Lessons of the Line

Charles Simic and me

Dana Levin

Fred Sandback, Untitled, 1981. © 2024 Fred Sandback Archive

1. 1988

i was learning how to breathe (line vs. sentence); I was inter­rogating syntax but I did not know it. I thought I was building images in an open field.

I pored over two versions of William Carlos Williams’s poem “Young Woman at a Window” (1934), which differed in their line breaks. Both poems were originally published together in The Westminster Magazine, but only one version—what I’ll call “version two”—was subsequently reprinted.

Why did I prefer version two, in which line breaks obscured understanding?

(version two)

She sits with

tears on

her cheek

her cheek on

her hand

the child

in her lap

his nose


to the glass

I liked how stable each block felt. Stable, yet—disorienting: the puzzled mind stymied in its work, which was to swiftly find a pat­tern it could name, a story

Every time I read the poem, I lingered over stanza two: the drama of its suspension outside the whole poem’s sentence, how defamil­iarizing it was, though the diction was completely accessible—the way it sounded like birdcall if you said it out loud:

her cheek

her cheek on

I imagined Williams walking down a city street, passing a diner window, behind which a woman sat with her child in her lap—I imagined him glancing and seeing her through the window, seeing her through the ghost of his own sun-reflected body in the glass.

Was it this double-exposure that made him first take notice? A trick of light—and then realizing he was walking by a plot—

Years later I would learn that he published version one only once, in that obscure university journal. Why didn’t he ever republish it, as he did version two? Because what he had seen was obscured, here, by what he had thought?

(version one)

While she sits


with tears on

her cheek

her cheek on

her hand

this little child

who robs her

knows nothing of

his theft

but rubs his


Stanza by stanza, version one moved inexorably toward diagno­sis, with its poker tell of diction: robs—the child an oblivious vector, but still to blame.

Version two was like standing in the light, outside a window.

As if the poem were the window—every time I finished reading version two, I could feel a feeling trying to press through.

Years later I would think of his famous motto: “No ideas but in things.” I would think: the child’s robbery in version one is an idea; the young woman’s tears are the thing.

2. 1988 (journal)

simic doesn’t think “Young Woman at a Window” is a bad poem, but he doesn’t like the prosody: “Y’know, couplets are tricky—they really must stand on their own.” But thinking about it on the way home, I realize that I never looked at them as couplets—more as a flow with a flow in between—

So, now I must defend myself: Why do I see it this way? Why am I impelled to design the poem this way? Why do I not see couplets the way Simic sees them? And what does Simic think about e. e. cummings? And what does prosody mean anyway?

Dangers of line breaking too much: melodrama; broken glass.


Charlie and me with our surgical gloves, in the cold objective classroom of poetry, using a scalpel, a compass, a magnifying glass—


But if the poem is a process, if it is the other side of a conver­sation, then every time I balk at revision I am cutting the poem off mid-sentence—


Questions for Charlie:

          Do you enjoy revising?

          Is there some sort of emotional frustration behind the birth of free verse?

          What about punctuation?


“Well, you know Williams used to say that he could revise a poem twenty different times just by changing the line breaks.”

                                                      They taste good to her

                                                      They taste good

                                                      to her.      They taste

                                                      good to her

3. green buddha
charles simic! My teacher. Maybe you know his watermelon poem:

Green Buddhas

On the fruit stand.

We eat the smile

And spit out the teeth.

He said to me once, advocating a cut in a poem I showed him, “But is the word of hair-splitting, not very interesting.” He leaned for­ward, resting his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands and look­ing down at them, as he often did when making a point. “A thinker, a ‘civilized’ man, would say, ‘Farmer Joe had the loveliest pig and cared for it like his own child but slaughtered it for dinner,’ while the simple man, the peasant, says, ‘Farmer Joe had the loveliest pig that he cared for like his own child, and he slaughtered it for din­ner.’” He looked up at me, to make sure I was getting it. “And,” he said, “is more interesting than but.”

