Denise Levertov: artists, pictures, poems, and the path to conversion.
Levertov was an avid though self-taught connoisseur of art and, especially toward the end of her long career, wrote a number of noteworthy poems on art and artists, reflecting a nuanced but--compared to Duncan --more traditional view of art. A number of these poems are explicitly religious in subject and motive. Her conversion came at the end of two decades during which she wrote poems with an increasingly spiritual dimension as well as poems about art and artists that blended discriminating artistic and religious insight. This essay proposes to examine Levertov and Duncan's arguments about art as a context for discussing some of the poems on art that she wrote after having freed herself from Duncan's influence, and as she found her way back to religious belief. Such a study will help readers understand how Levertov's aesthetic views and those poems about art define the ekphrastic spirit in her poetry. It will also show how this spirit helps explain the place of art in her conversion, and her subsequent success in the genre of religious poetry.
Emily Archer and Donna Hollenberg--but few others--have commented on the place of art in Levertov's work. But a survey of her published prose shows that, over the span of three decades, she refers to more than thirty-six different artists and/or artworks. Her correspondence with William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan (1) includes reference to another sixty-one. And a survey of her published poems shows that from "Kresch's Studio" in the early 1950s until "Southern Cross"--after a sculpture by American artist Philip McCracken in the posthumous volume, This Great Unknowing (1999) (2)--Levertov published numerous poems about specific artworks, photographs, or artists. There is also a class of poems inspired by art, even if they don't refer to particular artists or works. These poems, too, I would argue, are "ekphrastic in spirit." (3) These facts would suggest the need for a more sustained study of ekphrasis ("the verbal representation of visual representation" (4)) in Levertov's work than has been offered in the excellent, but somewhat narrow scholarship that has been done thus far.
The goal of this study, then, will be to suggest the appeal of art for Levertov, why it does not appear in her poetry sooner, and what an understanding of her ekphrastic poems contributes to a clearer understanding of her other work. A further benefit will be what we learn about how much, despite their disagreements over art and artists, Levertov learned from Robert Duncan about art. It is not enough to see how a common quest to convey "reality" motivated both poets, or how the achievement of something like "Romantic oneness" with the subject of the work underlies Levertov's poetic rendering of art. We need to see that certain historical factors, a preference for the "representational," and a quest for the transcendent all contribute to her fascination with art and artists and, as a result, motivate her best ekphrastic poems.
It is worthwhile to dwell briefly on the antecedents from which Levertov's interest in art derives. Hollenberg notes that--as a girl in London before WWII--Levertov wanted to be an artist. From references in Tesserae, (5) her collection of autobiographical sketches, we learn that she tried to take art lessons ("Meeting and Not Meeting Artists"). From other sketches in the same collection, one might conclude that her artistic taste ran to the mysterious (Salvator Rosa in "A Dance"), the fantastical (Watteau in "Two Ancients"), or the mystical (Chagall in "A Sack of Wings"). Archer discusses Levertov's 1951 visit to Cezanne's studio in the south of France (159), a visit which Levertov describes in "Pilgrimage," another of the sketches in Tesserae. There, Levertov notes that she had read Gerstele Mack's book on Cezanne when she was thirteen (T 106).
Another formative figure whose place is hard to gauge is that of the poet and art critic Herbert Read. In the "Author's Note" to Collected Earlier Poems (written in 1979), Levertov credits Read with having encouraged her poetry. But there was also the matter of his art criticism. As she notes in "Herbert Read Remembered," (7) "I had begun to read some of Herbert Read's books on art when I was fourteen or fifteen ..." (LUC 233). That would have been 1937 or 1938. Such books could have included The Meaning of Art (1930), The Innocent Eye (1933), or even Art and Society (1937). In these books, Read argued for a sense of "organic form" in art. As a champion of modern art, including Surrealism, Read would have been an imperious guide for the impressionable young woman. Yes, Read later encouraged her poetry writing, but it is difficult to determine, beyond the artistic aura Of his home, his art, and his artistic life, how, precisely, his views of art might have affected her.
It must also be pointed out that between those early encounters and the first genuinely ekphrastic poem there intervened a long refinement of an already eager but self-acquired artistic education. Granting further allowance for the unquestioned importance that Levertov ascribed to Rainer Maria Rilke's letters (which dwell upon the work and work habits of Cezanne and Rodin), much of that education she gained from listening to and arguing with William Carlos Williams, and then with Robert Duncan, in a decade and more of correspondence.
