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On "Oh Taste and See"

Audrey T. Rodgers

By 1964, Denise Levertov was more than a "presence" in American poetry. The leading poets of the era, Charles Olson, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Muriel Rukeyser, David Ignatow, and many other respected her as a fellow artist for her poetic accomplishments and her stature as an articulate voice of poetic theory. She had already published many essays on organic form and the technical aspects of poetry which would appear later in her two important prose works: Light Up the Cave and The Poet in the World. William Carlos Williams, some years before, had already recognized her gifts and had proclaimed to anyone who would listen that Denise Levertov would be America’s poet of the future. Her reputation grew in stature with the regular publication of her work, both in magazines and collections. By the O Taste and See appeared—her sixth volume of poetry—critics expected not only a lyric quality at its maturest, but wide-ranging and ever-deepening thematic variations. They found them in this new volume of poems that were experimental in form, diverse in tone, and both personal and universal in their choice of subject. Here there is dream and fantasy in the "Song of Ishtar," (written in 1959), and realism in "The Ache of Marriage" and "Hypocrite Women." Feminists seized upon those poems that grew from the female perspective and, to this day, Levertov’s poems about her experiences as woman are frequently anthologized. Yet, as I have already suggested, Levertov’s interests were broader than these particular poems might suggest. The social consciousness that had been a part of her experience since childhood now made its way subtly into her poetry. She did not as yet write about war and violence with the explicitness that would come in To Stay Alive, but the sense of being a "poet in the world" is clearly present in O Taste and See. It is present in "To The Muse" and in "The Old Adam" and in "A March." The clarion call in the volume is the poem that gives the book its title: "O Taste and See."

The poem begins with an ironic reversal of Wordsworth’s lines: "The world is too much with us late and soon." The problem as Levertov sees it is that "The world is / not with us enough. / O taste and see." The poem calls sleepers to awaken to life.

The images are richly sensuous and the invitation to breathe, bite, savor, chew, swallow is to "transform / into our flesh our / deaths." To taste and "savor" the world is to know the pleasure and the pain, and the copious fruits are fitting images for the intensity of experience we are summoned to engage.

Although Denise Levertov has never, to the present, relinquished her passion for dream and the inner life, for stillness and solitude, "O Taste and See" is a warm invitation to engage life at every level. The final prose poem of the volume, which the poet says was given to her in a dream, emphasizes the growing conviction that one must know one’s world if one is to know oneself.

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."

 Audrey T. Rodgers. Denise Levertov, The Poetry of Engagement. Copyright 1993 by Fairleigh Dickinson University. pp. 74-75

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