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On "Life at War"

Paul Breslin

Confessional poetics, as I interpret it, is in effect a tragic version of Altieri's "aesthetics of presence." Levertov's response, though obviously not confessional, shares the same premise: that the madness of the nation reaches deep into the psyche, distorting the very processes of thought, feeling, and perception. As Cary Nelson has remarked, Olson "associates open form with an Adamic childlike, innocent perceptiveness"; but what happens when "process" becomes demonic, the content of perception no longer innocent?

One can see Levertov struggling with these problems in "Life at War," part of the closing section of The Sorrow Dance (1966) in which she writes about the war for the first time. She begins by lamenting her own inability to respond: "The disasters numb within us" (SD, 79). Since the war is far away, and we know of it only through pictures and news accounts of "the disasters," one has trouble making it present to the imagination. In a sense, the Vietnam war is but a particular instance of an omnipresent war. Not only the conflict in Vietnam, but all instances of violent cruelty can occur only because of a failure of imagination:

The same war

We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,

our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it.

In this passage, "war" in the larger sense is in the air we breathe. Considering the importance of "breath" in Olsonian poetics, the reflection that we have breathed the contaminated air of war "all our lives" becomes even more melancholy. The rhythm of the breath was to have shaped the lineation of poetry, joining "the HEART . . . to the LINE" (SW, 19). Moreover, breathing is Olson's central emblem both of the continual interchange between self and environment and of the bond between poetry and the life of the body: "breath is mans special qualification as animal" (SW, 25). Levertov, in this passage, gives us a fallen version of Olsonian process, its Adamic innocence poisoned by "war." She cannot fathom why "delicate man, whose flesh / responds to a caress, whose eyes / are flowers that perceive the stars" (SD, 79), nonetheless

still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.

The problem, then, is that by breathing the war in daily, by becoming used to "scheduled" brutalities, we lose our capacity to grasp the brutalities as such. The imagination becomes "filmed over, " unable to respond with anything more than "mere regret."

There is surely some validity to this understanding of how the American public condoned the war; Godfrey Hodgson remarks on the government's use of statistical quantification to lend a "pseudorational" logic to its arguments; statistics also treat abstractly what those in Vietnam experienced concretely, in their own flesh. And yet, Levertov's poem itself shows a failure of imagination, most of all in its very preoccupation with imagination. However sincere its expression of outrage against the war, the poem seems finally more preoccupied with the consequences of the war for Levertov's poetics than with the war itself.

"Life at War" ends by lamenting that "nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness, / the deep intelligence living at peace would have" (SD, 80). By closing with these lines, Levertov fixes our attention not on the plight of the Vietnamese, but on the way the war spoils life at home—the war is bad because it is bad for us. The images from Vietnam, torn from any context and programmatically lurid, protest too much. Instead of testifying to an imaginative grasp of the war, they betray an imagination flogging itself to respond.

from The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the U of Chicago P.

Harry Marten

In "Life at War," the final grouping of her poems in The Sorrow Dance, Levertov presents a profoundly disturbing vision of violence that brings together unflinching directness of imagery with what seems in the context to be restrained, at times almost delicate, abstract language. The matter-of-fact picture of slaughter and mutilation is shocking, as is the contrast between presentation and meaning. But the very mix of gritty detail and controlled, often elegant, diction permits unusual recognitions. Levertov offers a language that confronts terrible human acts honestly, while still demonstrating the human potential for grace and imaginative reclamation. While indicting humankind for its savagery, she reminds herself and her readers, with irony but also with hopefulness, that human beings possess qualities of responsiveness that make a promise of peace thinkable.

"Man," Levertov explains, speaking with an almost metaphysical diction, is an animal "whose flesh / responds to a caress, whose eyes / are flowers that perceive the stars" and "whose understanding manifests designs / fairer than the spider’s most intricate web" ("Life at War," Sorrow 79). But metaphysics disconcertingly collides with the immediate as the poet continues, suggesting with language that mixes abstractions and direct images, that this same human animal

still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys (80).

Levertov affirms that writer and readers alike are "the humans, men who can make; / whose language imagines mercy, lovingkindness," and have "believed one another / mirrored forms of a God we felt as good." But she suggests we must not refuse recognition that it is we "who do these acts, who convince ourselves / it is necessary," and that "these acts are done / to our own flesh; burned human flesh" (Sorrow 80). We must not use our ability with words to transform the truths of our deeds. Yet, too, because we are "men who can make," who can imagine a "God" that is "good," and a language that "imagines ... / lovingkindness," our acts are recoverable.

"Knowledge" of hideous crimes of war, Levertov writes, "jostles for space / in our bodies along with all we / go on knowing of joy, of love":

our nerve filaments twitch with its presence
day and night,
nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have.
                                                        (Sorrow 80)

Even as readers are compelled to know their guilt of action or of complacency, the poet has succeeded in reminding them with her visible joy of making, her love of language and clarity of vision, that they have the capacity for creation and for creative perception. Her readers have seen the ugliness of human affairs, but the surprising and disarming mix of formal beauty, strength and elegance of language, and horrific images, has made it possible for them to grasp the horror not just turn away in fear and loathing. Levertov, distancing herself from the nightmare even as she has looked into the heart of it, has offered readers a compassion that has made possible their seeing. She has begun to point toward a way of comprehending the violence of war that modern men "have breathed the grits of ... all [their] lives, / the mucous membrane of [their] dreams / coated with it, the imagination / filmed over with the gray filth of it" (Sorrow 79).

