Denise Levertov New Selected Essays
Northwest Schools of Literature: Texts
18. Denise Levertov, “Some Affinities of Content"
Denise Levertov, “Some Affinities of Content,” in New & Selected Essays (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1992), 1-11.
Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
In the fall of 1990, I realized that my own preferred reading in current poetry as the last decade of the century began was of two kinds: a certain kind of poem about the world of nature written predominantly by poets of the Pacific Northwest, and poems of various provenance that were concerned more or less with matters of religious faith. And as I thought about them, I realized that there was a similarity of direction in these two kinds of poem, though their manner of approach differed. I recognized that I felt a personal affinity with both, which stemmed from a shared preoccupation with that direction; and I was reminded of a Hans Christian Andersen story I had always loved, called “The Bell,” which tells how a beggar-boy and a prince, taking different paths through the forest in quest of the place from which a mysterious and beautiful bell could be heard ringing, emerged at last, at the same moment, at the shore of a remote lake beside which stood the chapel and its golden-voiced bell.
There were, of course, many other kinds of poem which interested me too, but these two predominated; and my sense of affinity with them and of their parallel movement was not one of formal structure but of content or concern. I note a difference here which may be familiar to others of my age, in that what drew me to the work of various poets when I was in my twenties and thirties was often the shape of their poems,
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their diction, their rhythmic organization, whether or not I cared deeply, or understood, what they were saying. We have long assumed that it is an aesthetic truism to assert the indivisibility of form and content—but there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in the statement, after all. Perhaps it needs to be reformulated, to say that although inadequate formal expression always diminishes or distorts content, yet form itself can be perceived, admired, and experienced as pleasure or stimulus even when the reader’s attention is not held by content. Thus, while content cannot be fully apprehended without a fusion with form equal to its task, form can be apprehended and absorbed in and of itself. The assertion of indivisibility does not cover this contingency. At all events, I as a younger poet was often drawn primarily to the structure or technique of poems I read, and paid less attention to what was being said; whereas the older I grow the more I find myself concerned with content, and drawn towards poems that articulate some of my own interests. The primary importance given to what doesn’t imply a loss of interest in how; if a poem strikes me as banal, trite, flabby, pretentious or in any other respect badly written, I’m unlikely to read further no matter what its subject matter. But the poems to which I look for nourishment and stimulus are more and more those with which I feel an affinity that is not necessarily stylistic at all.
What then are these thematic affinities? And how do they differ from the thematic tendencies of the poems that most interested me when I was younger, before I came to America and became, for a while, more interested in form than content? When I think of the poets among whom my own work first appeared, the English poets of the phase Kenneth Rexroth anthologized in 1948 as The New Romantics, I would say that their appeal to me and to others was chiefly on an emotional level: they tended to convey, with varying degrees of musicality and through evocative but not very precise images, a
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certain rather narrow range of emotional moods. The poets with whom I was soon associated after I came to America (and who came to be known as the Black Mountain School—though I myself was never at Black Mountain in my life—and who were strongly influenced by Williams and Pound and by the Objectivists) were, however, a great deal more concerned with language itself, with formal concepts, and with history, than the English poets of the ‘40s. In Williams, likewise, who was for me the primary influence on my own development at that time, I found those formal concerns, along with that more than descriptive, that evocative sense of how things are which can be so keenly felt in his work. Transcending the merely documentary, that sense conveys a strong flavor or aroma of Williams’ values, his love for a tenacious life-force, for qualities of daring, imagination, persistence, perceived in weeds and birds or in some rickety building embodying in its fragile means some idea or aspiration, as well as in the humans, obscure or known to history, of whom he also wrote.
All of this—what I found and loved and went on finding in Williams, as well as what excited me in the ideas and practices of those poets of my own generation who in the ‘50s were published in Origin and The Black Mountain Review (such as “composition by field” and a far more democratic diction than I had been accustomed to in England)—all of this was just what I instinctively needed at the time. What I did not find (and was not looking for) was an impulse of spiritual quest (though if I had been looking for it I could have found it in my great friend Robert Duncan, or in Margaret Avison, that profound Canadian poet who, though even more detached from actual connection with Black Mountain than I was, did correspond with Olson and Cid Corman and was published in Origin for a time). I was not looking for it because in the 1950s I was preoccupied with my technical development. Yet a sense of quest, of life as a pilgrimage, was, I believe, a part of me from the start, and by
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1967, when Robert Duncan and I (along with Hollis Summers) participated in a symposium on Myth in Religion and Poetry in Washington, I had recognized that this was so.
