The Mentoring Relationships Among Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Denise Levertov
By 1917, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore had become lifelong friends, a friendship marked by exchanges of poetry, encouragement and criticism (Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, hereafter, SL, 75). In fact, Williams championed Moore’s poetry as the best in his 1932 essay, “Marianne Moore”: “In the best modern verse,” Williams said, “room has been made for the best modern thought and Miss Moore thinks straight” (The William Carlos Williams Reader, hereafter, The Reader, 389). Likewise, Moore praised Williams’s poetry in letters to him: “Bless the collective wheelbarrow,” she wrote in 1934; in 1936, she said, “The poems [you sent me] have a life, a style, that should not surprise me, but does” (SL 318 & 372). These exchanges are indicative of the rudimentary relationship between Moore and Williams: Moore’s letters read as those written from a teacher to a pupil -- often praising, questioning or challenging Williams’s ideas -- whereas Williams’s exchanges often express admiration of Moore’s technique and / or implore her assistance.
As Moore influenced Williams through letters and her poetry itself, so, too, did Williams influence a younger female poet, Denise Levertov, whose admiration for the older, more established poet prompted her to write him from Italy in 1951. “If a man is a force in one’s life,” she wrote, “as you are in mine... if his work has given not only great pleasure and excitement but is felt to enter the fabric of one’s thinking and feeling and one’s way of trying to work, he certainly ought to know it. So, thank you” (The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams, hereafter, The Letters, 1). Williams promptly responded to the brief letter, beginning a lifelong friendship marked by exchanges of poetry, encouragement, criticism and admiration.
One is able to most easily detect Williams’s influence on Levertov in her early poems (written from about 1950 through 1960), many of which, her letters indicate, she wrote and revised according to Williams’s criticisms and suggestions. Levertov’s letters and poems illustrate her admiration of Williams’s poetry in a manner similar to how Williams’s letters, poetry and essays about Moore reflect his admiration of her work. What Williams admired about Moore, and what Levertov admired about Williams, ultimately led each poet to incorporate those admirable qualities of the other’s poetry into his or her own work.
What Williams most admired in Moore’s poetry is best exemplified in his 1932 essay titled “Marianne Moore.” Among these qualities are the breaking through of “all preconceptions of poetic form and mood and pace,” as well as “an escape from the conditions of ritual” that Williams believed characterized conventional poetry (The Reader 384, 390). Williams also admired the manner in which Moore rapidly moved forward in a poem, “occup[ying] the thought to its end,” without resorting to “distortions or the abstract in form” (The Reader 389, 386). “There is in [her] newer work,” Williams said, “a perfectly definite handling of the materials with a given intention to relate them in a certain way -- a handling that is intensely, intentionally selective” (The Reader 387). Finally, Williams noted that Moore recognized an object for what it is --“To Miss Moore an apple remains an apple whether it be in Eden or the fruit bowl where it curls” -- and that she discarded “soiled words” in favor of words which “stand crystal clear with no attachments” (The Reader 388, 391).
Moore’s longest poem, “Marriage,” is perhaps the best example of her discard of soiled words and ideas and her ability to handle the poem’s content, as Williams said, in an “intensely, intentionally selective” manner. In the poem, Lorrayne Carroll said, Moore “play[s] with the public / private dichotomy represented by sentimental (especially Victorian) notions of marriage as refuge” (106). The opening lines of the poem illustrate this dichotomy, as well as Moore’s questioning of marriage as an “institution” and “enterprise”:
perhaps one should say enterprise
out of respect for which
one says one need not change one’s mind
about a thing one has believed in,
requiring public promises
of one’s intention
to fulfill a private obligation:
(The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore, hereafter, CP, 62)
In addition to challenging the soiled ritual of marriage “augmenting all its lavishness; / its fiddlehead ferns, / lotus flowers, opuntias, white dromedaries, / its hippopotamus--” (CP 65), Moore questions traditional notions of sexual identity and gender roles and, extending that, the male role in Modernist culture. Carroll describes the poem as “counter[ing] the implicit critical hegemony of a male Modernist poetic according to Pound or Eliot. That is, in Moore’s 1923 milieu, poetic authority remains vested in the mandarins of Modernism: they make the rules, they theorize, they talk about the writing. Men, then, are the speaking subjects of Modernism” (107). As the nine-page “Marriage” gains speed, in fact, the male voice dominates the poem:
forgetting that there is in woman
a quality of mind
which as an instinctive manifestation
he goes on speaking
in formal customary strain...