Levertov moved to New York, with her husband Mitchell Goodman, in 1948. Her correspondence with William Carlos Williams--during the mid 1950s--provides early evidence of Levertov's interest in and knowledge of art and artists. (8) We know, for instance, that she was familiar with the work of Leland Bell, Louisa Matthiasdottir, Georges Rouault, and Chaim Soutine from a 1955 letter about a one-man exhibition by Leland Bell. We also know that, from this early in her life, her preference seemed to be for more "representational" forms (McGowan 20-21).
The Duncan-Levertov correspondence began in June of 1953 with a letter from Duncan to Levertov, praising her poetry. The first reference to art occurs in the summer of 1955. In July of that year (L 19), Duncan explains the evolution of his artistic taste. He talks of needing to "sweep out the old validities" (L 19); he admits, "I can well remember the day when [Marc] Chagall and Max Ernst seemd [sic] bad to me, I was so the protagonist of the formal (like [Jean] Arp or [Piet] Mondrian) against the illusionary. The paintings have not changed. Nor is it that I have progressd [sic], or gone in a direction. But my spiritual appetite has been deranged from old convictions" (L 19). A bit later he says, "Even dear old [Henri] Matisse must be somehow in the wrong direction; or our liking or disliking him be more pertinent than our seeing him" (L 21, 22). This letter concludes with a critical comment on some (black and white) photographs of Louisa Bell's paintings that Levertov will return to in a letter of her own (L 22). Duncan is nothing if not discriminating in this view of how Louisa Bell's paintings "look different"--and lack something, when "stripped" of their color.
On October 11, 1955, Levertov writes to Duncan about seeing Rousseau's Carnival Night and a Louis Vivin (French primitivist) painting "that impressed me very much too. A small blue and green painting of trees and still river water with yellow weed on the water--completely hallucinatory" (L 30). Except for the final reference to the "hallucinatory" (which might explain her attitude toward Watteau and Chagall), she again seems taken by the representational or, in Duncan's words, the "illusionary." In a letter of June-July 1956, Duncan provides a note on Da Vinci and Rembrandt. For someone like Levertov, who--following Rilke--revered the discipline and "courage" of artists like Rodin and Cezanne, Duncan's words would have found approval. What he says about how these two artists capture "fleeting" and "transient" reality elaborates on his own artistic taste. It also sounds a bit like what Levertov's sentiments would be a few years later (L 41).
In August 1956, Levertov, living in Guadalajara, Mexico, writes to Duncan about an exhibit of A1 Kresch's work, as well as other painters, at least one of whose works earns her enthusiastic approval for its Romantic representational quality (L 46, 47). On November 12, she describes her reaction to Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and other "beats" in Guadalajara, ending with a description of how art inspires her.
Do you know a Corot called Le Pont de Mantes? I have a black & white reproduction of it from the Mondadori edition [Corot: Milan, Mondadori, 1952] open on my desk. It represents a world, a view of the world (a little bit of it) that I feel I can realize. When they [Ginsberg, Corso, etc.] say to me that I should take marijuana, peyote, etc., & see the natural world enlarged & intensified I look at that, or at a pre-Columbian pot or warrior, or out of the window, & feel no yen to see this other world mechanically introduced to the perceptions ... (L 50)
The young English woman, defending herself against the "beat" poets, chooses a "realistic" painting from 1868-1870, and something of the art that surrounded her as she lived in Mexico, in order to assert her preference for portraying the world and her experience of it. Her referring to "a view of the world ... that I feel I can realize" touches on an issue--reality as the goal of artistic expression--about which Duncan and Levertov agreed.
Back in New York, Levertov writes to Duncan on May 3, 1958. Reporting on Louisa Matthiasdottir's solo exhibit at the Tanager Gallery (and adverting to Duncan's earlier critique--"whose paintings in photos," she says, "you didn't like ..."), she defends Matthiasdottir's stylized but unquestionably representational paintings. Levertov registers her judgment: "I feel I could live without them but their strength (nothing of K. Mansfield-type femininity, the attenuated kind, there) and integrity remain very moving to me nevertheless" (L 115). Integrity, strength, and discipline--like Duncan's comments on Rembrandt and Da Vinci--remain the qualities that she admires in artists and their work.
The argument over art begins again in a letter from December 15, 1959 (L 223-24). Here Levertov describes a visit to the new Guggenheim Museum. She says she likes the Brancusi sculpture and Cezanne's The Clockmaker. She then registers her surprise at liking some Wassily Kandinsky, as well as works by Paul Klee and Robert Delaunay. The following February, Duncan offers an explanation for why Levertov might have liked Kandinsky and Klee. In the process, he contrasts Kandinsky and Klee to American painters--whom he, interestingly, links to the "beat" poets, whose "influence" Levertov had resisted when she was in Mexico. Here Duncan is still the mentor and, whether she liked it or not, Levertov the student (L 239, 240).