In poems that are at times openly didactic yet lyrical, invariably questioning, The Sorrow Dance reveals the nature of human brutalities enacted on behalf of the political state, imagining the thoughts and lives of victims and victimizers alike ("What Where They Like," "The Altars in the Street," "Didactic Poem"). For all its shock, the impact is oddly that of relief, for at last the unspeakable is given voice. As Levertov suggests, "To speak of sorrow / works upon it"

                        moves it from its
crouched place barring
the way to and from the soul’s hall....
                            ("To Speak," Sorrow 63)

The reader discovers, too, that the dance of sorrow does not dispel the dance of joy. Thus the poems of The Sorrow Dance offer a "Hymn to Eros" (21), and a loving celebration of a son who "Moves among us from room to room of our life" (18). Levertov takes a cue from Thoreau, who suggests that "You must love the crust of the earth on which you dwell. You must be able to extract nutriment out of a sandheap. You must have so good an appetite as this, else you will live in vain" (quoted in "Joy," Sorrow 33).

Though the verses of The Sorrow Dance accept no denials of the human predicament, neither do they accept the easy answers of self-pity, cynicism, or despair. Throughout, Levertov is "faithful to / ebb and flow," affirming that: "There is no savor / more sweet, more salt / than to be glad to be / ... myself" ("Stepping Westward," Sorrow 15). "If I bear burdens," she explains,

they begin to be remembered
as gifts, goods, a basket

of bread that hurts
my shoulders but closes me

in fragrance. (16)

Whether exploring family memories, personal relationships, or public events in this, her most politically engaged book to date, Levertov brings her readers to a recognition of their deep human flaws and possibilities:

The honey of man is
the task we’re set to: to be
‘more ourselves’
in the making:
In our gathering, in our containing, in our
working, active within ourselves,
slowly the pale
dew-beads of light
lapped up from flowers
can thicken,
darken to gold:

honey of the human.
                ("Second Didactic Poem," Sorrow 82-83)

 Harry Marten. Understanding Denise Levertov. Edited by James McCorkle. Copyright © 1988 by University of South Carolina Press.

John Felstiner

"And what old ballad singer was it," Yeats asked, "who claimed to have fought by day in the very battle he sang by night?" Himself a would-be reviver and recorder of his nation’s genius, Yeats liked to imagine a heroic ethos uniting thought and action, aesthetic and political experience. "Our Sidney and our perfect man," he calls Lady Gregory’s son Robert, a sculptor and aviator who fell in 1918 in the Great War. However appropriate such an image of virtuosity may be for earlier epochs, it was ground to bits by 1918, let’s say in the poems of Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen, both killed that year.

For poets such as Denise Levertov, who was born in 1923 and began publishing after the Second World War, it has hardly been given to see beauty in military prowess or to fill the heroic mold of Yeats’s old ballad singer. Levertov does not claim for poets and special powers of feeling and understanding, neither the archaic kind of oracular or shamanistic vision nor the ambiguous Romantic legacy of supersensitive alienation. At the same time she has insisted, and in her own persistent political activity has demonstrated, that "the poet’s total involvement in file" means involvement not only in sensations and emotions but in the world of events. The gift that poets do possess, articulateness, entails more than paying lip service to their world. It means—for writers along with teachers, critics, and readers—taking active responsibility for the words in poetry, going beyond a vicarious experience of the words, allowing their dynamic consequences.

My own vivid sense of Denise Levertov originated in late 1966 when she read at Stanford from a group of poems called Life at War. Educated as I was to the tradition of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, plus the old bards Whitman and Frost, I scarcely expected a woman, someone in a red print dress with a rose or pomegranate bursting on it, to speak with the authentic poetic voice.

Sealed inside the anemone
in the dark, I know my head
on steel petals
curving     inward around me.

The petals then open,

. . .my seafern arms
my human hands
my fingers tipped with fire
sway out into the world.

and she sings, but

the petals creak and
begin to rise.
They rise and recurl
to a bud’s form
and clamp shut.
I wait in the dark.

And there, she leaves us too. I immediately began sharing this poem "The Pulse" with students, who were astonished to learn that it had to do with the war in Vietnam—astonished to feel how intimately the political impinges on the personal.

Here one might ask, as many people have, whether this intimate registering of the external world, this quick fine sensitiveness, belongs to a woman’s rather than a man’s poetry. God forbid! Denise Levertov would say. But perhaps something of the original question still holds. How many male poets today can write with quite her intimate sense of things? Yet God help us all if we lack it, she insists, resisting any feminist stipulations about herself or her craft.

At the depth of common humanity to which Levertov would take us, her "we" must include women and men alike. In her poem called "Life at War" (what an expanding title!) She says, "burned human flesh / is smelling in Vietnam as I write."

Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
in our bodies along with all we
go on knowing of joy, of love,
our nerve filament twitch with its presence
day and night
nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have.

A war poem: a subjective lyric—the two worlds touch, interpenetrate. A danger, especially with such persuasive language, might be that we let the poet do our feeling and reacting for us, when really she means to awaken, to inspirit "our own live will," as in another poem from Life at War.

To awaken—the idea occurs in Levertov’s 1959 statement for The New American Poetry. "In so far as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock." If you commit yourself to poetry, she says on another occasion, you will not "drift through your years half awake." Probably as true a source as any other for this sense of poetry is William Carlos Williams, whose 1923 Spring and All describes a late winter landscape "by the road to the contagious hospital," with its first crisp bits of plant growth: "Rooted, they / grip down and begin to awaken." Levertov has written of William’s little-known political poems and identified his quality of life-prizing resistance, defiance. At bottom I think what she values most in his lyrics, and what has most influenced her, is an "intrinsic freshness" every lover of Williams keeps on discovering. "But what?" Williams say s abruptly, halfway through the poem about birds finding food in winter, "To Waken an Old Lady." I find myself uttering that exclamation of surprise— "But what?"—at every line break in Williams.

