Thursday, May 18, 2006


Reading Denise Levertov again

Reading, re-reading, some of Denise Levertov's New & Selected Essays (published 1992 by New Directions). I've spent much time with the collection before. I always find it useful. In particular the several essays dealing with lines, line breaks, stanza breaks, and so on, have been helpful to me in working out my thinking on the subjects, in understanding what it is I'm attempting to do with margins and line breaks, etc., when I'm writing my own poems.

Levertov's essays cover a wide range of topics: the book includes pieces about Rilke, William Carlos Williams, Anne Sexton, the role of spiritual life in poetry, and much about the place of poetry in political involvement with the world.

A couple of passages from her essay "The Poet in the World" have stayed with me since I first read it years ago. A couple of brief excerpts from the essay are below. (Note that Levertov uses the term "man" and the male pronouns throughout; it should of course go without saying that her comments apply equally for women and men.)
This the poet has known, and he has known in his own flesh equivalent things. He has seen suddenly coming round a corner the deep-lined, jowled faces and uncertain, unfocusing eyes, never meeting his for more than an unwilling second, of men of power. All the machines of his life have directed upon him their power, whether of speed or flickering information or disembodied music. He has seen enormous mountains from above, from higher than eagles ever fly; and skimmed upstream over the strong flow of rivers; and crossed in a day the great oceans his ancestors labored across in many months. He has sat in a bathtub listening to Bach's St. Matthew Passion, he has looked up from the death of Socrates, disturbed by some extra noise amid the jarring and lurching of the subway train and the many rhythmic rattlings of its parts, and seen one man stab another and a third spring from his seat to assist the wounded one. He has seen the lifted fork pause in the air laden with its morsel of TV dinner as the eyes of the woman holding it paused for a moment at the image on the screen that showed a bamboo hut go up in flames and a Vietnamese child run screaming toward the camera -- and he has seen the fork move on toward its waiting mouth, and the jaws continue their halted movement of mastication as the next image glided across the screen.
And then, a little further on in the same essay:
I am saying that for the poet, for the man who makes literature, there is no such thing as an isolated study of literature. And for those who desire to know what the poet has made, there is therefore no purely literary study either. Why "therefore"? Because the understanding of a result is incomplete if there is ignorance of its process. The literary critic or the teacher of literature is merely scratching a section of surface if he does not live out in his own life some experience of the multitudinous interactions in time, space, memory, dream, and instinct that at every word tremble into synthesis in the work of a poet, or if he keeps his reading separate from his actions in a box labeled "aesthetic experiences." The interaction of life on art and of art on life is continuous. Poetry is necessary to a whole man, and that poetry be not divided from the rest of life is necessary to it. Both life and poetry fade, wilt, shrink, when they are divorced.

Literature -- the writing of it, the study of it, the teaching of it -- is a part of your lives. It sustains you, in one way or another. Do not allow that fatal divorce to take place between it and your actions.
Most of Denise Levertov's powerful poems against the Vietnam War can be found now in her collections Poems 1968-1972 and Poems 1972-1982, both published by New Directions. Over the years I've returned often to Levertov's poetry, essays and other writing; I've always found something to sustain me.

I would have to agree with her assertion that there is no isolated study of literature--even though I'm 'self-taught' in the sense that I've never studied within the academy, I've had many many teachers--the writers that I read are my teachers. As Donne so beautifully put it, "No man is an island."
I was fortunate enough to hear Levertov read two or three years before she died (I think it was about that -- fairly late in her life, at any rate). She was remarkable. I haven't read her recently -- should definitely go back and dive into her soon.
Excellent post. You always seem to encapsulate the best of what you've read and make me want more.
Thanks for posting on my blog. With your post, I discovered *your* blog and am enjoying the reading of it.
Lyle is compassionate/teacher/giving/
Jenni -- although I've taken poetry writing classes now and then over the years, most of what I've learned (or feel I've learned) about writing and reading poetry also comes from reading it, and from much good talk with other poets and anyone else who likes poetry.

Anne -- I never heard Levertov read in person. I heard, at some point, a recording of her reading a few of her poems, not enough to get a sense of her as a person. I'm sure I would have liked getting to hear her read.

Pris -- thanks as always for coming by and posting.

32 poems -- thanks as well for coming by and commenting.

Michelle -- thanks so much for your kind and generous words.
This makes me want to go back to her essays. Levertov's poetry was built on precision. And her essays follow that same path. Thanks for the nudge.
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