was
entirely different. We’d been living a student life in Paris, staying in pensions, with
parents, and not living a regular married life. Then we came over here. Suddenly I was
pregnant. I had to learn how to buy groceries on a shoestring and things like that.
Williams was a sort of gateway into my own
development as a poet. He opened up a new way of handling language. His essays and ideas
were important and influential for me too. And when I got to know him, he became a
Did you feel an equal pull in the direction
of T.S. Eliot?
I had grown up with T.S. Eliot as an important
figure and started reading him at a somewhat precocious age. I was influenced by him by
osmosis. Growing up, we thought of him as an English poet, just as we thought of Henry
James as an English novelist. It’s amazing to look back on. At that time, there were very
different ideas about literature in England and America. But after I got to know
Williams’s work, I really went off Eliot, because he comes to a slump at the end of every
line. It’s only in recent years that I’ve been able to appreciate Eliot again.
Do you choose the subjects of your poetry, or
do they choose you?
There’s very little strictly deliberate about
anything I do.
Did you approach the subject of Mt. Rainier
No, I came to live here and there it was. I keep
on writing poems about it.
I’ve taken a vow not to desecrate it by going up
there. People should stop trampling all over it, leaving their garbage behind, and
necessitating the placing of comfort stations around so-called wilderness. They should let
wilderness revert to being wilderness.
How do your poems about Mt. Rainier start?
When it’s out, I can see it from my work room and
my kitchen window. I usually take paper and pencil in my pocket when I go down to the
park. Often something starts as I’m walking around there.
An idea or a line?
A line. Sometimes more than a line. Sometimes a
How do you get the second draft?
Well, it depends. I might see that the
punctuation isn’t right, or the line break isn’t quite right, or I may want to add or
subtract something. If you copy something out by hand, before you move onto the
typewriter, you’ve already gone on making minor changes. This is an intuitive part of the
creative process, and one that’s eliminated by the use of word processors. People get such
a completed-looking copy that they think the poem is done. The word processor doesn’t take
as much time as actually forming the letters with your hand at the end of your arm which
is attached to your body. It’s a different kind of thing. They don’t realize that this
laborious process is part of the creative process.
Do you consciously examine the imagery as
you’re putting a poem together?
No. I’ve been writing poetry for many, many
decades. In talking about the process, I’m almost obliged to say, «First you do this.
Then you do that. Then you stand back. Then you do that.» But these things overlap
and flow into each other. One has to use that linear description of a process that is
actually much less linear, much more intuitive, doubling back on itself. But it’s only for
convenience sake that one has to talk about them as a sequence of discreet events, because
they really aren’t.
How about the sound of the poem? How do you
work that out?
One has to have a good ear, but you also have to
read what you’re working on aloud. Even if you have a good inner ear there are certain
awkwardnesses that only become apparent when you speak out loud. At some stage, you have
to at least mutter to yourself. When I’m writing it out, I do a lot of muttering.
In the essay «Some Notes on Organic
Form,» you talk about finding a form that grows out of an experience. Is that what
you try to do in each poem?
Yes, it’s discovery, being attentive to the form
that emerges. Critics always talk in such a deliberate way as if poets write with the same
methodology that people write criticism. One doesn’t write poetry that way, or fiction.
Some poems come into being and don’t need
revising. They emerge out of nowhere. You have to recognize they are complete and not mess
around with them. This certainly doesn’t happen with every poem. But you would be mistaken
to suppose that every poem has to go through many revisions. You’re bound to develop some
craft confidence in all this after you’ve been doing it for a while.
Does your emphasis on a metaphysical
dimension in poetry distinguish your work from that of William Carlos Williams?
There is more of such a dimension in his poetry
than many readers and critics have noticed. They get stuck on that damned red wheelbarrow
and those stupid plums and they never look any further.
In the essay «Some Affinities of
Content,» you spoke about how you responded to the goal of Northwest poets to
submerge themselves in something larger than individual ego, in their case, nature. Do you
try the same approach in your poetry?
I hope I do. I’m certainly very tired of the me,
me, me kind of poem, the Sharon Olds «Find the dirt and dig it up» poem, which
has influenced people to find gruesome episodes in their life, whether they actually
happened or not. Back when Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were the models for neophytes,
you had to have spent some time in a mental hospital to qualify as a poet. Now you have to
have been abused. I know perfectly well that lots of people really have been abused, but
it’s unfortunate to use the fact of abuse as the passport to being a poet. I’m certainly
tired of that kind of egotism.
Does this desire to submerge the ego involve
a kind of spiritual quest, whether explicitly religious or not?
I think that’s true, don’t you? It’s in the air.
When I started writing explicitly Christian poems, I thought I’d lose part of my
readership. But I haven’t actually. I think interest in religion is a counterforce to the
insane, rationalist optimism that surrounds the development of all this new technology.
This optimism is a twentieth-century repeat of attitudes in the nineteenth century, when
they thought that steam, electricity, and telephones were going to make for some kind of
utopia. There’s a lot of dependence on technology today, and a willful ignorance that it’s
messing up resources, may end up destroying life on this planet, and then we’ll have to
start over without it. Our ethical development does not match our technological
development. This sense of spiritual hunger is something of a counterforce or unconscious
reaction to all that technological euphoria.
Did your understanding of poetic inspiration
help to imagine what it would be like to have religious faith?
That’s one way of putting it. When you’re really
caught up in writing a poem, it can be a form of prayer. I’m not very good at praying, but
what I experience when I’m writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different
degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer.
Is prayer similar to poetic inspiration, in
that you can’t force it, but simply must wait and hope for it?
But you do have to focus your attention. I was
really amazed at how close the exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola were to a poet or
novelist imagining a scene. You focus your attention on some particular aspect of the life
of Christ. You try to compose that scene in your imagination, place yourself there. If
it’s the Via Dolorosa, you have to ask yourself, are you one of the disciples? Are you a
passerby? Are you a spectator that likes to watch from the side, the way people used to
watch hangings? You establish who you are and where you stand and then you look at what
you see. —
from O’Connell, Nicholas. At the Field’s End:
Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (University of Washington Press, 1998).
Reprinted in Poets & Writers Magazine (May/June 1998) Copyright? 1998 Poets
& Writers, Inc., New York, NY. Online Source