My Deniversity
Mark Pawlak
MadHat Press, 2021

On the back cover of My Deniversity, Mark Pawlak’s memoir of his long apprenticeship in poetry to Denise Levertov, the novelist and critic Askold Melnyczuk compares the book to Pound’s ABC of Reading and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. That makes sense; all three books show us a distinguished poet imparting an intimate account of the poetic art.

But Pawlak’s book is different, and for some purposes more important. 

The other two books offer the poet’s voice alone. Pound writes to the general reader, who does not talk back. Rilke writes to the aspiring writer Franz Kappus; but the version of Letters to a Young Poet that Melnyczuk has in mind, the one that became a sort of Bible for Levertov’s circle (and for me), does not contain Kappus’s letters; Kappus is the audience but not a voice. (An edition of Rilke’s book with Kappus’s letters interpolated was published in 2019.)

Pawlak’s book, on the other hand, is Pawlak’s book; it is the apprentice who tells the story. And unlike the other books, which end with the poet in sovereign control, Pawlak’s ends with a chapter he calls “Estrangement.” It is the best and saddest chapter of the book. The saddest because the relationship has been so close; Levertov was Pawlak’s teacher, mentor, university, guru, spiritual director, advocate, patron, sponsor, friend, and now all that is lost. The best because it is here, at the end, that two crucial matters are set out most clearly: the nature of Levertov’s teaching and the nature of political poetry, with Levertov and Pawlak both committed to writing it, but with increasingly opposed views regarding what it was.   


The night after they met—he was an MIT senior looking forward to a career as a physicist, he had applied to take Levertov’s MIT seminar in poetry and she was interviewing him—Pawlak had a nightmare. Levertov appeared to him in two forms. One was Lewis Carroll’s Caterpillar; the other was Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. The Caterpillar’s appearance makes sense; it is asking Pawlak, “Whooo . . . are . . . you?”—a good question for a physics major half aware of being a poet. But Kali? She is terrifying: “hair disheveled, eyes bloodshot, tongue lolling, wearing a garland of severed human heads” (161). Interviewing Pawlak in her office, Levertov is intense, smoke-wreathed, animated in both speech and gesture. In his dream, she is monstrous.

Our dreams exaggerate, of course. But Levertov was a teacher of an extreme kind, commoner then than now, in search of disciples, lovingly tyrannical to the disciples she found, indifferent at best to the experiences of most of her students, quick and self-righteous in ending apprenticeships (and friendships), normative and narrow in her judgments and culture. 

Pawlak would probably disagree. But he is too observant not to notice, and too honest not to report, some of the traits that will later cause the estrangement. He seldom comments on them, and I wish he had commented more; but he sets them out, leaving them there like unexploded shells. (Levertov once brought home an actual unexploded shell, from North Vietnam; Pawlak and Richard Edelman helped her toss it into the Charles River, where presumably it still lies.)

Levertov in her teaching was omnipresent, taking up all the space. In her poetry seminar, the secondary reading she assigned was mostly her own as yet unpublished essays; her voice was everywhere, resounding in the classroom, emerging from the xeroxed pages, inescapable (11). Inescapable even when the students were presenting their work, since whatever exercises she asked her students to do, she did also. This sounds egalitarian, but was probably intimidating and self-regarding—as when a teacher of piano ends a student recital by playing something beyond the students’ reach. Levertov’s students read their tentative poems, and Levertov reads her wonderful “Merritt Parkway.” What student would not feel inadequate? 

When poems were in short supply, she commanded a dancer student to dance and a flutist student to play—which they did, and which maybe they loved, but did they have a choice? Relatedly, did the students have a choice when she asked them to assess the relative merits of Rod McKuen and William Butler Yeats? McKuen’s poetry is awful, but an exercise in judgment that has a foregone conclusion is pointless; if one is going to teach the difference between “mere self-expression and ‘real’ poetry,” one should at least choose a better self-expresser (25).

Pawlak describes Levertov’s pedagogic method as “inspiration” (27). He describes the fellowship of poetry into which Levertov was initiating her chosen apprentices as “Masonic or Rosicrucian” (28). All three descriptors rightly point at the esoteric character of Levertov’s sense of poetry, which depended on a distinction between initiates—the inspired, the Masons, the Rosicrucians—and everyone else.