Was I getting it? Something about being civilized being a lie? And how that was “more interesting”?

Later I would see that Simic practiced this philosophy of and in all his poems, a metaphysics of radical inclusion: brutality and death were everywhere in life, and they were ordinary. They didn’t arrive hitched to that conjunction of turn and exception, but. We were at their mercy and their call: meat-handed humans, driven to eat and fuck and be safe, willing to kill to do it. “That’s life,” a Simic poem shrugs, about all this drive and death. You can see this attitude even in his most whimsical poems, like “Watermelons”: a laughing Buddha fruit, our smile-eating an act of innocuous met­aphor—until the last line.

He never mentioned to me his childhood in Belgrade, in what was then Yugoslavia, under Nazi occupation during World War II, but he later wrote about it. Indelible image: young Charlie playing with a lice-infested helmet swiped from a dead soldier’s head. Here was and: a child making a toy of catastrophe’s debris. We eat the Buddha and spit out teeth.

when i first met him, in January 1988, I had recently graduated from Pitzer College in Southern California and had followed a few college friends to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to try out a new life. Simic, meanwhile, had recently been awarded a “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. In 1990 he would win the Pulitzer for a book of prose poems; in 2007, he would be named U.S. Poet Laureate. But in 1987, as I was finishing college, I only knew him as the author of a Selected Poems (1985) that my college lover, a divorced professor, had gifted me at graduation. This “Charles Simic” wrote poems about shoes and forks and brooms in a matter-of-fact tone and plain diction that was at effective odds with his dark-humored sensibility: awake to life’s absurdities, attentive to the uncanny, cyn­ical about human nature, always aware of the hooded friend with the scythe loitering offstage, waiting for his cue. In one of Simic’s poems, the protagonist is a little lump of ashes; in another, a zero.

In the divorced professor’s kitchen, I opened the book to the first poem, reading the first stanza:

Sometimes walking late at night

I stop before a closed butcher shop.

There is a single light in the store

Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.

This was a poet for me.

the bakery where I worked, that winter in Portsmouth, counter staff took turns leaving early if it seemed that the cold and the pros­pect of early-falling dark were keeping afternoon customers at bay. One day in January that liberation fell to me, and I turned to Cher, one of the bakers, and said, “What should I do for the rest of the day?” And she said, “I think you should go see Charlie.”

Charlie. I couldn’t imagine addressing the poet—whose name I had seen only in print—in such a familiar way.

Warm Cher, her brown hair pulled up into a messy bun, flour dusting her temple—she had been on a gentle, persistent campaign for months, once I had told her I wrote poems: You should go see Charlie. By complete chance, this poet—the author of the Selected Poems I had brought with me when I’d moved across the coun­try—taught nearby, at the University of New Hampshire. Cher had taken a class with him once; she had found him to be a wonderful teacher. I would like him. Charlie.

“What would I even say?” I protested. She smiled her wide smile with its one crooked tooth and surveyed the mound of dough before her. Then her strong hands plunged in and began kneading. “Show him a poem.”

4. 1988 (journal)

Simic compares my poetry to a sort of geometry, “lyrical shapes.”

     Because I used to be

                     a boat

                                   without sail

     or anchor               

                    now I am                                      

                                a fish

     without the ghost

                    of a treasure


“Why do you always do this? It astounds me how you dissect the music of your voice, the incredible slowness of the prosody–so difficult and distracting, when the poem has such a beau­tiful voice—let yourself sing!” He confesses he too composes thinly and slowly, two words to a line, but then he fits them all together. “It’s as though you are extracting the intestines of the poem, seeing how it works—so it’s good to start this way, but not to finish. Ultimately,” he says, “you have to make a body,” and then he begins to laugh, “Maybe you were always meant to write long lines—” and he keeps laughing, he seems to find this hilarious—


Because I used to be a boat without sail or anchor,

        now I am a fish without the ghost 

                      of a treasure

Too dense—

The ear and the eye in constant battle, the lyre trying in vain to sing through a microscope—

The long line bores me and the short line is not true to the music—is there not a way to present music to the eye, diversity of visual form to the ear?


