I want to recommend the experience of reading and comparing two essays, a brief one by D. A. Powell and a longish one by Ron Silliman. The two pieces have similar titles — respectively, “Unburying Amy Lowell” and “Unerasing Early Levertov“* — but they couldn’t be more different in their aims and impacts.
Powell offers a genuinely appreciative reappraisal of Amy Lowell as a poet; Silliman focuses on Levertov’s career, focusing on her strong but derivative early work to explain how she ended up in what, for him, is paradigm-shifting anthology (Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry). In a nutshell, Powell wants to “unbury” Lowell, while Silliman wants to “unerase” only early Levertov — the Levertov who had not yet forsaken “the New American counter-tradition” for a politically engaged, feminist poetry.
Silliman takes great pains to show why Levertov was “the most established of the four” women included in Allen’s anthology; but in Silliman’s world, being “established” is a negative quality—evidence of “counter-tradition” apostasy, since his heroes in this anthology were largely not established at the time it was published. So he has to both explain her presence in the anthology and show why that presence was undeserved.
Silliman accomplishes all this fairly subtly. For example, he notes that Levertov’s nickname was “Denny … (pronounced as tho it rhymed with ‘tinny’)”; but a few sentences later he quotes Norman Mailer’s mention of Levertov in Armies of the Night: “Everyone called her Dinny.” So why would Silliman feel the need to explain that her name sounded like “tinny”? We can guess why.
Then, after noting that Mailer presents Levertov “as an adjunct to her husband, the novelist Mitch Goodman” and quoting Mailer’s observation that “everyone in Paris liked her,” Silliman draws a rather tortured conclusion: “This cameo positions Levertov as connected to the writing scene — at the right place at the right time, so to speak — & as someone some people, men in particular, might want to do a favor.” The implication is that Levertov manipulated men into advancing her career—something Silliman doesn’t have the courage to come out with directly, doubtless because he has no evidence for it. The notion is simply meant to reinforce Silliman’s key message — that Levertov’s early success in publishing was unearned. In fact, he dissects her account of that success in a way that portrays her as a deceptive “operator,” a female version of some Stanley Elkin character.
Silliman sneers at Levertov’s success in even pettier ways as well. Her 1962 Guggenheim fellowship, Silliman notes, “enabled her … to buy a washing machine.” He argues that the word “split” in her poem “The Third Dimension” — “They took and // split me open from / scalp to crotch” — is evidence that Levertov borrowed from Robert Creeley‘s famous poem “The Warning,” though according to Silliman her use of “split” was “neither as sharp nor as shocking” as Creeley’s. But perhaps her worst sin, according to Silliman, lay in “the degree to which her poems commit themselves to closure.” O, thou undeserving wench!
Silliman’s discussion of Levertov is finally mean-spirited, especially by comparison with Powell’s discussion of Amy Lowell. Silliman is more interested in defending the purity of his “counter-tradition” than in treating Levertov’s strengths and weaknesses honestly. (We see this in his suggestion that Levertov’s “Scenes from the Life of the Peppertrees” — a solid poem, but clearly derivative of Williams — is somehow superior to her powerful later poem “The Mutes,” which ends with excoriating closure.) His real goal, it seems to me, is to erase — or at least blur — the image of a poet who had the gall to follow her own artistic needs beyond the confines of the “Post-Modern,” “post-avant” program.
Of course, I may be overreacting here. There is some valuable information in Silliman’s essay, and nobody could question his mastery of details and themes when it comes to the history of his chosen aesthetic tribe. Levertov is certainly not above criticism, either. But it rankles to see her subjected to a partisan appraisal that so severely misrepresents the range, depth and value of her work.
* Silliman’s is one of several essays in an otherwise excellent Denise Levertov feature in Jacket Magazine.