The discussion of art and artists takes an important new turn a little over a year later. On May 4, 1961 (L 290), Levertov speaks about her first three-month stint as poetry editor for The Nation. She asks Duncan whether he had seen the spring issue, saying, "the article on painting I liked very much indeed, especially the paragraph where he speaks about Rembrandt."
Artist Howard Warshaw wrote "Return of Naturalism as the 'AvantGarde'" for the April 22, 1961 issue (344-50). Responding to an article on "action painting" by Harrold Rosenberg in Art News, Warshaw critiques Abstract Expressionism, specifically Jackson Pollock (but also mentioning de Kooning, Motherwell, Kline, and Gottlieb). In an audacious move, Warshaw compares Norman Rockwell and Pollock as representing two forms of "naturalism" that both devalue the viewer's imagination. (9)
It is clear that Warshaw is a defender of artistic "tradition" in a way that squares with Levertov's predilections. What is surprising, however, is the way he puts the problem of the artist with respect to subject matter. For Warshaw, "The error consists in believing that apples are the subject matter of certain paintings by Cezanne, or that a woman is the subject matter of the Mona Lisa, or that whatever the extra painting reference happens to be, it is the subject matter of the painting" (349). Warshaw's dismissive reference to "whatever the extra painting reference happens to be" is not anti-representational. Instead, it means to restore a balance between the object being painted and the other circumstances of the artist, including historical and cultural context, making the object being painted only part of the overall "subject matter."
A little later he defines "subject matter" as
the whole situation in which the painter works: the man, his vision, his act of painting, his materials, the room in which he works and everything in it, all these things in interaction comprise the subject matter of the painting. The subject matter is a process, which goes on while he is at work, rather than a static posed object. (349)
Then comes the paragraph on Rembrandt to which Levertov's letter refers:
When we see a painting by Rembrandt we do not see a woman but rather a mode of vision and behavior revealed to us and to Rembrandt himself for the first time. His vision and his responses to it were invisible until they were made manifest in the sensuous analogue of the painting.... (349-50)
Warshaw talks of Rembrandt being "caught up" and "acting with the urgency and responsibility of a whole man." This may suggest what Duncan had referred to with respect to DaVinci and Rembrandt. It also suggests that search for "reality" and "spontaneity" which both Levertov and Duncan sought in their poetry.
Warshaw concludes: "A great painter allows us to look through his eyes and for a moment to share his sense of existence" (350). Warshaw's overall conclusion is that both Rockwell and Pollock share "'startling similarities of function'" and--here almost scornfully--that their paintings probably provide "provocative material for the practice of free association" (350). This is a criticism with which Levertov and Duncan probably would have agreed, though for slightly different reasons. It is unlikely that Duncan would have agreed with Warshaw's overall assessment of Pollock, especially viz a viz Rockwell.
In the next few years there are only a few references to art and artists. In her published prose, however, Surrealism and other artistic movements play distinct, if minor roles. Then, in a letter from November, 1966, Levertov reports to Duncan:
Found a couple of good things recently, this from Klee: "The work of art ... is experienced first of all as a process of creation rather than as its passive product. The creative impulse suddenly springs to life, like a flame, passes through the hand onto the canvas, where it spreads further until, like the spark that closes an electric circuit, it turns to its source: the eye of the mind." (L 560-61)
Levertov seems to be learning the "process of creativity" from Klee. It sounds a bit like Warshaw and some of Duncan's earlier pronouncements. And there is no mention of or allusion to "representation" or "the illusionary."
On July 16, 1967 (L 582-83), Duncan tries to clarify the difference between "formalist" and "expressive" poetry, using the examples of Williams, Pound, and Zukovsky as "formalists" (where "expressive" replaces "illusionary"):
Craftsmanship is paramount, I think, when the poet, like Williams, thinks of himself and his responsibility as a writer first of all as a word-worker. Think of Williams's insistence that the paint is the thing in painting and, after Flaubert, Cezanne, Mallarme, Stein: "It is the making of that step, to come over into the tactile qualities, the words themselves beyond the mere thought expressed that distinguishes the modern." (L 582)
Williams, Duncan says, sometimes takes "that step over from feeling to the imaginative object" (L 583), whereas Levertov, he says, is an "expressive" poet, for whom "the poem so often bears the burden of conveying the feeling of something or the emotion aroused by something or a thought--giving rise to the poem instead of the poem giving rise to its own objects" (L 582). Duncan's position here is well beyond Warshaw's, and part of the reason that he, unlike Warshaw, approved of artists like Pollock. For Levertov, content is almost always the "extra painting reference," seen from a particular perspective, and within a particular world view. This will also characterize her ekphrastic poems.