Now, Levertov wrote beautifully about the positive aspects of this: “If Poetry, the Art of Poetry, is a Mystery, and poets are the servers of that mystery, they are bound together in fellowship under its Laws, obedient to its power” (143). And surely the feeling of having been brought by her into that mystery and fellowship has much to do with Pawlak’s long devotion. But what about those who were not, or not yet, or might not be, servers of that mystery? Pawlak tells an unbearable story about a student seeking admission to a poetry workshop, a younger version of himself: Levertov publicly lectures the student, interrogates the student, waves in the air a sheaf of the student’s poems, but refuses even to say whether the student is admitted, and in the end the student “fled down the corridor” (122).  Not quite Kali, but the student was fleeing something frightening.

Appropriately enough, her student evaluations were sometimes terrible. Pawlak: “last week she had received her student evaluations from the lecture course she had taught. There had not been one good word in any of them” (123). This does not lead Levertov to think she should rethink her teaching. Instead, she says, “I am best before an audience who are self-motivated and present because they are interested in what I have to say” (123). What teacher isn’t?  But teachers have a responsibility to all the students in the room, to wherever those students are situated and wherever they come from.

There is a problem with this story, of course. Student evaluations are notoriously unfair to women, maybe especially to authoritative charismatic women. Are Levertov’s evaluations an example of that? Maybe. But she seems never to have said that to Pawlak. She consistently refused to think of herself as a woman making a name in a field dominated by men. She also refused to let other people characterize her as such. Pawlak himself, the male apprentice to the female poet, has nothing to say on gender dynamics either. Surely gender dynamics are at work in Levertov’s story, somehow, somewhere. But since Levertov didn’t discus them with Pawlak, and Pawlak doesn’t discuss them with the reader, we cannot investigate them here.

The problem with an esoteric fellowship is that you can be cut off from it. If it is a saving grace in the strict sense to belong to it, it is damnation to be expelled from it, and that is what in the end Levertov did to Pawlak. He had come under the influence of other poets, was writing different kinds of poems. Levertov wrote that the new poems were not poetry at all, that they were “wrong.” Her letters were cold and brief, and she as good as announced that she would not be sending more of them. 


Levertov was famously a writer of political poetry, antiwar poetry in particular, initially in poems against the Vietnam War. (She was also an activist against that horrific war, active in protests and losing jobs for her involvement in student protests.) She was frequently reproached for that, on the ground that her antiwar poetry was bad poetry. Her most famous reproacher was Robert Duncan. But Duncan himself wrote antiwar poetry and was reproached for the same reason, by the critic Robert Von Hallberg, who was also reproaching Levertov. Levertov struck back, most notably in a poem called “Goodbye to Tolerance”—“Tolerance, what crimes / are committed in your name”—and in a letter to Duncan, later published: “I THINK IT IS BULLSHIT, WHAT YOU SAY.”

In “Estrangement,” Pawlak takes a largely negative view of Levertov’s earlier antiwar poems, for reasons similar to Duncan’s and Von Hallberg’s: “I found the poems in which she expressed political anguish and moral outrage to be too didactic and preachy for my taste” (158). Levertov for her part took a largely negative view of the political poems Pawlak was writing at the time: “I wish I cold speak warmly of your new book . . . I much regret the abandonment of . . . your lyrical strength. . . . I feel you have chosen all these years to produce some other sort of writing and call it poetry.”  She hurtfully compared his poems with Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays. Maurin inspired Dorothy Day to create the Catholic Worker movement. He was a person of conscience, a force. But he was no poet, and not much of an essayist.

What on earth is going on? It seems that everyone is reproaching everyone else for exactly the same thing, namely, having their politics distort and worsen poems. In fact, though, something more intelligible and illuminating is happening here.

Levertov was an unapologetically high-art poet. She said that “a young American poet could get a complete and fully rounded education in poetry by reading no other twentieth-century poets than William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens—so wonderfully complementary they are” (120). This is preposterous but revealing. Her touchstone poets were Rilke and Williams. She opposed the idea of directing poems to a particular audience—to women, say, or to working-class readers. (She was of course directing her own poems to a particular audience—the readers of high-art poetry, who have their own limitations—but seems unaware of that in her comments to Pawlak.)