The Paris Review interview:

Interviewer: (picking up a copy of Paterson V, from which some clippings fall to the floor): These opening lines—they make an image on the page.

Williams: Yes, I was imitating the flight of the bird.

Interviewer: Then it’s directed—

Williams: To the eyes. Read it.

Interviewer: “In old age the mind casts off…”

Williams: In old age            

             the mind

                           casts off


        an eagle

from its crag

5. reading: an interlude
at twenty, I worshipped a narrow pantheon: a Doctor, a Prophet, and a Mad Girl. By the time I graduated college at twenty-two, Williams, Blake, and Plath were joined by a revelation of poets from Eastern Europe: Popa, Holub, Herbert. I didn’t know it then, but I was being introduced to contemporary poetry largely by men whose own revelatory experiences had come via Robert Bly and the Deep Image school. None of these men taught me a serious lick of prosody; no one assigned deep engagement with the incred­ible range of the mid-twentieth-century American greats: Bishop, Lowell, Hayden, Brooks, the entire New York School. Ginsberg, still alive, was referenced with reverence, but no one suggested I read “Howl.” A fellow student gave me a peek of Berryman; he’d been carrying The Dream Songs (1969) everywhere—how had he found it?

In the early 1980s, the revelations and follies of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry were most alive, producing some of its cru­cial works—Michael Palmer’s Notes for Echo Lake (1981) and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (1980) come immediately to mind—but my pro­fessors, to a man, were creatures of a particular kind of 1970s vibe. We read Merwin. Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares (1971). Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972). Laura Jensen. The recently deceased local poet hero Bert Meyers, master of image and metaphor. The lit-mag FIELD. One professor handed me Another Republic (1976), which featured a heady mix of Eastern European and Latin American poets; another, Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred (1968), which surveyed a range of indigenous poetry from across the world. What I did read was formative and intoxicating; it was also, in retrospect, partial and eccentric.

I didn’t realize, until I started teaching seriously myself, in my thirties, that in college I had received an incredibly narrow educa­tion in twentieth-century American poetry—even by the somewhat rudderless standards of the undergrad poetry classroom of the 1980s. One reason for this was that twentieth-century American poetry was still happening. In 1984, when I started college, many literary survey courses, where most English majors are introduced to historical and cultural contexts of literary works, stopped at 1945. Confessionalism—one of the great literary liberations of midcen­tury—seemed the last codified school of poetry, mainly because its pioneering practitioners—Lowell, Berryman, Plath, and Sexton—were dead and their great poems were cementing into history. Some poets and critics had just begun to blow up the established canon, but I wouldn’t know that until grad school in the early 1990s.

As an undergrad, I never took a class called Contemporary Poetry; I don’t think one was ever offered. Living poets swam into my ken through conversations in office hours and the campus café, through other students, and through texts assigned in creative writing classes. There, my assigned reading was largely designed by instructor passion, prejudice, and whim, with no obligation to breadth or background.

The aesthetic preferences of my professors became mine. Their blinders became mine, for a long time, with a few exceptions. None of my poetry professors, who were all male, straight, and white, taught me Sexton, Rich, Lorde, Shange, or the Black Arts writers. I found L.A.’s Wanda Coleman myself, on a visit to the Beyond Baroque bookstore in Venice Beach, in a thin collection I still have, and which has survived to this day, ragged and intact (thank you, Black Sparrow Press). Plath I’d smuggled in from adolescence (the love abides); I knew Lowell mainly as the guy who wrote the for­ward to Ariel (1966).

