May 23 – William Carlos Williams – a surprise close connection across decades

Wednesday May 23
“It turns out that Williams, despite fragile health in his later years, mentored younger poets at his home.
One of them was Denise Levertov, a favorite of yours.”

I met “George” (sun glasses . . .  the note just below) in early September 1973;  we were both finding our way around on the first day at U Penn’s PhD program in American Studies.  45 years later we remain good friends and sometimes trade stories of discovery, or grief, or beauty.   Yesterday, George surprised me.  From reading the Work Day/Hard Times poetry list he knew that the poets William Carlos Williams and Denise Levertov often find their way from my memory and imagination onto the pages of this list.  Until yesterday morning I had no notion that Carlos Williams and Levertov, though a long generation apart,  had a personal connection.   An aging poet-pediatrician mentoring a young poet just finding her way into her compelling public imagination.   Until yesterday, I had no notion that these two poets, both of whom I have come to cherish, shared a living room where William Carlos Williams listened to Denise Levertov’s young voice and told her what he heard.

George.  I owe you.  Thanks a million.

john sj


Today’s Post:   George Danko to jstsj May 22

Dear John,

I recently read a children’s book, A River of Words, about William Carlos Williams, the pediatrician and poet who wrote and administered to families in my hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey. His son also followed his father in a medical career and was my pediatrician. It turns out that Williams, despite fragile health in his later years, mentored younger poets at his home. One of them was Denise Levertov, a favorite of yours.



William Carlos Williams:     The Manoeuvre

I saw the two starlings
coming in toward the wires
But at the last,
just before alighting, they

turned in the air together
and landed backwards!
that’s what got me —
to face into the wind’s teeth.

William Carlos Williams
September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963


Denise Levertov:  The Poem Rising By Its Own Weight
The poet is at the disposal of his own night.
Jean Cocteau

The singing robes fly onto your body and cling there silkily,
You step out on the rope and move unfalteringly across it,

And seize the fiery knives unscathed and
Keep them spinning above you, a fountain
Of rhythmic rising, falling, rising

And proudly let the chains
Be wound about you, ready
To shed them, link by steel link,
padlock by padlock–

but when your graceful
confident shrug and twist drives the metal
into your flesh and the python grip of it tightens
and you see rust on the chains and blood in your pores
and you roll
over and down a steepness into a dark hole
and there is not even the sound of mockery in the distant air
somewhere above you where the sky was,
no sound but your own breath panting:
then it is that the miracle
walks in, on his swift feet,
down the precipice straight into the cave,
opens the locks,
knots of chain fall open,
twists of chain unwind themselves,
links fall asunder,
in seconds there is a heap of scrap-
metal at your ankles, you step free and at once
he turns to go —
but as you catch at him with a cry,
clasping his knees, sobbing your gratitude,
with what radiant joy he turns to you,
and raises you to your feet,
and strokes your disheveled hair,
and holds you,
holds you,
holds you
close and tenderly before he vanishes.

Denise Levertov
b. October 1923  d. December 1997

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