Being the child of a socially conscious family, conscience and circumstance virtually forced me into the politics of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and on into the broader anti-nuclear, environmental, and social justice concerns which evolved from it, so that I found myself frequently acting as apologist for “engaged” writing in response to external demands as well as (initially) to explain to myself what I was doing. Thus I have spent a lot of time attempting to define what qualities can make “political” poetry work as poetry, to defend such poetry from attacks made from a position of rigid, general aesthetic objection rather than on a case by case basis, and to point out the honorable precedents for such literary “engagement.” But this didactic role (which, once having taken on, I probably shall never be able to avoid) was undertaken as a further obligation of social conscience, not from personal choice; for my underlying interest has always been elsewhere. The tragic and fearful character of our times is not something from which we can detach ourselves; we are in it, as fish are in the sea, whether we speak about it in our poems or not. Sometimes the nagging, unceasing ache of a keen awareness of current history and of its impact on one’s daily life deflects one’s energies away from creative work; at other times it may stimulate them, and some of the results may be of lasting value. But more and more, what I have sought as a reading writer, is a poetry that, while it does not attempt to ignore or deny the ocean of crisis in which we swim, is itself “on pilgrimage,” as it were, in search of significance underneath and beyond the succession of temporal events: a poetry which attests to the “deep spiritual longing” that Jorie Graham, in her very interesting essay of introduction to The Best American Poetry, 1990 says is increasingly manifest in recent American verse.
One of the places where I have found what I needed is in
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some of the poets of the Northwest, with whose work I was somewhat familiar long before I moved there. They are poets who usually have experienced a long-standing relationship to non-urban nature. The character of this relationship is clarified by contrasting what the word Nature tends to evoke on the Northwest coast and in the Northeast. In the latter, and in all states that were settled relatively early, the word “Nature,” calls up a landscape of farms, of old cellar-holes, forgotten family burying-grounds, overgrown stone walls, appletrees lost in the woods; of barns and cows and tidy village greens, carpentered white churches, and here and there a just-surviving elm. In many places the cut-over woods look more venerable than they are, for they are largely mixed hardwood and were not systematically replanted in rigid rows for quick harvesting. It is a humanly populated landscape that comes to mind, and the typical poems that emerge from it are populated too. The relationship of the individual poet to the non-human environment in the East is always in some degree mediated through the presence of other humans even when they are not specifically referred to. And so it is natural that the focus often is on the poet’s response rather than primarily on what is responded to; a focus that can reflect more egotism, or else be a positive and illuminating introspection, as in, for instance, Hayden Carruth’s North Winter or From Snow and Rock, from Chaos. In the Northwest the word “Nature,” however, evokes Wilderness, notwithstanding that nature is being despoiled there in even swifter and more dramatically visible ways, as the lumber companies race to destroy the oldgrowth forests of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, than good farmland is being destroyed in the East. That the Northwestern poets I am speaking of have had or still have a genuine—and often a working, not only recreational—relationship to wild nature, leads to poems seldom frequented by other humans, and in which, even where the personal pronoun is present, we are given more of what is seen (or otherwise apprehended) and less emphasis on
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the poet’s reaction to it. Am I simply saying that such poems are more objective; those from the East Coast more subjective? Not quite, for the Western poems are introspective too—but in a different way, it seems to me: the strong influence of Chinese and Japanese poetry and of Buddhism on a people dwelling in a landscape which, with its mists and snowy mountains, often seems to resemble one of those great scroll paintings of Asian art, comes into play in much Northwestern poetry, and gives rise to a more conscious attentiveness to the non-human and to a more or less conscious desire to immerse the self in that larger whole. It is this which gives these poems that element I have called spiritual quest. It takes their poems beyond what for me, as a city-dweller, would otherwise be merely a sort of tourism, to a universal dimension that speaks to the inner life. Such poems communicate not just the appearance of phenomena but the presence of spirit within those phenomena. I have referred to an Asian influence, but the assumption of such spiritual presence in landscape and in all life-forms is even more closely related to Native American beliefs.
Let me give you some examples of such poems. People say that every poet of the Pacific Northwest has to write a heron poem now and then; this one is by Sam Hamill:
Black Marsh Eclogue
Although it is midsummer, the great blue heron
holds darkest winter in his hunched shoulders,
those blue-turning-gray clouds
rising over him like a storm from the Pacific.
He stands in the black marsh
more monument than bird, a wizened prophet
returned from a vanished mythology.
He watches the hearts of things
and does not move or speak. But when
at last he flies, his great wings
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cover the darkening sky, and slowly,
as though praying, he lifts, almost motionless,
as he pushes the world away.
That heron is observed with more than an ornithologist’s eye, and is more than a mobile bundle of bones and feathers. Nor is it anthropomorphized, though it is impossible for us to avoid some human terms of analogy. A kind of animism informs such a vision. Hamill, a Buddhist, disclaims belief in God and is profoundly skeptical of human redeemability; but he is far too deeply a man of poetic imagination to espouse a crass rationalism, blind to the mystery of being. And if the world is “pushed away,” another world, that is to say another dimension of being, is implied.