Yet, in fairness to my teachers, I must also say: no one gets a comprehensive education in literature, contemporary or otherwise, by the time they get their bachelor’s degree. And it was marvelous to find contemporary poetry on my own, via the magic of serendip­ity: in used bookstores, spreadeagled on the floors and beds of my college friends, and on the bookshelves in the Bert Meyers Poetry Room at Pitzer’s Grove House, the old Arts and Crafts bungalow that served as the college’s de facto student union. Besides, why would I, a young woman at a hippie-groovy school in southern California in the 1980s, want to read a book called For the Union Dead (1964)?

As for craft: I had arrived on campus as a sophomore in 1984 with a love for the music of T. S. Eliot, from his Practical Cats (1939) to “Prufrock,” but then I took a poetry writing class with Miroslav Holub, our Spring Visiting Writer. Holub was a major Czech poet and he was also a doctor—he introduced me to another doctor, an American one, and my poems would never be the same. Immersed in William Carlos Williams, I forsook fusty Eliot and embarked on a prolonged Imagist tear. I associated poetic music with the evils of rhyme and, for one unbearable semester, with the tortures of class exercises in meter with Professor Robert Mezey at Pomona College, Pitzer’s stately sister school. My new mission was image. Image was all!

That was how I graduated in 1987: metrically deaf, scarcely conscious of pacing and the line, despite all the poems I had read, despite all the poetry workshops I had taken, despite my own, new, heavily enjambed poems—as I walked into Simic’s office, this was my state.

6. charlie
it is shocking to me now to consider myself at twenty-three, show­ing up unannounced at a famous poet’s door. These days I am mostly uncertain and afraid, an overthinker, acutely aware of the potential thorns embedded in any idea’s rosette. Hedged by experience, I cast these lines back to that brave fool, thinking: who is rescuing who.

Cher suggested I call the UNH English Department to see if Charlie had office hours later that afternoon; by luck, the secretary on the phone said he did. I ran for the little bus that ferried stu­dents between Portsmouth and Durham (where the campus was located) several times a day.

I gazed out the window as the bus chugged between icy marsh­land and pockets of evergreen, past saltbox houses and white colo­nials—gray, white, winter green: New England, exotic north. Only a few months earlier I had left southern California, where I had lived my entire life, and moved to the other side of the country. I had told my parents that I would be home in September; then at Thanksgiving; then for New Year’s; and then, in December, on the phone with my weeping mother, I said I didn’t know when I would come home.

Hatted and scarfed, my face pressed to the cold glass of the bus window, as if to merge with the snow and marsh flashing by—

“Charlie.” What would I say.

i found simic’s office down a dark hallway, upstairs in a very large building with a broad curving stair.

I sat down in a chair that had been set up across from his door and waited. At one point a young man advanced down the hall and I must’ve given him a look because he stopped and stammered, “—are, are you—?” and gestured in the direction of Simic’s office. When I silently nodded he backed away and fled.

I sat down and blurted: “My name is Dana Levin, and I don’t go to school here, and I don’t want to go to school here, and I was wondering if you would work with me on my poems.”

I watched him go, feeling bristly and braced and—not budging. Then self-consciousness set my face on fire, my heart clanging with alarm. I was a complete impostor with no real right to be there, scaring that boy away: I wasn’t even a student!

Then a man, a little thick-set, came down the hall. He stopped at Simic’s door and stuck a key in the lock, while looking up at me: “Hello.” He pushed the door open and vanished behind it, leaving it open the barest crack.

A moment passed. I could see a thin slice of him through the cracked door, sitting at a desk. He had drawn a thin brown cig­arette from somewhere and started furiously smoking. I hauled myself up, thinking: You have come all this way, and so— I knocked, and he told me to come in. As I opened the door he gestured to a chair across from his. I sat down and blurted: “My name is Dana Levin, and I don’t go to school here, and I don’t want to go to school here, and I was wondering if you would work with me on my poems.”

He looked down. “Mmmm,” he said. And then, with a tone of consideration, in an English marbled by the thick r’s and guttural vowels of his native Serbian: “Why don’t you take Intro to Creative Writing with Mekeel McBride?” Then he suggested another class. And another. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped, his demeanor increasingly magnanimous, as he rattled off the many classes I could take—none taught by him.

