Denise Levertov’s Uncompromising Moral Vision

denise levertov

Denise Levertov, The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov.  New Directions, 2013. $49.95. Call (504)-524-2940 to order or visit us in Pirate’s Alley!

Though she died in 1997, it wasn’t until last year that we were finally graced with Denise Levertov’s complete collected works. This is a beautiful volume, stunning even before it is opened to reveal the life’s work of one of 20th century America’s most important poets. The poems’ chronological arrangement allows us to observe the evolution of Levertov’s poetic voice over a period of more than 60 years.

If you are unfamiliar with Levertov’s less known works, this is the perfect opportunity to delve into her canon. She is a poet whose entire oeuvre demands reading and rereading. Poetry was her highest truth, as she writes in the poem A Cloak, from Relearning the Alphabet:

             breathing in

            my life

            breathing out

            poems.

Levertov’s poetry is characterized by her precision: reality sparkles under her guidance, coming into sharp focus to reveal beauty that we might otherwise have overlooked. Her early collections (The Double Image, Here and Now, Overland to the Islands) are pure lyric, concerned deeply with the perennial subjects of love and death, marriage and war. An early poem, 1940’s Listening to Distant Guns, foreshadows some of her major poetic concerns:

            That low pulsation in the east is war:

            No bell now breaks the evening’s silent dream.

            The bloodless clarity of evening’s sky

            Betrays no whisper of the battle scream.

Levertov approaches her topics with a realist’s eye for the background noise. She brings the war into focus here, for example, by dwelling on the places where war seems nonexistent, the negative spaces of the horror, and she brings into chilling relief the powerlessness of human suffering to touch every part of the world.

In Here and Now, Levertov brings her uncompromising vision to New Orleans’ own Jackson Square (home of Faulkner House Books!) She writes,

            Bravo! the brave sunshine.

            A triangle of green green contains

            the sleek and various pigeons

            the starving inventors and all

            who sit on benches in the morning,

            to sun tenacious hopes…

She focuses on the smaller details of the place: not the looming cathedral, but the hopes of the “starving” people who try to make a living in the square. And yet the sun is still bright, the pigeons still varied; though sorrow is an inextricable part of her poetic world, it does not color all it touches. And isn’t this the most unsettling thing of all, to know that though we suffer, the sun shines on?

In With Eyes at the Back of our Heads, we see a poetic shift in which Levertov becomes more concerned with the role of the poet in her society. The book begins with a translation of a Toltec codice entitled The Artist, in which the true creator is praised. And in the poem The Charge, she writes,

Returning

 

                        to all the unsaid

            all the lost living untranslated

            in any sense,

            and the dead

           unrecognized, celebrated

           only in dreams that die by morning

 

           is a mourning or ghostwalking only.

                    You must make, said music…

For Levertov, it becomes increasingly important that her poetic and political lives overlap and fuse. Art is a way for her to respond productively to the political upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s.

In 1971’s To Stay Alive, Levertov writes wrenchingly of the death of her sister and the war in Vietnam. These poems are darker than her early work, and rightly so. Her “political” poems demonstrate perhaps most clearly her humanity as well as her poetic abilities. In Life at War, she writes,

          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 Vietnam as I write.

She resists always the dehumanization of war, forcing her reader to recognize that though the sun still shines, we cannot escape the legacy of the suffering we enact upon one another. Humans are great artists; we are also murderers, and this is the cold truth of which she reminds us.

Her later work shifts again, to what Eavan Boland calls in her introduction to the collection “a fully realized moral vision.” Many of her poems from the 80’s onward, informed by her late conversion to Christianity, survey the beauty of their world and seek its goodness. These lines from the poem Salvation, from Sands of the Well, strike me as particularly transcendent:

             this unhoped-for pardon will once more permit

                                                the stream to offer itself at last

            to the lake, the lake will accept it, take it

                                                into itself,

            the stream restored will become pure lake.

Levertov’s Collected Poems is a treasure chest waiting to be searched. Her poetic vision is always clear, striking, incisive. Whether she is writing about nature or war, marriage or death, she never wavers from her commitment to artistic excellence. She brings to mind the idea of the poet as prophet, as she was surely a voice of her time.

 

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