To startle, then cleanse, clarify, and deepen our sense of things—a poem’s political task may begin this way.

To render it!—this moment,
                                            haze and halos of
                                sunbless’d particulars
(centuries furrowed in oakbole, this oak,
these dogrose pallors, that very company
                                  of rooks plodding
                                  from stile to stile of the sky.

Here she does it, startling, cleansing, clarifying, and always aware, as Williams always remained aware, that what counts for us arises from the saying, the naming. You can sense her care (and hear it in her reading aloud, through the rhythm of the opening lines, the ear’s pleasure in "haze and halos," the exactness of "furrowed" and "pallors," the metaphoric find of "stile to stile." So much depends upon our seeing and saying these things how much, we may father from Levertov’s title for the poem: "An English Field in the Nuclear Age." Where else save in the poem can we learn precisely to hold our breath and realize that this moment of oakbole and dogrose and rooks, "this minute at least was / not the last)."

Language, the language of poems, shaped by yet shaping what is has to say, can awaken us, though of course personal and public events may do so as well. Denise Levertov has written beautifully about her craft and about its relation to political experience in The Poet in the World and Light Up the Cave. She has also suggested where her own idiom derived its life. Born in England, educated distinctively at home and read to prolifically (along with her older sister Olga) by a highly literate and active Welsh mother and Russian-Jewish father, Levertov married the American writer Mitchell Goodman and came to the United Stated in 1948, there to absorb the freshening voices of Williams, Duncan, Creeley, and others. Her father was descended from Hasidic rabbis but converted decisively to Christianity to spread that word among Jews. Her mother’s great-grandfather was the tailor-my-stic Angell Jones of Mold. I like to think of those Welsh-Hasidic-Christian strains growing within a mid-century American idiom and the "Here and Now" of Levertov’s first book in this country, eventually to be tested by the unremitting state of emergency we have live in since the fifties.

For instance, I think her lines from "An English Field in the Nuclear Age" implicitly thank Williams and also G. M. Hopkins (trained in Wales) for the way

To render it!—this moment,
                                            haze and halos of
                         sunbless’d particulars.

In this poem, it’s not only the naming that makes for hope, the poet substantiating her world, it’s the act of transubstantiation. Her belief that holiness inheres in things, a belief her ancestor Hasidim could share with Saint Francis, leads Denise Levertov into a tenacious reverence and defense of created life. This reverence fosters a kind of saving innocence, from which emerges her commitment to communal witness—marches, sit-ins, demonstrations, rallies, mass arrests, benefits, generous friendships. Faith, hope, love—these words, these possibilities, appear more and more in her poems, though never detached from the trouble of the world around her.

                      Let’s try
if something human still
can shield you,
of remote light,

she says in a recent poem. That simple spiritual and communal urgency has become her hallmark. It makes religious, political, and poetic experience all of a piece.

"I do not believe that a violent imitation of the horrors of our times is the concern of poetry," Levertov wrote in 1959. "Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock." She had in mind a faddish incoherence in poems of the late fifties, not a desire to exclude history from poetry. Still in seems a painful measure of our own times to remember that statement while listening, as I did in a Palo Alto church in April 1983, to her oratorio El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation. Her notes ask for "an ominous harsh or cacophonous" music, joined then by a collage of voices repeating single words: "Blood. . .Rape. . .Decapitated. . .Torture. . .National Guard. . .Helicopter. . .Vomit. . .Decomposed. . .Stench." The oratorio goes on to tell of a pre-Columbian Mayan civilization dwelling at peace with its gods and its land, only to be invaded, exploited, and sown to violence:

            How did the horror begin?
Was it a thunderclap? Did men
Men from a far place,
a few, & a few, then more.
more—yet still
only a few, but powerful
with alien power—
came seeking gold,
        seeking wealth,
        the mystery of the land,
        the sacred harmony,
        breaking the rhythm
        taking the earth unto themselves
        to use it.

An American Indian rather than a cultural feminist sense of Mother Earth lies behind this passage. Yet the language of it, the verse as such, doesn’t brim and quicken in Levertov’s fashion—partly because the oratorio is not a poem but was written for music. Almost any libretto will seem flat on the printed page. Still I wonder if the horror we behold in El Salvador somewhat stymied Levertov’s own authentic voice? (One could go—she herself would go, I image—to the Canto general of Pablo Neruda for a full sense of national and personal disaster in Latin America.) Perhaps it’s as Levertov says in "Thinking About El Salvador, 1982": "Because every day they chop heads off / no force / flows into language"—although using it this way, I’m demeaning a poem that ends in powerful testimony to

the silence
of raped women,
of priest and peasants,
teachers and children,
of all whose heads every day
float down the river
and rot
and sink,
not Orpheus heads
still singing, bound for the sea,
but mute.

And I should add that the oratorio El Salvador has a compelling cumulative effect, ending as it does in prayer and hope.

Even against the ultimate disaster, against nuclear terror, Denise Levertov has somehow summoned hope. I cannot forget her reading the title poem from Candles in Babylon.

Through the midnight streets of Babylon
between the steel towers of their arsenals,
between the torture castles with no windows,
we race by barefoot, holding tight
our candles, trying to shield
the shivering flames, crying
"Sleepers Awake!"
the rhyme’s promise was true,
that we may return
from this place of terror
home to a calm dawn and
the work we had just begun.