When he finished his catalog of options, I said: “But what if I want to work with you?”

He sat back, silent. We studied each other. I think we were both surprised by this turn in the conversation. Then, without asking me why, without asking to see a single one of my poems, he said, “Okay.”

he didn’t want to know why I wrote what I wrote.

He didn’t want to know my dreams, my family, or any news from my life.

Later, he would learn what I was reading as a by-product of coming to rent movies at Atlantic Video, where I worked after quitting the bakery. At checkout, he would glance down at what­ever book was open on my desk: one day, the diaries of Anaïs Nin, another day, D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (1920). On seeing the Nin, he offered a studied look but no comment; “Excellent,” on seeing the Lawrence. Then he would pay, gather his rentals—com­edies, mainly—and walk out of the store.

A few times he gave me jazz mixtapes, mostly bebop, after hear­ing me play Thelonious Monk over and over at the store for weeks. You could tell he had recorded them long ago, from their frayed, half-faded labels.

I worked with him every week for a semester. Then every few months. For two and a half years, whenever I had five or six poems to show him, I’d make the mini-bus pilgrimage and climb the broad stair to his office.

When I showed up, there were no niceties, no chitchat. “Whaddya got?” he’d ask and motion to a chair.

I would hand him the thin stack, and he would bend over it, scanning each poem, flipping pages with a grunt. Then, stabbing a thick finger at a page, “Let’s talk about this one.”

Just this was a lesson: his scanning and flipping and not choosing—and then, what he chose—

One day he sent me home with a stack of literary magazines and told me to check them out. When I returned the next week he said, “What did you think?”

“I dunno,” I said, hedging, not wanting to hurt his feelings. “I didn’t like them very much.”

“Good!” He exclaimed with delight. “You shouldn’t like them!”

We didn’t really converse extensively about anything. I’d listen to him talk about my poems, about poetry, with braced attention, and then later, in my journal, I would argue with him.

He rarely looked me in the eye. He talked to me with his head down or facing me with his eyes focused a bit to the left of my head.

He never hit on me.

7. boundaries: an interlude
in high school, I had encountered older men, mentor types, would-be mentor types, who would come on to me, with more-than-mild flirtation. In college, I had been taken to lunch and proposi­tioned by the editor of a venerable literary magazine. Even at twenty, I had had the sense that this was the editor’s habit when on the road: a “writer girl on every campus” seducer. I had also encountered older men, teachers, who had not behaved this way at all. Having been a woman now for over half a century, having never—yet—been raped nor assaulted nor harassed beyond the pale, I think I have lived an extraordinarily lucky life in this world of men—even if the first twenty years of my life were anviled by the jubilations and plummets, by the stomping rages, by the daily tyrannies, of my bipolar father.

She sits with

tears on

But I didn’t yet know I was writing about my father. I was sit­ting without tears in Charlie’s office, showing him a poem about becoming a fish.

Simic was clearly a sensualist. From his poems, you knew he loved food, and women, and all the earthly pleasures. Here too his philosophy of and was in play: death and brutality were everywhere, yes; and so was “the sweet speech of trees.” Most of his poems barely made it to the top of page two, but in the Selected Poems I found a three-page, sixteen-stanza ode to breasts that began with an announcement: “I love breasts, hard / Full breasts, guarded / By a button.” At mid-point, the poem declares:

I spit on fools who fail to include

Breasts in their metaphysics

Star-gazers who have not enumerated them

Among the moons of the earth . . . 

They give each finger

Its true shape, its joy: . . .

And the poem ends:

I will tip each breast

Like a dark heavy grape

Into the hive

Of my drowsy mouth.

