I first encountered the work of poet Denise Levertov years ago when I went to a local college’s book sale and found battered paperback copies of her The Poet in the World and Poems: 1960-1967. The title and the black and white photo on the cover of The Poet in the World made me pick it up and look through its pages. The fact that both were only fifty cents made me snatch them up and buy them. That was one of the best dollars I have ever spent as I cannot count the number of times I have reread both of the years.
Recently, I began to reread The Poet in the World and was particularly struck by the chapter entitled “Some Notes on Organic Form.” In it Levertov writes about organic poetry, which she gives a partial definition of as “a method of apperception, i.e., of recognition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories. Such poetry is exploratory.”
Then she goes on to ask, “How does one write about such a poetry?”
“I think it’s like this: first there must be an experience, a sequence or constellation of perceptions of sufficient interest, felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him their equivalence in words: he is brought to speech. Suppose there’s the sight of the sky through a dusty window, birds and clouds and bits of paper flying through the sky, the sound of music from his radio, feelings of anger and love and amusement roused by a letter just received, the memory of some long-past thought or event associated with what’s seen or heard or felt, and an idea, a concept, he has been pondering, each qualifying the other; together with what he knows about history; and what he has been dreaming – whether or not he remembers it – working in him.”
Levertov gives this example of a possible moment in someone’s life, in which they are inspired to take such fragments of one’s day coming together and distill them into language, into an act of creation. It’s what she calls this cross-section of “constellation, of experiences . . . wakes in him this demand: the poem.”
How many of us have experienced a moment of such joy, sorrow, beauty, grace, pain, or intensity yet we do not know the right words to express them until we’ve read a poem by someone who crystallizes precisely our own feelings and thoughts? Few feel that awakening, that demand to write a poem. As Robert Frost said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
Prolific Denise Levertov wrote poems that covered a wide range of subjects: from nature to love to protest to her faith in God. Amy Gerstler, a book reviewer for The Los Angeles Times, wrote of Levertov’s writing that a “reader poking her nose into any Levertov book at random finds herself in the presence of a clear uncluttered voice—a voice committed to acute observation and engagement with the earthly, in all its attendant beauty, mystery and pain.”
How did Levertov write so prolifically and so profoundly?
“The beginning of the fulfillment,” she wrote, “of this demand is to contemplate, to meditate; words which connote a state in which the heat of feeling warms the intellect. To contemplate comes from the ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the auger.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of a contemplation’; its synonym is ‘to muse,’ and to muse comes from a word meaning ‘to stand with open mouth’ – not so comical if we think of ‘inspiration’ – to breathe in.”
I love that image of a poet standing, open-mouthed, for inspiration to enter in as one breathes in a breath of air.
Denise Levertov never received a formal education growing up in Ilford, England but she and her sisters were taught by their father Paul Philip Levertoff. He was a Russian Hassidic Jew who converted to Christianity and later moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. He, himself, was a prolific author who wrote in Hebrew, Russian, German, and English. Buying secondhand books by the lot, he filled their house with literature in many different languages. Her mother, Beatrice, enjoyed reading to the family from nineteenth century poets, especially her favorite: Lord Alfred Tennyson.
At the young age of five, Denise Levertov declared that she was going to be a writer. At twelve, she was bold enough to send some of her poems to T.S. Eliot. Surprisingly, Eliot wrote her a two-page letter back, giving her advice which inspired her to keep writing.
“During the writing of a poem,” she continued, “the various elements of the poet’s being are in communion with each other, and heightened. Ear and eye, intellect and passion, interrelate more subtly at other times; and the ‘checking for accuracy,’ for the precision of language, that must take place throughout the writing is not a matter of one element of supervising the others but of intuitive interaction between all the elements involved.”
When I read how she describes the writing of a poem, one sees a spiritual aspect to her tone, her use of language, and how she approaches her craft. One wonders how much of this is due to her father’s influence as her first teacher? She once said that, “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervour and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells.”
Spirituality and scholarship both require a passion, a rigor and a strict sense of devotion. One finds this in Levertov’s own writing. Take her poem “That Passeth All Understanding”:
“An awe so quiet
I don’t know when it began.
to sing in me.
song from no song?
When does dewfall begin?
When does night
fold its arms over our hearts
to cherish them?
When is daybreak?”
When Levertov moved from England to the United States, she first encountered and came under the influence of the Black Mountain Poets, especially the mysticism of Charles Olson. Levertov, in her later years, returned to her Christian faith and used her poetry to “trace my slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith, a movement incorporating much doubt and questioning as well as affirmation.”
For Levertov, poetry is a revelation, “A religious devotion to the truth, to the splendor of the authentic, involves the writer in a process rewarding in itself; but when that devotion brings us to undreamed abysses and we find ourselves sailing slowly over them and landing on the other side – that’s ecstasy.”
Her work is filled with a spiritual sense of reality, a transcendence, of “poetry as pilgrimage.” In an interview towards the end of her life, she said, “I would say that I do believe that anybody who has any kind of gift, and has been given that gift, has an obligation to use it. And it’s really hard to have a gift. When I stopped being an agnostic I perceived it [the calling] as a gift from God. What I thought it was in the interim I don’t know. I thought it was a gift anyway, a gift from something somewhere.”
For her, poetry, like prayer, is the focus of attention. She saw her poems as forms of praying. She captured divine sparks and put them to the page. Her poem “Suspended” reads almost like a psalm:
“I had grasped God’s garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.”
For her the poems was prayer and temple and the poet a priest. She viewed poetry as sacred. Poems as containers of the holy. Her poems are born of silence and stillness and solitude. Poetry was her way of encountering the Divine, of engaging the world and creation, as well as social justice. All were interconnected.