American might tend to miss an underlying and fragile innocence here, if they don’t know the English nursery rhyme: "How many miles to Babylon? / Threescore miles and ten. / Can I get there by candle light? / Yes, and back again." The present tense of Levertov’s poem holds her, hold us, in exile, awakening us—if ever poetry can—to that exile and to a stubborn hope.

From Coming to Light, American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Diane Wood Middlebrook and Marilyn Yalon. Copyright © 1985 by The University of Michigan Press. pp. 138-144.

Sandra M. Gilbert

Inevitably, perhaps, for a poet of Levertov’s bent, a poet who trusts that a thread of potential joy is woven into every inch of the fabric that constitutes daily reality, any ripping or clipping of that secret, sacred thread threatens cataclysm. Thus, like such other poets of affirmation as Bake, Shelley, Whitman, or in our own age Bly, she is a deeply political writer—and I am using the word "politics" in its most ordinary sense, to mean public matters having to do with "the policies, goals, or affairs of a government" (American Heritage Dictionary). For in the "real" world, it is political action—the burning of villages, the decapitation of villagers, the building of bombs—that most threatens the authority of the daily joy. Yet, paradoxically enough, despite their often revolutionary intensity, Levertov’s most artistically problematic poems are precisely those no doubt overdetermined verses in which she explicitly articulates her political principles.

Comparatively early in her career, Levertov began to try to find a way of confronting and analyzing the horrors of a history—especially a twentieth-century history—which denies the luminous integrity of flesh-and-spirit. But even one of her better poems in this mode, "Crystal Night" (in The Jacob’s Ladder), now seems rhetorically hollow, with its generalized description of "The scream! The awaited scream" which "rises," and "the shattering / of glass and the cracking / of bone" (Poems, 68). The better-known "Life at War," in The Sorrow Dance, is more hectic still, in its insistence that

We have breathed the grits of it [war] in, all our lives,
our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it

and in its editorial revulsion from the complicity of "delicate Man, whose flesh / responds to a caress, whose eyes / are flowers that perceive the stars" (Poems, 229).

In a splendid essay on verse in this mode ("On the Edge of Darkness: What is Political Poetry?" in Light up the Cave, 1981), Levertov herself observes, about the "assumption by partisan poets and their constituencies that the subject matter carries so strong an emotive charge in itself that it is unnecessary to remember poetry’s roots in song, magic, and ... high craft," that such a belief is "dangerous to poetry" (Light, 126). Yet in most of her political verse she seems herself to have disregarded her own astute warning. Because she has little taste or talent for irony, her comments on social catastrophe lack, on the one hand, the sardonic ferocity that animates, say, Bly’s "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last" (e.g., "It’s because we have new packaging for smoked oysters that bomb holes appear in the rice paddies"), and, on the other hand, the details of disillusionment that give plausibility to, say, Lowell’s "For the Union Dead" (e.g., "When I crouch to my television set, / the drained faces of negro school-children rise like balloons"). At the same time, despite the impressive sincerity of her political commitment, her exhortations fail to attain (as perhaps postmodernist exhortations inevitably must) the exaltation of, for instance, Shelley’s "Men of England, wherefore plough / For the lords who lay ye low?"

Still, as Levertov’s personal commitment to the antinuclear movement and to support for revolutionary regimes in Central America has intensified, the proportion of politicized work included in her published collections has risen drastically. Oblique Prayers (1984) contains a section of ten manifestos, most of which, sadly, dissolve into mere cries of rage and defiance. The tellingly titled "Perhaps No Poem But All I Can Say And I Cannot Be Silent," for instance, protests against "those foul / dollops of History / each day thrusts at us, pushing them / into our gullets" (Oblique, 35) while "Rocky Flats" depicts "rank buds of death" in "nuclear mushroom sheds," and "Watching Dark Circle" describes the experimental "roasting of live pigs" in "a simulation of certain conditions" as leading to "a foul miasma irremovable from the nostrils" (Oblique, 38, 39). Though I (along with, I suspect, the majority of her readers and admirers) share most of Levertov’s political convictions, I must confess that besides being less moved by these poems that I have been by the more artful verses of Bly, Lowell, and Shelley, I am rather less moved than I would be by eloquent journalism, and considerably less affected than I would be by a circumstantially detailed documentary account of the events that are the subjects of Levertov’s verses, for certainly there is little song, magic, or high craft in some of their phrases. The muse is still, I trust, "indwelling" in this poet’s house, but she has not presided over some of the writer’s recent work.

To be sure, the muse has inspired several of Levertov’s political verses. "Thinking about El Salvador," in Oblique Prayers opens with the poet’s confession that "Because every day they chop heads off / I’m silent...for each tongue they silence / a word in my mouth / unsays itself," and concludes with a poignant vision

of all whose heads every day
float down the river
and rot
and sink,
not Orpheus heads
still singing, bound for the sea,
but mute.
                (Oblique, 34)

And the much earlier "A Note to Olga (1966)" dramatizes the poet’s sudden vision of her dead sister at a political rally:

                     It seems
you that is lifted

limp and ardent
off the dark snow
and shoved in, and driven away.
                    (Poems, 239)

But what moves these poems, as opposed to Levertov’s less successful polemics, seems to be not ferocious revulsion but revolutionary love—not the hate that is blind to all detail except its own rhetoric ("foul dollops") but the love that sees and says with scrupulous exactitude the terror of the severed heads that are "not Orpheus heads" and the passion of the ghostly Olga, "limp and ardent." And as these works show, such rebellious caritas, perhaps as surely as Bly’s ironic inventiveness, Lowell’s meticulous weariness, or (even) Shelley’s hortatory energy, can impel the poetics of politics.