For a lover of breasts, by the still-fungible standards of 1980s aca­demia, where it was not uncommon for teachers and students to depart the classroom together for cafés and bars and, for some, the backseat or bedroom, Simic held to impeccable boundaries with full-breasted me. When I was in his office, along with never letting an eye stray beyond that area to the left of my head, he always kept his door ajar; this was long before doing so became the advice, the convention, and then the policy at campuses nationwide. During my time in college, teacher-student rela­tionships could be quite personal and intimate even without sex­ual entanglements: each semester I was there, I had something called Independent Study with my beloved mentor Barry Sanders, which took the form of showing up at his office to tell him dreams, gripes, current intellectual and literary passions and, occasionally, to show him a poem I had written. Thus, I received academic credit for being a person.

Pitzer’s intimate and personalized environment had been incredibly nurturing and formative for me, especially coming off twenty years of a deeply oppressive home life. But this intimacy made boundaries porous. I had gotten to know my college lover, the divorced professor, through poetry readings and gallery open­ings and hanging out at the Grove House café: we were engaged in the intimate life of a very small, progressive liberal arts college community, which flourished in part because of the relaxed stan­dards of academic protocol and convention. Our relationship natu­rally developed, within a context that made it easy to feel like peers.

I never took a class with him until after we started sleeping together. The power dynamics of being a student sleeping with my teacher were complicated in no small part because we genuinely cared for each other. I cannot subscribe to any reading of myself being a victim in this relationship. He was clearly attracted to me, and I was attracted to him and to his attraction: it was completely novel for me. Maybe if I could see myself through his eyes, I could stop torturing my body with judgment and self-loathing; maybe I could see what he so valued in my brain. I actively pursued him; he demurred for all the correct reasons; and then he consented. He was thirty years older than I was. He loved poetry, and so did I.

Still, the very fact that our positions outside the bedroom were not equal affected the class I took with him. How could I really be learning when I was so engrossed by my erotic secret? It was not even a secret, not really: half the students knew. He knew. It was the subtext for all of us in his classroom.

I was not aware of this then, but now I think that the imper­sonal atmosphere of my work with Charlie served as a tonic after the dramas of my undergraduate life. He wasn’t interested in me; he was interested in my poems. This was a first lesson in learning the difference between poems and personality, which would prove crucial if I was to see the poem as material to be worked rather than as an extension of self. There was nothing precious about a poem, in Charlie’s office: stretch it, poke holes in it, dismember it, knife it in its failing heart.

8. young woman at a window
for months, all we talked about was the line. Explicitly, implic­itly. One time we talked about jokes, which amounted to the same thing: pacing, dramatic accrual. Simic did not teach me formal prosody, and he did not attempt to define how prosody worked in contemporary poems. For that he handed me Charles O. Hartman’s Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody (1981).

Half the time I did not understand what I was reading. I did not have the poetics background or the patience to wade through the craft jargon and academese of Hartman’s writing style, especially in this “class” with Simic I was taking for no credit. Maybe this was also why Simic, who was conducting this “class” for free, did not ask me about the book beyond, “How’s the Hartman?” I shrugged. He chuckled. We turned to my poems.

In Hartman, I read:

“What the Image does among things, form does among words. The imagist poem imitates nature.”

How did this work, exactly? How did version two of “Young Woman at a Window” “imitate nature”? I think now that one problem I was having was that I thought “realism” and “nature” were the same thing.

She sits with

tears on

This did not seem realist. It was as if tears here were some kind of accoutrement, the glinting accent of a fashion ensemble. As if this young woman were not the one crying—

Was this why I preferred the shape that obscured understand­ing? The distance at which she sat from the tears she wore—the open space of the stanza break like a moat around feeling—

Soon, my powers of dissociation and compartmentalization would fail me, and I would feel, as if for the first time, a childhood that had made me crave no feeling at all. I would start psychoanaly­sis, where I would have to contend with becoming the woman with tears on, instead of the child pressed to the glass. But before that, for a few years, Charlie and I sat in hard chairs in his untidy office, trying to find out what made my poems break.

reading “young woman at a window” now, more than thirty years after I first encountered it, I can finally see: version two tracks materialization—

her cheek

her cheek on

as the result of the friction between line and sentence—

her hand

the child

as the result of the friction between child and mother. Look at stan­zas three and four, how they rely on each other to make a body! And yet, by the end—pressed / to the glass—a yearning for autonomy, escape—

Williams out walking, glancing at a window, the economic and psychological ramifications of the era flashing up through the glass—

To be a young woman with a young child: under certain con­ditions, it could pose acute problems, as it did in 1934, the year Williams published the poem, in the depths of the Great Depression.