In him a state of mind
perceives what it was not
intended that he should;
“he experiences a solemn joy
in seeing that he has become an idol.”
Finally, the female voice reenters the poem, and both partners are declared to love themselves so much that “he can permit himself / no rival in love” and she “cannot see herself enough--” (CP 68). Marriage, the poem declares, is not a unity of two into one, as the Victorian notion of marriage would have the public believe, but is the “striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other...” (CP 69).
Williams, too, challenged the use of “soiled words” in his poetry. For example, in “The Rose,” (incidentally written in 1923, the same year Moore wrote “Marriage”) Williams aspired to strip the rose of its symbolic connotations so that it could “stand crystal clear with no attachments.” Williams begins the poem with the declaration that “the rose is obsolete,” imploring the reader essentially to clear her mind of the rose itself and all that it connotes. Williams then rebuilds the rose petal by petal in the poem, so that the reader can see the literal rose for what it truly is: “...each petal ends in / an edge, the double facet / cementing the grooved / columns of air....” Once the reader recognizes each petal for its literal, cutting shape, the next step is to cast off its symbolic nature -- that roses are love. Williams writes, “but love is at an end--of roses / It is at the edge of the / petal that love waits”; love is not being a rose, nor is it the petal of the rose. Love, Williams says, lies beyond the edge of the petal. Finally, the reader is able to see the physical rose: “Crisp, worked to defeat / laboredness--fragile / plucked, moist, half-raised / cold, precise, touching....” This sentiment -- to recognize an object for what it literally is instead of what it symbolizes -- directly reflects Williams’s incorporation of what he admired about Moore: her ability to recognize that “an apple remains an apple whether it be in Eden or the fruit bowl where it curls.”
Another characteristic that Williams admired in Moore and one that he practiced was the breaking through of preconceptions about poetry and of “conditions of ritual” that characterized conventional poetry. This forging of his own poetic technique away from convention is illustrated in much of his poetry, critical essays, and other writings. In the 1936 essay “How to Write,” Williams advised, “Forget all rules, forget all restrictions, as to taste, as to what ought to be said, write for the pleasure of it -- whether slowly or fast -- every form of resistance to a complete release should be abandoned” (Interviews With William Carlos Williams 97).
Striving to write “in a larger way than of the birds and flowers,” arguably the poetic convention at the time, Williams wrote instead about everyday people and happenings, which he called “the poet’s business [:] not to talk in vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal...” (The Reader xxviii). One of Williams’s many poems that exemplify this sentiment is “Proletarian Portrait,” in which Williams describes “A big young bareheaded woman / in an apron / Her hair slicked back standing / on the street” (The Reader 34). The woman is wearing one stocking; she may be too poor to afford two. The woman removes one of her shoes and its paper insole “to find the nail / That has been hurting her” (The Reader 35). That her shoe has a paper insole illustrates her poverty, as does the nail in her shoe, which may indicate that she works at a factory or other place where nails are prone to be lying around. For Williams, this woman is a specific example of the trend of poverty striking America.
The same year that Williams published “Proletarian Portrait,” Moore expressed her deep admiration of Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” by reciting it at her own reading in 1935 (SL 345). In letters, she encouraged Williams; responding to specific poems he sent her in 1944, Moore said, “I stifle comment because everything is too good; comment seems offense” (SL 456). By 1949, Moore had begun sending Williams her work, a move that illustrates Moore’s viewing of Williams as a contemporary, not only a pupil. In response to praise from Williams, Moore wrote: “You electrify me. Of course a poet ‘sees things others never notice,’ life being in the eye not the thing. I shall never cease to marvel and to thank you” (SL 469).
Among these encouraging notes, Moore assumes the role of teacher by interspersing her poetic theories and a few unfavorable responses to select works of Williams. In January of 1941, Moore warned Williams that “some of your everyday images... are too everyday to be condoned; and I become violently concerned about the punitive restlessness of In the Money” (SL 408). In June of 1951, Moore advised Williams about his “rough and ready girl” in Paterson IV: “The trouble... with [her] is that she does not seem... part of something that is inescapably typical. That is to say, writing is not just virtuosity; but an interpretation of life....” Moore softened the critique by adding, “We usually exemplify -- in some measure -- the faults against which we inveigh. I am prone to excess, in art as well as in life, so that I resist anything which implies that the line of least resistance is normal; and there, perhaps, you have your reprieve...” (SL 492).