In fact, the phrase "revolutionary love" itself is from Levertov’s fine essay on Pablo Neruda: "Poetry and Revolution: Neruda is Dead—Neruda Lives" (in Light up the Cave), a piece that beautifully complements and supplements her meditation on political poetry. "Neruda’s revolutionary politics," she declares here, "is founded in revolutionary love—the same love Che Guevara spoke of. Revolutionary love subsumes a bitter anger against oppression and oppressors... But revolutionary love is not merely anthropocentric; it reaches out to the rest of creation." For, she adds, Neruda’s celebrations of animals and vegetables, of the earth and sky and sea, "are not irrelevant, dispensable, coincidental to his revolutionary convictions, but an integral part of them" (Light, 133-34).

About Levertov’s own revolutionary love, with its often brilliantly precise elaborations of the joyfulness of joy, the same statement could be made. Yet it is instructive to compare her expressions of "bitter anger" with those of her Chilean precursor. Neruda’s classic "The United Fruit Co.," for instance, begins with scathingly sardonic, surrealistic detail:

When the trumpet sounded, it was

all prepared on the earth,
and Jehovah parceled out the earth
to Coca-Cola, Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other entities:
The Fruit Company, Inc.
reserved for itself the most succulent,
the central coast of my own land,
the delicate waist of America.
        (translated by Robert Bly, Neruda,
        and Vallejo: Selected Poems, 85)

And even more strikingly than Levertov’s "Thinking about El Salvador," Neruda’s poem ends with a terrifying image:

                            Indians are falling
into the sugared chasms
of the harbors, wrapped
for burial in the mist of the dawn:
a body rolls, a thing
that has no name, a fallen cipher,
a cluster of dead fruit
thrown down on the dump.

Though of course it is intellectually coherent with the poem’s theme ("sugared chasms," "a cluster of dead fruit"), this brilliant detail, in which we recognize "the known / appearing fully itself," is an image shaped by revolutionary love, by the love that yields itself not so much to editorial convictions as to the muse’s telling the goddess’ indwelling.

When Levertov is at her best, such love underlies both her celebrations and her cerebrations; indeed, precisely because she is not an artist of irony or disillusionment but a poet of revolutionary love, she succeeds at recountings of the authentic in daily experience and fails at what Swift called saeva indignatio. Clearly, moreover, she knows this in some part of herself. One of the best poems in Candles in Babylon is "The Dragonfly-Mother," a piece in which Levertov reexamines the split between earthwoman and waterwoman specifically in terms of her own split commitment to, on the one hand, political activism, and, on the other hand, poetry.

I was setting out from my house
to keep my promise

but the Dragonfly-Mother stopped me.

I was to speak to a multitude
for a good cause, but at home

the Dragonfly-Mother was listening
not to a speech but to the creak of
                            stretching tissue,
tense hum of leaves unfurling.

"Who is the Dragonfly-Mother?" the poem asks, then goes on to answer that she is the muse, "the one who hovers / on stairways of air," the one—by implication—who sees and says the authentic in the ordinary, the revolutionary love continually surprised, and inspired, by joy. Her imperatives are inescapable: "When she tells / her stories she listens; when she listens / she tells you the story you utter."

It is to such imperatives that, one hopes, this poet will continue to be loyal, for what the Dragonfly-Mother declares, over and over again, is that the political is—or must be made—the poetical: the fabric of joy should not be ripped or clipped, yet the activist artist must struggle to praise and preserve every unique thread of that fabric, against the onslaughts of those who would reduce all reality to "foul dollops." Toward the end of this poem, Levertov seems to me to express the central truth of her own aesthetic, the truth of the joy and the pain born from revolutionary love:


a messenger,
if I don’t trust her
I can’t keep faith.
                (Candles, 13-15)

From Conversant Essays Contemporary Poets on Poetry. Edited by James McCorkle. Copyright © 1990 by Wayne State University Press. pp. 277-281.

Audrey T. Rodgers

Denise Levertov was already poised to reach the next important step of her journey—the creation of what she herself has called "engaged poetry." The seeds are already here in O Taste and See and will grow in The Sorrow Dance, where her most widely known Vietnam poem appears: "Life at War."

[. . . .]

. . . what gives a poet the right and the ability to write a political poem is that the political event is personal to him or her . . . . one is personally implicated in it in some way, not necessarily by being there . . . . It’s only out of that degree of intimacy with the political or topical—that internalization—it’s only out of that good political poetry can be created.
                    — Interview with Author, 10/9/82

The Sorrow Dance, Levertov’s first volume which reflected her strong protest against the horrors of the Vietnam War, appeared in 1967—three years after America’s active engagement in the war had begun and six years before its ending. As she tells it, her "personal involvement" in the war did not necessitate her being there, and, indeed, Levertov did not go to Vietnam until 1973. But, as she asserts, she was "intimate" with the "political" events in Vietnam through her own efforts on this side of the Pacific, so that it had become "internalized."

[. . . .]

I cite this statement because it goes a long way toward our understanding of Levertov’s first explicit poem about Vietnam, "Life at War." The poem gives its title to a grouping of nine poems that center upon the Vietnam War and, more specifically, the expansion outward of Levertov’s explicit reaction to events that had long disturbed her. In a word, these are poems of "engagement" as the facts are revealed with graphic vividness and coupled with the poet’s inner response. Crucial to Levertov’s view is her oft-stated insistence on the indivisibility of her subject (things and people and those passing moments filled to the brim with past, present and future) and language and form. This is her model for successful poetry—the inseparable quality of the "subject"—that which is "important to the aware adult"—and form and language.

