Bordering upon a threnody, or song of mourning, “September 1961” finds Levertov’s poetic persona crying out in lament for many of her high modernist mentors: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and H. D. Indeed, when the poem was published in 1964, only Pound was still living, and, as noted in the poem, he was operating within his “quiet years,” having spent copious time in an Italian prison and American sanatorium.
The poem’s voice finds itself, presumably the voice of Levertov (though among others), alone on a road bereft of her poetic masters, anticipating their loss. Strangely though, this road leads to a sea, often the symbol of fecundity and generative power. In her pockets are words and themes, the building materials of her poetry, Williams’s “no ideas but in things,” but her advisers no longer light a candle for her to follow. They have withdrawn into private conditions, silent like Pound or hobbled by medical ailments like Williams.
Whether this loss is problematic or emancipating to the poem’s voice is debatable. Of particular note is the construction of the third-person collective “we” that the persona uses. Levertov creates a subject position that many may occupy—the inheritors of the high modernist tradition—but, assuredly, the high modernists whom she invokes are those poets who touched her life personally and specifically.
The persona is unsure how she will be affected by the loss of these great voices, but she continues along the path, realizing that she has some distance to go. However, the voice is somewhat assured that she is going in the right direction, as she can smell the sea air wafting upon a breeze approaching her. She invokes her own Transcendental predecessors and places her trust in nature. Armed with the tools given to her by her mentors, she is confident that she will find the generative sea, alone, eventually.