Williams suffered his first stroke the same year that Moore critiqued Paterson IV’s “rough and ready girl” and Denise Levertov wrote to him from Europe to express her admiration of his work. Two years later, in 1953, Levertov moved with her husband Mitchell Goodman to New York City, and Levertov visited Williams and his wife, Florence, in New Jersey. From this first visit through their last, Williams “help[ed] Levertov have faith in the new direction that her writing was taking,” and Levertov, in turn, helped Williams with his stroke-induced reading problems by “put[ting] him in touch with a teacher whose counseling helped give him the confidence and ability to return to public readings” (The Letters v). This mutual assistance later grew into mutual admiration as Levertov incorporated Williams’s suggestions and techniques into her poetry and, ultimately, asserted her independence as a poet.
In the bulk of Williams’s initial correspondences with Levertov, Williams comments on poems she has sent him. His advice to her about revisions is enlightening because, in them, he reveals his poetics. “I like the sense of line,” he wrote in a 1953 letter, responding to Levertov’s poems published in the literary magazine Origin. “Order, in our present disorder, without losing a certain freedom of choice in our selection of the words is very important to me.” “Writing, good writing, is still a matter of compelling the words to obey,” he advised, adding that qualities he admires in poetry include “an understandable sequence,” an intensity of mood, and diction that forces pace (The Letters 3). In a letter the following year, Williams told Levertov that “a poem is made up not of the things of which it speaks directly but of things which it cannot identify and yet years to know” (The Letters 7). Even if a poem cannot identify these things, Williams urged Levertov to be completely outspoken in her poetry: “In the end, you must say whatever you have to say, without honesty completely outspoken you will not succeed in moving yourself or the world” (The Letters 11).
In addition to advising Levertov about how to approach poetry from a theoretical standpoint, Williams advised and commented on poems she sent him, often suggesting revisions. For instance, after reading Levertov’s “In Obedience,” which she sent him in August of 1954, Williams said, “There is something wrong, but easily cured, with the beginning.... Omit the first line” (The Letters 9). Obediently, Levertov did cut the first line and replaced it with Williams’s suggestion: “The dread word has been spoken” (The Letters 12).
In addition to immediately taking Williams’s suggestions without question, the self-doubting Levertov said in a reply letter in 1954 that she felt “blessed and abashed” at Williams’s praise. “I’m afraid to disappoint you and myself.... I feel as if any day I might write a really bad, a ludicrous poem, and not even realize it,” Levertov said, but resolved to take Williams’s advice to be as honest as possible in her poetry, even if it means revealing her “boredom, bad temper and other things” (The Letters 13-14). During the next two years, Williams praises Levertov’s work, saying she has a “mastery of rhythmic structure.” Specifically, Williams praised her poem “The Lovers”:
She: Since you have made me beautiful
I am afraid
not to be beautiful.
The silvery dark mirror
looks past me: I
cannot accept its silence
the silence of your
He: At night, walking alone,
I see you as if in a clear light
a flower held in the
teeth of the dark.
The mirror caught in its solitude
cannot believe you as I believe.
(The Collected Earlier Poems 1940 - 1960, 44-45).
That summer, Williams’s began to view Levertov as more of an equal than pupil, as evidenced by his request that she read his poem “Puerto Rico Song,” which appeared in The New Yorker, and tell him whether he has succeeded in creating a “Calypso rhythm” in it (The Letters 47).
Williams’s praise and request that she comment on his poem may have helped dissipate Levertov’s self-doubt. In 1956, when Williams suggests a cut to her poem “Tomatlan,” she responds by saying that she agrees with the deletion (instead of accepting Williams’s suggestion no-questions-asked). Later that year, Levertov’s growing confidence is illustrated in her remarks to Williams about his poem, “The Turtle”: “I can’t tell you how much I like it -- everything about it.” Gaining confidence in Levertov, too, Williams sends her his translation of Sappho’s “Fragment 31,” which he calls a “transliteration” and to which he adds the blanketed self-doubting comment that “it may not be Sappho but I guarantee that it is in the spirit which moved her” (The Letters 61). Having commented now on at least two of Williams’s poems, her confidence is heightened, exemplified in her criticism of Charles Olson’s second book, Maximus Poems: “It looks to me much better than the first lot, which seemed to me to need cutting.... Sometimes he seems terrific and at others incredibly bad and self-deluded” (The Letters 49-52). Williams later used Levertov’s quote about Olson in his review of Maximus Poems. (The review was published in 1971, after Williams’s death.)