[. . . .]

The poem, "Life at War," immediately following "The Pulse" is, perhaps, Levertov’s best-known Vietnam poem and addresses itself to the ominousness hinted in "The Pulse":

The disasters numb within us
caught in the chest, rolling
in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
resembles lumps of raw dough

weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day.
Or Rilke said it, ‘My heart . . .
Could I say of it, it overflows
with bitterness . . . but no, as though

its contents were simply balled into
formless lumps, thus
so I carry it about.’
The same war

We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,
our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it:

the knowledge that humankind,

delicate Man, whose flesh
responds to a caress, whose eyes
are flowers that perceive the stars,

whose music excels the music of birds,
whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
whose understanding manifests designs
fairer than the spider’s most intricate web,

still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.

We are the humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
lovingkindness; we have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—

who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary; these acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Viet Nam as I write.

Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
in our bodies along with all we
go on knowing of joy, of love;
our nerve filaments twitch in its presence
day and night,
nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have.

The poem turns on Rilke’s metaphor of the "overflowing heart." The theme: the anger, the anguish, the experience of "life at war" speaks for itself in this poem in which the visual images shock and finally numb our senses. We need make no further comment on Denise Levertov’s strong emotional commitment for peace and against war. I should like to point out, instead, those formal qualities that enhance the poem’s theme. The basic tension in the poem rests upon the duality of mankind: all he can "make" and all the inhuman acts he can perpetrate. The images are balanced precisely on this duality. Against the images of violence, destruction, and unimaginable cruelty, there are images of the heights of human potential. It is the imagery that orders the poem’s structure, dictates the tone that vibrates between despair and hope, and is responsible for the great emotional impact of the poem. The title itself is an oxymoron, and prefigures the "impossible" juxtapositions perceived by the speaker.

Levertov has chosen a form that reflects the objects before her eyes: fragments, broken lines, enjambed lines, arrhythmic patterns to reinforce the chaos of war and its casualties; and, in contrast, structured, often end-stopped lines, patterned meters to mirror the order and significance of human life in time of peace and sanity. The poem plays on irony, reinforced by frequent repetition. Images evoking strong emotion are juxtaposed to "statement": "We are he humans, men who can make"; and the control in the poem depends upon the double vision of the speaker and the alternation of tone from horror to speculation to—in the end—the quietness of a desired peace.

No less important is the effect upon us as readers: the effect of seeing and knowing all that is engendered by war, the effect of knowing ourselves as we seek to attain our potential, the effect of trying to reconcile a dual image of man that defies reconciliation, reminding us of Shakespeare’s great portrait: "What a piece of work is a man . . ." But at the moment that Hamlet declares man’s potential, he despairs: "yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights me not . . ."

Levertov’s poem ends with the need, in the fact of the desecration of war, to remember the joy and the love intrinsic to the human condition. This is the faint hope for a dark moment in human history, but the final lines look toward living in peace. Levertov’s statement on the rhythm of the "inner voice" that controls the rhythm of the poem is particularly relevant in "Life at War."

. . . a poet, a verbal kind of person, is constantly talking to himself, inside of himself, constantly approximating and evaluating and trying to grasp his experience in words. And the ‘sound’ inside his head, of that voice, is not necessarily identical with his literal speaking voice, nor is her inner vocabulary identical with that which he uses in conversation. At their very best, sound and words are song, not speech. The written poem is then a record of that inner song.

The response to "Life at War" has been varied. Clearly, it is one of Levertov’s most anthologized poems, and while a minority of critics have felt the language too strong or the subject taboo, the majority have cited the poem’s immediate effect of war on our psychology, philosophy, and language. James F. Mersmann has made the point, "It is the loss and contradiction of vision that makes the war horrible to Levertov, and this may be said without any denigration of her compassion or humanity." Mersmann bases this evaluation on the lines in the poem that the "imagination / filmed over with the gray filth of it," represent the poet’s loss of vision; indeed, Levertov herself has admitted in the poem that the "awareness" of war’s horrors—threatening the imagination—precludes the poet’s certainty that all that lies within man’s power for goodness will reappear. Nor is the poem’s dual vision an unfortunate (if understandable) impairment of her aesthetic power. The Vietnam War staggered the imagination of all but the totally insensitive, but ultimately it was Levertov’s very strong belief in the unity that lies beneath the world of visible things that supported her "vision" and her form, demonstrated earlier. Levertov’s poetry was a "poetics of order" as Mersmann asserts, but the form should not be confused with the chaos she has chosen to depict. As to Mersmann’s reference to Levertov’s own "admission" that she had lost her vision and poetic form, we need to hear the poet’s response: "those who turn away from concern for the commonweal to cultivate their own gardens are found to have lost touch with a nourishing energy. Better a bitter spring than no irrigation at all. Ivory towers look over deserted landscapes." Levertov had never looked over "deserted landscapes" but here, for the first time, her eyes turned toward matters that demanded response, and her poetic powers were in no way impaired by her apprehension of the grim realities of Vietnam.

Another critic, Marjorie Perloff, does not see a split between subject and metaphoric mode in Levertov’s war poetry, though she does observe it in a large majority of American verse. As Susan Hoerchner has said, succinctly, "As a poet Levertov feels that she must act in the world. As a maker and instrument of poems she also struggles to bring forth her unique celebration of life." These twin impulses remain the hallmark of Levertov’s poetry to the present. She believed the poet had an obligation to society, and in 1960 she wrote that "they [the poets] are ... makers, craftsmen: It is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are ‘members one of another,’" Later, in this same essay, she wrote, "I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock." Thus it is well to distinguish between the disorder of modern life and the "supposed" disorder in the aesthetics of Denise Levertov.

