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Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 144-146

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Book Review

The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams

The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams. Edited by Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1999. xiv + 165 pp. $24.95.

This volume collects all the extant correspondence between Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams. It is the record of a personal and literary friendship that was important to both poets. When Levertov first wrote the older poet a "fan letter" in 1951, Williams was sixty-eight years old and had recently suffered a serious stroke--the first of several strokes that were to batter him during the last twelve years of his life. Cheered by her interest, Williams welcomed Levertov as a disciple. He admired her talent from the start and was drawn to her for other reasons as well. The fact that she was a woman both charmed and challenged him, as he freely admitted in his letters. Her mixed heritage (Welsh, English, Russian, Jewish), similar to his own, delighted him and struck him as a positive poetic asset. That she was an Englishwoman who chose to live in America, reversing the transatlantic direction [End Page 144] of his literary rivals Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, also appealed to him.

On Levertov's side, Williams was a mentor and model who became, very quickly, a cherished friend. He was a central influence on her poetic development, and she always acknowledged her debt with gratitude in lectures, essays, and interviews. (This is one mark of her generous spirit, since there were always critics ready to dismiss her as a minor follower of Williams.) She was glad to be able to help him in return, by putting him in touch with a reading therapist who taught him to overcome problems caused by his stroke, and by sometimes reading aloud to him (pinch-hitting for his wife, Flossie).

Both poets were fiercely devoted to their art, so their mutual admiration was balanced--in their letters--by serious criticism that is sometimes bracing in its directness. "One good one, THE DOG OF ART" (81), is Williams's terse response to one group of poems that Levertov sent him. Elsewhere he urges the younger poet to aspire to "honesty completely outspoken" (11) and to work on the "rhythmical organization" (25) of her poems. As Levertov gains confidence over the years, she offers constructive criticism in return. Her comments about the New York production of Williams's play Many Loves in 1959 led him to revise some of its dialogue.

The climactic episode in their literary relationship occurs in 1960 when the two poets disagree over the new direction of Levertov's poetry. In a letter of 17 August, Williams criticizes her poem "The Jacob's Ladder" as reverting to an iambic, old-world mode and abandoning "The American Idiom"--the title of a short essay he has just written, a copy of which he encloses with his letter. Levertov's response--at once respectful, warmly personal, and firmly oppositional--challenges his stress on "The American Idiom," at least as it applies to her own poetry: "[F]or me personally, I cannot put the idea of 'American idiom' first" (99). She also contradicts his judgment of "The Jacob's Ladder": "[I]t is most certainly not in iambics. When I come to see you (soon, I hope) I'll read it to you & if you are still interested we'll battle it out" (101). They did, in fact, "battle it out" in November, and Levertov carried the day. This episode shifted the balance of power between them and brought them even closer together. Williams's enthusiastic response to her challenge shows his remarkable openness to new possibilities even at age seventy-six. He accedes to her judgment of "The Jacob's Ladder," a poem "which I had slighted but I now see is one of the best you have ever written." His new appreciation of her achievement "makes me cringe with embarrassment that I should have missed...


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pp. 144-146
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Archived 2001
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