In 1957, Williams offers Levertov his highest praise yet about poems published in Origin. In a February letter, Williams details how Levertov’s poems have struck him:
Reading the poems it came over me how almost impossible it is to realize what it is that goes over from a writer into a (her) poem. And how it gets there. Even the alertest reader can miss it. The poet herself (himself) might miss it. And quit trying. And yet if it is important enough to her she will never quit trying to snare the “thing” among the words.... I have never forgot [sic] how you came to me out of the formalism of English verse.... Even recently I fight against accepting you unconditionally. It must always be so with a person we love and admire. It must be in the words themselves and what you find to do with them and what you have the spirit and trust to rely on the reader to find what you have put among them. (The Letters 65)
Later that year, after receiving Levertov’s newest book, Here and Now, in the mail, Williams writes her to say it’s a beautiful book “and that doesn’t begin to say it. It’s a wise book and reveals a mind with which I am in love” (The Letters 69). Though she doesn’t specifically respond to Williams’s praise in subsequent letters (that I know of), much later, at a 1966 New York reading that is a memorial to Williams, Levertov speaks of her reaction to receiving such praise from Williams: “I needn’t say how marvelous it was to get letters like that from a poet whose own work was a constant and enduring nourishment to me” (The Letters 67).
By 1958, both Williams and Levertov were asked to write a review of poet Mina Loy’s work -- a request illustrating that the outside literary world is beginning to view both Williams and Levertov’s critique as important, separate voices on equal ground. In 1959, after Levertov attends a showing of Williams’s play Many Loves, Levertov writes to Williams to suggest changes, which he later makes: “The lesbian wasn’t played subtly enough... I felt her approach to the girl was a bit too determined.... It needed only the least change really” (The Letters 83-84). In fact, Williams did significantly rewrite these scenes, showing that he increasingly took Levertov’s suggestions with seriousness.
Levertov’s confidence in herself, her poetry and her poetic style have reached fruition by 1960. Responding to poems that Levertov has mailed him, Williams comments on the “remarkable difference... in the poems.. between the staid iambic and that of the American idiom,” saying that it is “disastrous,” and sends Levertov his essay “American Idiom.” In her impassioned reply, Levertov asserts her own poetics: “For me personally, I cannot put the idea of ‘American idiom’ first. For you it has always been a focus, almost a mission. But each person much know their own needs. My need and desire is in each poem to find the tone and measure of what I feel, whether the language, word by word or measure by measure, strikes the reader as ‘American’ or not... (The Letters 99-100). Levertov’s dismissal of Williams’s American idiom signifies a change in their relationship: Levertov is no longer the pupil; Williams is no longer the teacher. But Levertov is in no way ostracizing Williams from her poetic life. Instead, she is incorporating all that she has learned from him, and all that she admires about him, in her own work, and says as much at the letter’s end: “Hope you don’t feel I am defecting from all you hold dear -- your own work remains as rich and necessary to me as it has since I first began to read it 13 years ago...” (The Letters 101).
More than thirty years after Williams’s death in 1963, and only two months before Levertov’s death in 1997, Levertov called Williams “the most powerful influence on my poetry.... Williams was a sort of gateway into my own development as a poet. He opened up a new way of handling language” (The Letters i-ii). Looking back from Levertov to Williams, and from Williams to Moore, one might deduce that Moore played a similar role in Williams’s poetic life.
Carroll, Lorrayne. “Marianne Moore.” American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Levertov, Denise. Collected Earlier Poems 1940 - 1960. New York: New Directions, 1979.
Levertov, Denise and William Carlos Williams. The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1998.
Moore, Marianne. The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore. Ed. Bonnie Costello. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
---. The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore. New York: Viking Press, 1967.
Williams, William Carlos. The William Carlos Williams Reader. Ed. M.L. Rosenthal. New York: New Directions, 1966.
---. Interviews with William Carlos Williams. Ed. Linda Welshimer Wagner. New York: New Directions, 1976.