"Didactic Poem," also written in the sixties, appears in The Sorrow Dance immediately after "Life at War." Later, in 1975, Levertov wrote, "The poetry of political anguish is at its best both didactic and lyrical." We need to remember that the word "didactic" means "morally instructive," and, although today it has an unfavorable connotation, we should also recall that poets have always been didactic. Nonetheless, the word has an unpleasant evocation, and the poem reveals indirectly what Levertov might have omitted in her title. The successful artist need not preach if the subsumed message of the poem is communicated through the structure and language—"the dynamic of sensuous forms." We have only to hear the poet-prophet Ezekiel in Eliot’s The Waste-Land to remind us of the role of moral instructor frequently played by modern poets: "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images," and it is the richness of Eliot’s imagery here—borrowed from Scriptures—that saves these lines from didacticism.

Thus Levertov’s poem is better than that which is promised in the title. The poem rests upon the duality of death and life. Death must be conquered, refused. The many images of giving, inventing, dancing, and creating are life images, juxtaposed to what we must refuse: feeding our dead spirits, our infamous deeds, heeding the deathknell of past atrocities. The alliteration of the opening lines—the resounding effect of "dead, drink, deeds, and dead spirits—suggesting a tolling deathknell is contrasted with the language of creativity in the poem: [positive] deeds, imagination, speech, invent, and dance. The speaker enjoins us all to heed our own "will to live," to give expression to our "imagination of speech," to create our lives. The alternative is too horrifying to contemplate should we fail: "we shall thirst in Hades, / in the blood of our children." "Didactic Poem" is strong, positive, alive with our potential to refuse the dead and elevating as we are invited to "dance / a tune with our own feet." The poem testifies to Levertov’s commitment—despite past experience—to respond to life’s challenge, a theme that will remain with her through her most despairing moments.

The litany with which the poem opens is in sharp contrast to the lines which follow, "Refuse them!" The opening lines are a kind of dirge; the lines in the second part of the poem a kind of dance as the poet urges us to "create our lives, / invent our deeds, do them, dance / a tune with our own feet." The verbs emphasize a "way to be," for in the midst of despair, Levertov keeps faith with possibility—no matter how impossible the dream.

The rest of the poems that comprise section VI of The Sorrow Dance: "Life at War," are various perspectives on the war in Vietnam, but reflect as well Levertov’s inner response to the events outside. The last poems in this series were written during the late sixties. As we might expect there are recurrent motifs and the repetition of the horrors that are engendered by war, but otherwise they differ greatly one from the other—in tone, image, metaphor, form, and perspective. It is almost as though we see the war through different eyes, but one central theme prevails: the ironic contrast, already dramatically presented in the poem "Life at War," between the chaos, destruction, and death and the "possibilities" that are the gifts of peace. Levertov never lets us forget the waste—not only of human life—but the wasting of nature in the destruction of a once-beautiful land.

[. . . .]

The poems that remain in Relearning the Alphabet, as one would expect, cover a wide spectrum of experiences as the poet responds to events in the outside world. The themes that run through them are "elegiac": for the suffering in Biafra; for the moment that "the heart / breaks for nothing" as the disasters weigh upon it; for "Life yet unlived"; for love recollected and lost; for the mourning of a stranger—added pain—while visiting the grave of a friend’s child; and always for the suffering in Vietnam. These are "deathsongs," yet at the close the poet renews her love for life, her joy in the cold spring.

"Biafra" recalls Vietnam. Again, Levertov dwells upon the sacrifice of innocence, massacre, and violence, but we have become inured after Vietnam. The poem leaves the world with no hope, sluggish, dull, ‘getting used to’ the horrors of those distant tragedies. In many ways, "Biafra" is a frightening poem as it testifies to our own loss of compassion, our inability to take action, and our indifference. Yet I do not feel this is one of Levertov’s more successful poems. Although the reality is played out in the poem, "we are / the deads" because we "do nothing," there is an unconvincing joining of the dying babies in Biafra and the dying children on Vietnam. The massacre of the Ibos seems distant from the expending of life in the Vietnam War, but perhaps even more significant, there is a tendency for the poet here to state, to chastise (because we do nothing), and the emotional impact is lessened. The poem, for all the compassion of the speaker, does not move us as countless others do when the images, the rhythms, and the irony of opposed visions (as in "Advent 1966") create a successful poem.

I also would question Levertov’s departure—"no room / for love in us ..." —from the vast number of her poems in which she always returns to what man is capable of and, into the present, maintains her faith in humanity. Although she does "waiver" in some instances, more often, as in "The Wings of a God," she writes the following"

    I am felled,
            rise up
        with changed vision,
    a singing in my ears.

In "A Cloak" she tells us, "I walked naked / from the beginning / breathing in / my life, / breathing out / poems." The metaphor of "breathing" is important in Levertov’s lexicon. "Breathing is life": breathing in experience and breathing out poems. One of her latest volumes is titled Breathing the Water.

The journey in relearning the alphabet will be an arduous one, but Denise Levertov knows the path and has the means. Her poetic as well as her personal journey continues in this volume.