Wendell Berry has an equally wonderful heron poem, the last lines of which say that, after he finds himself close to the bird, “suddenly I know I have passed across/to a shore where I do not live.” Berry’s poem illustrates my point about Eastern U.S. poets, for it is as much concerned—though not in an egotistic or narcissistic way—with the shift in the poet himself from busy-ness and anxiety to stillness and openness brought about by the encounter, as it is with the heron himself.
An untitled poem by the Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski, whose work Sam Hamill has translated, does something similar:
I do not know whether each believer
is as joyful that God exists
as I was upon hearing
the wood owl call from the ash tree
where his next box
has already rested a dozen years. Now
he has nested there
four or five years himself.
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Here again we have a bird whose spirit is invoked in that triumphant and awestruck last line; and again we have a reference to belief from outside of belief—here in the opening lines, and in Hamill’s poem in the phrase, “as though praying.” In both cases the birds are regarded with respect, even with humility. An owl poem by the wonderful poet John Haines goes further in this direction:
Prayer to the Snowy Owl
Descend, silent spirit;
you whose golden eyes
pierce the grey
shroud of the world—
Drifter of the arctic night,
destroyer of those
who gnaw in the dark—
preserver of whiteness.
Sam Green, who lives on an island in the San Juans where he and his wife and son built their house with their own hands, living in a tent year-round for two or three years while they did so, has a poem called “Covenant: Saying Hello to the Land We Will Live With,” which is full of a sense of respect for place. One perceives that these people intend to fit themselves into the place they have come to, modestly, rather than planning to impose their wills upon it. The covenant is with the spirit of the place as well as with one another.
Covenant: Saying Hello to the Land
We Will Live With
We pace off boundaries in a light rain
wondering whether the air
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slips over us, or we slip
into the air. We have only
the compass of how we walk here
how our feet move
over the soil that will feed us.
Everywhere there are gestures of
welcome, the intricate calligraphy
of branches, the slow traffic of summer
birds, the million plants giving up
their oxygen, our lungs filling.
There was the voice in your head the first time
I will die here
like a benediction, light as the first
leaf fall, and you unafraid.
I watch you kneel & smell
a handful of soil, the cornerstone
of wonder. The elements
of a future assemble inside us
though we worry where the water is
whether we can build before
winter, how to find the longest light
for the labor we will do here.
Neither of us speaks it
I will stay here with you
here, here I will love you
made good by the doing,
a contract signed & witnessed
with each breath as we keep faith
with the land, the names
we will learn, passing into each season
passing through in turn.
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Emily Warn, writing of working all day in the wet woods with a friend to clear some scrub alder, saw it, and carry it up out of a ravine to dry for firewood, ends her poem “Axis Mundi” with lines that also convey a sense of respect and connectedness:
they cease work just after dusk and
watch the clearing we broke
out of the woods, watch how it
holds the wet sky
like a cupped palm, or a well, rounded and scooped
by rain falling, slowly carving a basin
where the animals can drink from the net of rain we love.
Tim McNulty is a poet who has worked in the woods for years, and has published some first-rate ecological essays as well as poetry. In a series called Reflected Light he pays homage to paintings by Morris Graves, but he is so steeped in direct knowledge of the area that in responding to Graves’ titles and images he is simultaneously responding to his own accrued experiences which share Graves’ sources of inspiration. It is as a poet whose hands have planted thousands of trees that he writes such a companion piece to one of Graves’ tree paintings as this:
Joyous Young Pine
The flushed glow of new life
hidden in bud
and early gold-green leafage
quickens a young pine
with a thousand warm
and radiant leaves
It’s the spring of its
Shallow roots deepen
in the temperate earth,
and a smooth skein of bark
sheathes it stem. . . .
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It’s as if Graves’ vision were not so much a revelation to him as a confirmation. Such poems, although full of sensory data, imply the presence of spirit in nature, of the natural world as material manifestation of the supramaterial.
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Denise Levertov was born in 1923 in London and educated at home by her mother. Her formal education ended at age twelve, though she studied ballet for a time thereafter and was a lifelong autodidact and student of the arts, literature and languages. Her first book of poems, The Double Image, was published by Cresset Press, London in 1946 and in 1948 she came to the U.S. as the wife of Mitchell Goodman, who had been studying in Europe on the G.I. Bill.
Levertov was introduced to the American reading public through The New British Poets, an anthology edited by Kenneth Rexroth and published by New Directions. From the early 1950s, she and her husband were political and antiwar activists. Levertov taught at University of Massachusetts, Boston, Tufts University, and at Brandeis. For a time, she taught part of the year at Brandeis and the other part at Stanford University, which she also received tenure from. Along with the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in poetry and the Lannan Prize, she won the 1996 Governor’s Writers Award, from the Washington State Commission for the Humanities. She died of lymphoma on December 20, 1997, in Seattle and is survived by her son Nikolai Goodman. Levertov published more than thirty books with New Directions.