None of this changes when she turns to writing poems against the war; almost all of those poems are as “poetic” as her other poems, the language and lines charged and shaped in the same way. An example, from “Staying Alive,” part of an observation about an antiwar rally: “I see Dennis Riordon and de Courcy Squire, / gentle David Worstell, intransigent Chuck Matthei / blowing angel horns at the imagined corners.” She names real people, she assigns them apt adjectives. But then, as if suddenly fearful of being not literary enough, she alludes to Donne’s Holy Sonnet VII, and the reader is either inside the gate or outside.

Pawlak’s political poems are unapologetically working-class. When he turns to that mode of writing, almost everything changes. He renounces most of what Levertov taught him, and which for a long time he believed and was shaped by. This is what is left: “When the troopships have docked / and after the cheering has subsided / the returning heroes exchange their battle helmets / for the favorite caps they’d left hanging on pegs / they resume their place on street corners / and in the queues outside the employment offices” (Special Handling p. 16).

For Levertov, Pawlak’s political poems are too prosy, too far from song. For Pawlak, Levertov’s antiwar poems are too preachy. Who’s in the right?

The sad answer, which points to the difficulties lying in wait for anyone wanting to write political poetry of any kind, is that they both are. Pawlak’s political poems are flat, their language stripped of too much. The comparison with Maurin’s Easy Essays, as unflattering as it is, is just.

But Levertov’s antiwar poems are indeed preachy. Not preachy all the way through, but the preachiness turns up. Consider the poem Pawlak rightly calls her most extreme, “A Poem at Christmas, 1972, during the Terror-Bombing of North Vietnam.” Most of it is a gleeful fantasy, a dream of murdering Henry Kessinger and Richard Nixon, the poet’s childlike desires on display. If it ended where the fantasy ends, the poem would be strong. But Levertov keeps going: “It is / to this extremity / the infection of their evil / thrusts us . . .” The devil made me do it. Self-righteous, false, preachy.

A brief excursus: One point of particular disagreement between Levertov and Pawlak was Bertolt Brecht. Pawlak describes himself as under Brecht’s influence, and he translated Brecht’s Kriegsfibel, “War Primer.” Levertov thinks that Brecht was a bad influence: “I have long felt you took a wrong turn poetically when you came under the influence of Brecht’s least compelling, flattest poems” (159). Both have a point. But neither, in my judgment, is seeing the lessons about political poetry that Brecht can teach. His poems preach but are not preachy, partly because Brecht indicts himself as well as others. They make allusions, but to commonly shared texts—proverbs, the Bible. These traits put him in Pawlak’s camp, or Pawlak in his. But even in the Kriegsfibel Brecht subjects the words to a great pressure of form and compression, which in my view Pawlak has not always done. And Brecht’s best poems—“To Those Who Come After,” “The Ballad of the Dead Soldier”—are wonderful and worth emulating.

All honor to all who seek to write political poetry, which is necessary, to Levertov in her stubbornness, to Pawlak in his, to Brecht in his craft and art. All honor in particular to Pawlak, who in his antagonistic dialogue with Levertov shows us the difficulties of the task with an almost unprecedented clarity.

Reading Pawlak’s book was troubling for me, given how much I had admired Levertov, how much I was on her side in the matter of political poetry. But “troubling” is high praise. Of the accounts I know of the teaching of poetry, this is the most honest and revealing. Of the disputes I know about the nature of political poetry, this is among the most illuminating.

Lawrence Rosenwald

Lawrence is Anne Pierce Rogers Professor of English Emeritus at Wellesley College, where he taught from 1980 till 2022. He has written abundantly about diaries, words and music, translation theory, and nonviolence; he has also published translations from French, German, Italian, Latin, and Yiddish, and written and performed some fifty verse narratives for early opera and early music theater more generally. His current large project is Portrait of a Pacifist Critic, an exploration of the relations between pacifism and literary criticism, in support of which he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2020.

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