Cambridge Book Review

Through the midnight streets of Babylon
between the steel towers of their arsenals,
between the torture castles with no windows,
we race by barefoot, holding tight
our candles, trying to shield
the shivering flames, crying
'Sleepers Awake!' [...]

From CANDLES IN BABYLON / Denise Levertov

On Levertov

By Kevin Ducey

Denise Levertov died shortly before the new year [1998]. She left before the new century, although I wonder if she would have greeted the next one with any enthusiasm. I met her once. In 1981, I was 22 years old, living in Pontiac, Michigan, digging ditches, trying to get hired at the plant, and I would drive hours to hear a poet read.

I drove to Wayne State, I drove to Ann Arbor. I needed poetry like a good conversation. I saw the advertisement for Levertov's reading and I pulled out the map to discover where Bloomfield Hills might be. I wasn't really from Pontiac, and I hadn't lived there very long. If I had I would have known what all the locals knew -- one doesn't drive to Bloomfield Hills, one is born to Bloomfield Hills, or you buy your way in, but you don't just show up.

My girlfriend and I showed up, all unknowing, on a dark night in Reagan's America at the Community Center in Bloomfield Hills for the Levertov reading. We walked into the reading dressed in our poetry going best -- patched jeans and t-shirts. It was a cold March night and we wore our heavy coats and boots. The rest of Levertov's audience that evening were dressed for an evening of the Arts. The women wore heels, dresses. The men, suits and ties. We'd stumbled into culture with a capital C -- "let's go hear the Artist. This week it's a poet, next week we'll hear that nice Oriental cello player."

A star-shaped chandelier lit the room in a yellow light, the floors were a glossy hardwood. As we entered, the moderator was finishing her introduction of the poet. We held back at the door. Money can be intimidating, and it was probably no accident that I saw none of the other poetry hounds I'd met on the poetry circuit of southeast Michigan. Everybody else would have known that the event wasn't really open to the public.

Jill seemed relieved that there were no seats -- we were late, let's go. I was ready to give it up and go when I spotted a couple of seats in the front row, off to the side. We dashed up to the front and sat down as Levertov started her reading.

She was a small, white-haired lady. At the time, I thought she didn't look well, though it may have been nerves. She had a stack of loose-leaf paper in front of her. She read some older poems, but most of what she read was from her new (then) collection titled "Candles in Babylon." Her reception, which had been tepid at best, grew cold fast. I've seen readings where the audience didn't care about poetry, I've seen readings in bars where drunks shout abuse, but I'd never seen suits and ties act so crazy. It started as a quiet murmur. "Candles in Babylon" has poems that this group of people found objectionable. And this audience was not shy in voicing its objections. Denise Levertov, visibly shaken, took a deep breath, ignored the heckling and continued with her reading. I've never seen a poet bite the hand with such conviction.

The crowd, for such it became as she read on, shouted out, "Stop with the politics! Stick to the poetry!" and things to that effect. They then began to walk out, and in the silence between poems, as Levertov's small hand turned her pages, we could hear the angry tap tap tap of rich white women marching out of the Community Center.

What did the program co-ordinator expect when Levertov was booked? "Oh, here's this nice old lady who's published a book with that James Laughlin's publishing house New Directions. She'll be good. We need a poet." Levertov's voice was loud in denouncing the Vietnam War in the 1970s. It's not as though her interest in politics was new.

I wonder about the demand itself -- "cut out the politics and stick to the poetry." Maybe if Homer had left out that nasty business about the Trojan War -- maybe if Shakespeare had left off with all those histories -- if Byron, Whitman, Vallejo, and Kipling (even) had all left out the politics, maybe the rich people in Bloomfield Hills would be happy.

If the poets and artists had been a little more sensitive to the desires of our ruling class would the NEA still be handing out grants as it did in the 70s? The arts funding cuts of the past twenty years have always struck me as class warfare under the cover of offended religious morality. Art holds up a mirror to the body politic and the reflection isn't always attractive. Since those footsteps started ringing in my ears (and we're not talking Wordsworth's immanent presence here) the Art world by and large has not done as Levertov did that night and kept on with the work. And I hear those steps every time I see a news item about more public funding cuts for the arts.

She finished her reading to a smattering of applause and she sprinted to her seat -- which happened to be right next to the ones my friend and I had taken. In our late arrival, we'd taken Levertov and the moderator's chairs. Levertov sat down next to us and we must have looked safe, because she started talking to us, asking what the people had been shouting. She was shaking with nerves, or anger, or anxiety, I couldn't tell. We talked for a few minutes -- mostly about the behavior of the crowd. The moderator had dismissed the better behaved audience members and a small group of these people were gathering around us as Levertov, Jill and I talked. She was very upset and I couldn't think of anything to say, but, "Oh, it doesn't matter."

But of course, it did.


Kevin Ducey lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he edits Chew Magazine, works as a graphic artist, and occasionally still goes to poetry readings.

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