In his preference for version two, had Williams finally decided to put away version one’s diagnosis in order to try to build with words what he had simply seen? A realization, perhaps, that the real task, for him, was not to chronicle the development of knowing but to enact, via enjambment, the struggle of seeing—and so to find himself asking the reader to participate in that struggle too, to work with him in empathy?

Isn’t that what I was trying to do, at twenty-three—struggling to see?

Now, at fifty-nine, after a long apprenticeship in poetry, I can finally tell you what I had no language for back then: that my bore­dom with long lines in poems was really boredom with lines that moved like ordinary sentences. The fascinating defamiliarization, the nuance and drama, the quality of revelation offered by the hard enjambment of version two of “Young Woman at a Window” broke open my seeking mind. This was the difference between prose and verse! Verse, the art of turning! And then, an ensuing problem: How could a fragmented sentence sing?

Here is the confession of this essay: I did not learn much about the line from Charlie. But he directed me to start paying atten­tion to this foundational tool, to start paying attention to poems as made things—products of decision, as much as magic. And as he divined, long lines found me. They were in the poetry of Jorie Graham’s The End of Beauty (1987), a book that became my obses­sion as my time with Simic drew to a close. In it, I discovered the play of long and short lines, the play of text and open space, which I’d been seeking but had not known how to describe. Graham’s line could parse and annotate and end-stop syntax all in a single poem; sometimes rushing, sometimes stopping, sometimes slal­oming through a stanza, her lines felt mimetic, enacting hesitations and urgencies of thought and feeling. I could feel the movements of her lines in my body. It was thrilling; it was what I wanted my lines to do! And I had only discovered this because Graham’s book had been reviewed in one of the lit-mags Charlie had sent home with me. Long lines found me too in the long avenues of New York City, where I started a master’s program in creative writing at NYU in 1990. “Every poet should live in New York City at least once,” Simic had advised. Writing poems in New York, my lines started to venture across the page.

Simic never effused much over my poems, never made pro­nouncements about an illustrious fate awaiting me. Twenty-five years after our work together ended, I would find out that his con­fidential grad school recommendation for me began, “Dana Levin is a big talent!” when a fellow grad student who had worked in the director’s office in those years confessed, over drinks, that she read everyone’s files.

I was utterly surprised by this declaration. So impersonal had been our engagement, it had never occurred to me that he had ever had strong feelings about me, beyond the usual obligations one expected from a teacher. What a fool I was. He had given me, an uninvited stranger, free of charge, the two most precious gifts he had to give: his time and his attention. He had taken my art seri­ously, and it had transformed me. Why should I be surprised that he had had feelings about it?

One evening in 1992, as I was finishing grad school, I went to the 92nd Street Y to see Simic read with Tomaž Šalamun. I had not seen him in two years. In the restroom, as I came out of a bathroom stall, I spied his wife, Helen, at the mirror. When had I met her? I recognized her, and she me: when she saw me, she rushed up and took my face in both her hands, exclaiming, “Dana! Charlie will be so happy to see you!” I stood speechless in the surge of Helen’s enthusiasm and warmth. She greeted me as if I were family, as if I were a daughter, returned from a long journey. She pinched my cheeks and stood back, exclaiming with feeling, “You’ve come for your Charlie!”

My Charlie! So I had.

Dana Levin is the author of five books, including Now Do You Know Where You Are, a 2022 New York Times Notable Book and NPR “Book We Love.” She serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in Saint Louis.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024


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