Pearl London (1916–2003) was a teacher of poetry at The New School, in New York City. Between 1970 and 1998, for a class seminar called “Works in Progress,” she asked an array of poets to bring in drafts of poems and to discuss them in depth, from vision to revision. In all, over 100 poets accepted her invitation, many relatively unknown at the time but becoming luminaries in the field: eight United States Poets Laureate (Stanley Kunitz, Maxine Kumin, Mark Strand, W.S. Merwin, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Louise Glück, and Charles Simic), Pulitzer Prize winners, one double Nation Book Award winner (James Merrill), and one eventual Nobel Laureate (Derek Walcott); other guest poets included Marilyn Hacker, Philip Levine, Frank Bidart, John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Galway Kinnell, Stanley Plumly, Amy Clampitt, and C.K. Williams. A book was published highlighting the “Works in Progress” course (Poetry in Person, edited by Alexander Neubauer. Alfred A. Knopf, March, 2010).
Born Pearl Levison on April 23, 1916, London was the daughter of Joshua Jacob Levison and Ray Levison. Her father was a renowned landscape architect who designed and built the house the family eventually moved into, in 1918, in the town of Sea Cliff, Long Island, and who had as his clients several of the industrialists who were building and buying estates on the still unsettled expanse of the Island. London’s mother, Ray, had emigrated from Latvia to the United States when she was sixteen years old. After Pearl, she had two other daughters, Sylvia and Beatrice.
Pearl London studied at the Dalton School in New York City, then attended Bennington College in Vermont, the Art Students League in New York City (with Robert Beverly Hale, the exponent of anatomical drawing, later a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and finally Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where she completed her undergraduate degree in 1937. For two years after college she worked for George Gallup at the Gallup Poll, and began to write poetry.
In 1939, competing with a field of 6175 entrants, Pearl London won the 1939 World’s Fair prize for poetry. The winning poem, titled “The World of Tomorrow,” was read on the radio by Orson Welles, with whom she was photographed. Those who knew her then, and later, recall her beauty; in fact she once posed for the portrait photographer Arnold Genthe.
On June 8, 1939 Pearl Levison married Ephraim London, who would become a celebrated civil liberties lawyer, trying and winning nine cases before the Supreme Court, among them landmark censorship decisions. They were to remain married for fifty-one years until his death in 1991. The couple lived for decades on Washington Mews, just north of the Washington Square arch, where London’s home became something of a literary salon, including many of the celbrated poets who visited her class as well as friends and writers Lillian Hellman, Shirley Hazzard, Maureen Howard, and Penelope Gilliatt, the poetry editor Alice Quinn, the journalist Nora Sayre, the literary critic Francis Steegmuller, and the film critic Vincent Canby.
The year of their marriage saw her mother’s divorce and her remarriage to the book publisher M. Lincoln Schuster, co-founder of Simon and Schuster. In 1942 Pearl ’s modern verse translation of the middle- English poem “The Eaten Heart” appeared in Louis Untermeyer’s anthology A Treasury of Great Poems. They had one child during this time, Peter London, born in 1955.
In 1965, at 49 years of age, London enrolled in a graduate program in comparative literature at New York University. She studied with preeminent Henry James scholar Leon Edel and with medievalist Robert Raymo and completed her degree in 1967. For three years thereafter she taught English literature and writing courses at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University. Finally, in 1970 she began at what was then called The New School for Social Research, teaching poetry and her now famous “Works in Progress” course. She would also serve on the board of The Poetry Society of America for most of the next decade.
Pearl London died on April 24, 2003, the day after her eighty-seventh birthday.
Interview with Pearl London’s son, Peter London, on 11/29/2009
Interview with poet Philip Levine, 3/25/2008
Introduction by Alexander Neubauer, in Poetry in Person: 25 Years of Conversation with America’s Poets, Knopf, 2010
Postscript by Robert Polito, in Poetry in Person