Even as she and Duncan are about to begin the most tumultuous part of their disagreement over the Vietnam War, Levertov writes, on April 26, 1969 from Berkeley, to say, "I found a wonderful essay on [Jean-Sieon] Chardin by [Marcel] Proust with which I'm going to introduce WCW to my 108 class--for it is precisely that Chardinesque quality of iHumiliation of the ordinary that was my own first introduction to Williams" (.L 632).10 Here, the representational ("the illumination of the ordinary") or, using Duncan's terms, the "expressive" element in Williams, is what makes Levertov compare him to Chardin, an eighteenth-century painter praised for the (albeit heightened) "realism" of his still lifes. For her, "representational" carries no pejorative associations, as Duncan's use of "illusionary" had.
The definitive break in the Duncan-Levertov relationship, and almost the end of their correspondence, occurred in the early 1970s. Certainly after their estrangement--but even before, in her prose--Duncan was no longer the mentor, either for art or poetry. It is at this point that we can take a step back and briefly examine Levertov's prose in order to trace the development and first public expressions of her artistic taste, and the way that development and taste came to inform her poetry. Among the first things we note is a confidence not only in the matter of art but other areas as well.
Levertov's prose first shows her familiarity with art and artists in 1961, when "A Note on the Working of the Imagination" makes brief reference to the art critic, John Ruskin, on J. M. W. Turner (PIW 203-06). Then, in 1965, there are three instances. "To Write Is to Listen" (PIW 227-31) is a review of a volume by poet John Wieners, where she adapts a phrase from Pablo Picasso to describe Wieners's way of writing poetry." In "An Approach to Public Poetry Listenings" (LUC 46-56), she refers to reproductions by Chircico, Klee, and Picasso (PIW49). Their surrealistic visual images, she says, perhaps train people for listening to the "incarnation of content in form" (PIW 48) that she finds characteristic of modern poetry. Her attitude to Surrealism seems "tolerant" at best.
In a first significant explanation of her poetic theory in "Some Notes on Organic Form," she refers approvingly to a quote by Emerson, which, she says, was sent to her by A1 Kresch: "The health of the eye demands a horizon" (PIW 12). This is nothing if not an endorsement of a representational view of art. (12) Then, in her 1967 "A Sense of Pilgrimage" (PIW 62-68), she describes her visit to the Fogg Museum at Harvard and how the viewing of a Han Dynasty funerary castle inspired her poem "Psalm About the Castle."
In 1968, she quotes Ernst Barlach and Jean Helion (PIW 48-50), and in her 1970 essay "Great Possessions" (PIW 89-106), she argues for a "supernatural poetry," criticizing "mechanical surrealism" and "inauthentic surrealism." She ends by contrasting the supernatural effect in artists like Magritte and Breton with the "more satisfying"--supernatural--effects of Rembrandt, Cezanne, and Giotto (PIW 98). Her praise for William Carlos Williams (PIW 254-56, 1963; 257-66, 1972) takes the form of comparing his work to those Chardin still lifes and those pictures of servants with their utensils which she had shared with Duncan.
Given her apparent confidence about art in some of these early essays, it seems to be a bit of a mystery why she wrote no genuine ekphrastic poems in the 1960s and 1970s. In their marked absence, we might reflect on Duncan's influence. Is it possible that one reason Levertov did not write any ekphrastic poems was because Duncan's "tuition" in art education cast a long shadow? Perhaps it was only after discussing movements like Surrealism in her prose that she felt confident enough about her own--but not exclusive--preference for representational art to write poems inspired by it? In this light, even later poems like those on Soutine, Chircico, and McCracken might be proof--to herself--that her poetic taste could assimilate even relatively abstract art, as her own earlier appreciation for Kandinsky and Klee showed.
In sum, it is possible to argue that the absence of genuine ekphrastic poems before the 1980s can be laid, in part, to the somewhat oppressive influence of Duncan's views. Duncan's taste did, after all, represent the "mainstream" in American art until late in the twentieth century. That is to say, "Abstract Expressionism" provided an environment that she would have found somewhat uncongenial for writing poems about works of art by "the old masters."