In "A Marigold from North Vietnam," we find poignant images of life and death. The form of the poem is unusual—a single stanza with long breath pauses within the line. The marigold is a resurrection flower, and the movement of the poem is from death to life, through love. Nature’s seasonal cycle is reflected in the life, death, and resurrection of the earth. Notably life is resilient—even there in Vietnam—a promise perhaps for the future. For the poet, the marigold she nourishes is a symbol for nourishing new life in that tragic land. For the first time, a poem on Vietnam closes with a thread of hope: "to the root-threads cling still / some crumbs of Vietnam." The poem is delicate, lyrical, imaging the beauty that one day must return to that stricken country. The repetitions accrue in meaning, and the entire tone of the poem suggests the tentative but promising peace that lies ahead. In a 1966 essay, "Writers Take Sides on Vietnam," she wrote the following:

It is hard to be an artist in this time because it is hard to be human: in the dull ever-accumulating horror of the war news, it is more difficult each day to keep remembering the creative and joyful potential of human beings, and to fulfill that potential in one’s own life, as testimony.

* * *

Heart breaks but mends like good bone.
                                                            —"Staying Alive"

The long poem, "Relearning the Alphabet," is preceded by Levertov’s poem on "revolution or death" and its crucial message: "Life that / wants to live. / (Unlived life / of which one can die.)"—this last the words of Rilke. She "chooses" revolution in "From A Notebook: October ‘68-May ‘69" but importantly, she writes, " I want the world to go on / unfolding." In this way, the poet heralds the journey of recovery, the recapture of "seeing," the voyage that will ultimately lead to the house that "yawns like a bear. / Guards its profound dream for us, / that it return to us when we return."

"Relearning the Alphabet" is a very beautiful poem of the journey from "anguish" to "ardor," the search for renewal by means of a return to beginnings. The central image that binds up the movements from part to part is fire, and, as we might expect, fire becomes the symbol for life, cleansing, illumination, the cycle of life and death, love, the imagination, "transformation and continuance," and the mysterious voice of God.

The tone is at times tentative, delicate, lyrical, guardedly hopeful, and often joyous. The form ingeniously hides a numinous word in each stanza of the "Alphabet." We know that learning the alphabet is a child’s earliest experience with words, and the ritual—for it is a ritual—is a kind of incantation, as the poet moves painstakingly from letter to letter as though each were a signpost on her journey and her own return to language.

Most original in this long poem are Levertov’s tonal effects as each "letter" encompasses a poem made up of alliteration, assonance, and consonance. Thus, "A" contains not only "anguish" and "ardor" but "ah!", "as," and "ashes." This continues throughout the poem, and a few examples are notable here. "C" echoes with "clear," "cool," "comes," and "core." "E" contains repetitions of "endless," "ember," "returning," and "revolution," "dream," and "delight." "I, J" is replete as well with evocative sounds: "I" is repeated throughout, as well as "imagination’s," "jester," "joy," "Jerusalem," and "jealous." "M" again echoes and re-echoes not only "moon," but "man," "moving," "moonwater," "half-moon," "luminous," "come," "humbled," "warm," "myself," "mouth," and "home." The entire "alphabet" becomes a lesson in language.

The poem is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s respect for the magic of language. To "make a start" in Williams’s poetry is of necessity to name. "The only means the artist has to give value to life is to recognize it with the imagination and name it." So it is that "Relearning the Alphabet" is a poet’s need to return to the imagination, the words. The opening lines of the poem set forth the purpose and set the tone in the final lovely image.

Joy—a beginning. Anguish, ardor.
To relearn the ah! of knowing in unthinking
joy: the beloved stranger lives.
Sweep up anguish as with a wing-tip,
brushing the ashes back to the fire’s core.

The poem moves from its "beginning" to the "magical" stages of the journey of illumination: "To be," to delight and dream, to the fire of the mind. Again I hear an echo from Eliot’s Four Quartets: "Not fare well, / But fare forward, voyagers," as Levertov intones, "Not farewell, but faring / forth into the grace of transformed / continuance." The voyage continues with its images of harvesting, "Imagination’s holy forest," and though the speaker stumbles she makes her way toward her origins, joy, Jerusalem. She recalls the "time of isolation" and wakens to the luminousness of nature: "I am / come back, / humbled, to warm myself, / . . . . I’m home." There she is loved, enfolded, trusted, and transformed. Toward the end of the poem, the voice strengthens in its resolve as the way becomes clear:

Relearn the alphabet,
relearn the world, the world
understood anew only in doing, under-
stood only as
looked-up-into out of earth,
the heart an eye looking,
the heart a root
planted in earth.

The poem is replete with original and memorable images and metaphors: to "sweep up anguish as with a wing-tip"; the cycle of "revolution of dream to ember, ember to anguish, / anguish to flame, flame to delight, / delight to dark and dream, dream to ember / that the mind’s fire may not fail"; the "vowels of affliction"; the "somnolence grotto"; the "clicking of squirrel-teeth in the attic." It is words—language—that give the poem its new life, a reinforcement of Levertov’s own conviction that to relearn the alphabet is to relearn the world.

The end of the journey will be rediscovered vision, praise, and the waiting dream. As for the rest of the world, "Vision will not be used. / Yearning will not be used. / Wisdom will not be used. / Only the vain will / strive to use and be used, / comes not to fire’s core / but cinder." Yet the poet, calling upon the household gods, Lares, entreats them to "guard its profound dreams for us, / that it return to us when we return." Clearly the voyage had not ended, but there is a destination in sight and in To Stay Alive Denise Levertov will "step by hesitant step" move toward "continuance into / that life beyond the dead-end" where she was lost, so that once again she can affirm: "Every step [is] an arrival" (Overland to the Islands).

Audrey T. Rodgers. Denise Levertov, The Poetry of Engagement. Copyright ©1993 by Fairleigh Dickinson University. London and Toronto. Pages 75, 76, 82, 84-88, 98-101.

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