Book Review: Mark Pawlak's My Deniversity

Mark Pawlak’s My Deniversity is a book of many parts.

It is biography of Denise Levertov as poet and teacher at MIT in the 1970s. The title puns on her as an education in herself, a “university” of lifetime learning with her.

It is Pawlak’s autobiography as a developing poet.

It is the literary history of poetic activity in the Boston / Cambridge / East Coast of the 1970s, and an enumeration of the poets, minor and major, who were active and influential then.

It is an introduction to the poets one should know if one wishes to become a poet, to immerse oneself into the craft and history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry and its changes. In short, the book is a primer on how to become a poet, and the steps required for success (if not renown).

All these aspects fall easily into place as Mark (Levertov often called him the more Polish “Marek”) Pawlak tells how he joined Levertov’s MIT poetry workshop class in 1969. As a physics major, he felt he was an unlikely poetry student, but Levertov surprised him by accepting him into the class, which considered current theories and practice of poetry.

As a science student, Pawlak struggled to adjust his mind to the language and processes of poetry. His hero was physicist Richard Feynman, but he had read Whitman and Frost and had heard Ginsberg, and he had written poems. Pawlak carefully records how the scientific and the imaginative minds operate, collide, and harmonize.

He also happened to take, simultaneously with Levertov’s workshop, her large lecture class, “Contemporary Poetry,” as he devoted his senior year to exploring beyond science. The syllabus for the lecture class required then-current poetry anthologies, such as Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945-1960, and Berg and Mezey’s Naked Poetry. Essays, too, were essential resources. Karl Shapiro’s collection, Prose Keys to Modern Poetry, provided theoretical discussion. What were poets’ notions of form—organic or open, inscape or…what? While one should look back to theories of Keats and Hopkins, what did William Carlos Williams, among contemporary theorists, for example, mean by “no ideas but in things” (13)? Or what about Kenneth Patchen’s “there is such a thing as weight in words,” or Robert Lowell’s or Robert Bly’s remarks on form, meter, accent, “free” verse, breath, line? Robert Duncan likened the “music of men’s voices” to the mathematical beauties of Schroedinger or the physics of Dirac (13-14).

The “intellectual vertigo” (15) Pawlak felt is understandable. There was intense debate, experimentation. Pawlak admits he cannot now distinguish what he learned in the workshop from what he learned in the lecture; obviously it was a highly successful merging.

The workshop itself was an entirely fresh academic experience for Pawlak, and doubtless for the other dozen or so students. Levertov seated her students in a circle (many, like Levertov, smoking). With little use for a formal syllabus or assignments, she wanted students to learn from one another, and to that end insisted they listen carefully as they read aloud their own poems or others’ poems. She too would read her own poems aloud, or pieces from letters and drafts from fellow poets. Students often read the same poem repeatedly in order to develop “a deep intimacy with the text”: “read slowly and clearly, articulating each word, filling one’s mouth with its sound” (29). Levertov adopted Yeats’s insistence on the “relation of sounds, colors, forms” to emotion (117-18). Students were invited into the “living poetic tradition” (28), whose members she enumerated. They were to learn “how to read as a writer,” to “pay attention to sound, shape, and structure” (29). She was “passionate about the great nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian” writers, chiefly Chekhov, an enthusiasm Pawlak shared (81). Two of her other favorites were Keats and Rilke, who “informed her life and her poetry” (86). Many of the beliefs and practices expounded in these classes were developed in Levertov’s own rich and articulate essays.

Essential as studying the poems and theories of poets was, the live readings by a host of poets visiting MIT made a more “lasting impression” on Pawlak. Who would not be moved when Kinnell and Snyder and Creeley came by?

Pawlak devotes the middle portions of his book to Levertov’s biography, and particularly her activism. Levertov believed her work and life made a whole: one should share one’s work as well as one’s convictions, private and public (33); thus, her vocal opposition (among many others’) to the Vietnam War. This activism she shared with her husband, Mitch Goodman, about whom Pawlak has little to say of commendation: he was “self-absorbed,” “commanding,” liked making “pronouncements.” Levertov, too, of course held strong opinions. MIT let her go because of her politics, and she moved to Tufts. At one point, after visiting Hanoi with a protest group, she somehow, astonishingly, carried back a live anti-aircraft shell …which was later dumped into the Charles (49).

Levertov and Goodman had a son, but were eventually divorced. We are told a good deal of their lives together, in Cambridge and at their more isolated farm in Temple, Maine. During this time Pawlak was going about his own life as a poet and teacher, moving about the country, to the West Coast and then back to Cambridge, where he continued his education with Levertov. The complex poet, friend, and mentor he depicts in these years is often both estranged from “her poetry colleagues” (74) and frustrated by students’ “uncomprehending stares” (105), yet remains devoted to young poets (75), encouraging their publication—including Pawlak’s own first volume, The Buffalo Sequence (80).

Worcester appears a few times in My Deniversity as Pawlak became poet-in-residence to Worcester Public School students in 1976 (99,151); he married writer Mary Bonina and they lived in Worcester (155), where he “fell in with a group of young poets,” as he puts it (156), no doubt the group who attended Levertov’s Worcester workshop in 1975, all of whom became successful, well-published poets (Chris Gilbert among them).

The final chapters of My Deniversity are taken from Pawlak’s “Glover Circle Notebooks” (Glover Circle was the neighborhood where Levertov lived in Cambridge), which record often verbatim conversations with Levertov, as well as stories, opinions, observations, and pronouncements, some incidental, some significant. Each entry conveys further insight into Levertov’s world and her roles as activist, woman, parent, teacher, and poet. These passages are rare and revealing insights into literary history, and important additions to the biography of the poet.

[My Deniversity: Knowing Denise Levertov, by Mark Pawlak. Published 2021 by Madhat Press. Paperback, 184 pages. $21.95.]