A New Year's Garland for My Students/MIT Summary
by Denise Levertov

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A New Year's Garland for My Students/MIT Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The thirteen sections of “A New Year’s Garland for My Students/MIT: 1969-1970” were inspired by the students in a poetry seminar during Levertov’s year as a visiting professor and poet-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Each section is dedicated to one student, and each varies in length and line arrangement. Levertov captures the essence of the students by observing telling details and making frequent comparisons with nature.

For example, in “Arthur,” Levertov sees a person at a stage in life when nothing seems to be happening. She compares him to the buds of trees and bushes that in winter go unnoticed. Yet the buds are there and are as complex and beautiful as are the “eventual silky leaves in spring.” Using the word “silky” indicates her positive attitude toward his development. Silk is a fabric highly valued as well as smooth to the touch; the comparison calls to mind the lowly silkworm that produces the luxurious strands.

In “Bill,” Levertov sees a questioner who can disturb the pleasant atmosphere by posing important but dark thoughts. She pictures a garden with a fence around it, but the fence has an open gate. Perhaps she is comparing this garden to the classroom, an enclosure that has an open atmosphere in its encouragement of creativity. The garden is pretty and stable, predictable. Yet in a dark corner lurk threatening eyes that interject an element of uncertainty into the otherwise pleasant surroundings. Like a sharp question that hits a sensitive topic in a discussion, this presence in the garden is disturbing yet necessary.

Levertov sees herself in another student, “Judy.” Because Judy is petite, Levertov imagines her to be as light and airy as Greek goddesses or characters in the plays of William Shakespeare. The real Judy, as she sets off bundled up on a winter’s evening, reminds the poet of herself at a young age, trudging to and from the library overloaded with books, as reading was nurtured in her home. As a child, the poet’s active imagination turned the commonplace objects on city streets into things of beauty; she imagines Judy to have this same inner quality.

In “Ted,” Levertov sees several different people, two clearly. Both are by the sea, but they perceive things differently. A young girl dances with joy and speaks brightly in the sunlight, but a ruminative and apparently despondent old man sees the sea as a horror of unseen terrors, and he is quiet. There are also other voices in Ted, but they must be quiet until the old man issues a decree, as he appears to want to. These other voices will wait until this stage in life is over before they rise to be heard.

In nature, a closer look reveals an intricacy unnoticed by the ordinary person and perhaps unrealized itself. In the case of her students, Levertov takes a close look beneath the surface to find their potential for imaginative development. As in her other poetry, Levertov uses experiences as springboards for description that reaches the essence of what is important in humanity. She obviously cares for these people and wants them to develop to their fullest.

Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Block, Edward, ed. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 50, no. 1 (Fall, 1997). Special Levertov issue.

Gwynne, R. S., ed. American Poets Since World War II. Vol. 5 in Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980.

Hollenberg, Donna. “’History as I Desired It’: Ekphrasis as Postmodern Witness in Denise Levertov’s Late Poetry.” Modernism/Modernity 10, no. 3 (September, 2003): 519-537.

Janssen, Ronald, ed. Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 3 (Fall, 1992). Special Levertov issue.

Little, Anne Colclough, and Susie Paul, eds. Denise Levertov: New Perspectives. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 2000.

Long, Mark. “Affinities of Faith and Place in the Poetry of Denise Levertov.” ISLE 6, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 31-40.

Rodgers, Audrey. Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.

Wagner, Linda W. Denise Levertov. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province. New York: New Directions, 1979.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Denise Levertov. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.