I would now like to discuss a few of Levertov's ekphrastic poems, first returning to "Kresch's Studio" from 1953. Here, we can get our bearings and see her attitude toward art, before the later factors exerted their influence on her artistic sensibility. Then, after briefly commenting on two "quasi-ekphrastic poems" from the late 1960s ("Psalm Concerning the Castle," and "Postcards: A Triptych"), I shall discuss a different trajectory from that traced by Hollenberg. It is a trajectory suggested by "The Servant Girl at Emmaus," (13) the first genuine--and quintessential^--ekphrastic poem before A Door in the Hive. The poem was published in Breathing the Water (1987)--two years before A Door in the Hive, the volume on which Hollenberg focuses. (14) I shall then discuss Levertov's poem "The Life of Art" in connection with her own prose sketch, "Looking at Photographs" (PIW 98). These analyses will serve as prelude to (re)considering "The Composition," which Hollenberg emphasizes, and "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell," a poem from A Door in the Hive, which Hollenberg does not discuss. I shall end with a final look forward to where the ekphrastic "spirit" undergoes a final transformation in poems like "Ascension" and "On the Belief in the Physical Resurrection of Christ."
"Kresch's Studio" is significant not only because it is an early evocation of artists at work on their art, but also because it is an oblique description of the artist's milieu--that aspect of the artist's environment which Howard Warshaw's essay would bring to the fore. It is a perspective that will persist in some of Levertov's later ekphrastic poems. As we have seen, Levertov knew A1 Kresch and the artists with whom he worked and associated. The poem begins:
Easels: a high & bare room: some with charcoal, one with a brush, some with loud pens in the silence, at work. (CEP 12 L10J)
The poem goes on to describe not only the artists "at work," but the nude model they are rendering and the outside world, which provides a contrast to the artistic concentration:
That they work, that she will not move too soon, opposes (as Bartok's plucked strings oppose) the grinding, grinding, grinding of lives, pounding constant traffic.
The poem concludes with a re-emphasis of the contrast:
On paper, on canvas, stroke, stroke: a counterpoint: an energy opposing the squandered energy.
Not an ekphrastic poem, "Kresch's Studio" is important for studying the later ekphrastic poems, for three reasons. First, the poem comes from the early 1950s. It suggests Levertov's admiration for Cezanne in the way it refers to "angles" and "planes," and the "play with elements." The "up close," intimate view and the concern with physical, tactile imagery will remain a feature of her later poems. Even before she had learned much from William Carlos Williams, Levertov is trying to see art as the concentrated "attentiveness" and discipline of looking and forming. One might even argue that Cezanne and Rodin--via Rilke--are the sole influences. Second, it focuses on the artist, the subject, and their relation --something that we shall see again when we discuss Warshaw and "The Life of Art." Third, both the artists and the subject "oppose" the "grinding of lives," the "squandered energy" of everyday life in New York. Art has a relation to the outside, historical world. In no way "political," the poem nevertheless situates itself in the larger world.
We now move a decade forward. The Sorrow Dance (15) includes some of the anti-war poems over which Levertov and Duncan argued. The fifth section of the volume, coming just before "Life at War," is titled "Perspectives," and contains "Psalm Concerning the Castle" and "The Postcards: A Triptych." "Psalm" (Poems 217 ) is one to which Levertov refers as a poem that was inspired by the dream-like, archetypal "aura" of a cultural artifact. The poem makes nine optative ("Let ...") statements that almost literally "build" a visual--not to mention tactile, kinesthetic--image of a castle and "the young queen inside." (16) "The Postcards: A Triptych" (17) (Poems 219-20 ), begins by describing a series of images arranged as if to form a triptych in a museum: "The Minoan Snake Goddess is flanked by a Chardin still-life, somber / and tranquil, and by Mohammedan angels ..The poem then turns to the two "side figures," ending with a return to the Minoan Snake Goddess.
The first verse-paragraph evokes the figures that accompany the Mohammedan angels. The second turns to the "still life," beginning: "Meanwhile the still-life offers, makes possible, / a glass of water, a wine-bottle made of glass so dark it is / almost black yet not opaque...." The final meditation, on the Snake Goddess, makes it clear that these are real postcards. The details of the Snake Goddess are precise, and "She is a few inches high" (Poems, 220 ). This last detail (if we have ignored the title) "breaks the illusion" that the poem itself had successfully created: the sense that one was looking at a "real" Snake goddess, Mohammedan angels, and a still life. Instead, the poem suggests an arranged, "artificial" element.
The final verse paragraph states: "Without thought I have placed these images / over my desk. Under these signs / lam living" (Poems 220 ). The phrase "Without thought" suggests not only the casual, almost careless way one might pin up postcards from a friend, but also the manifestation of an unconscious act of selection and arrangement--so similar to the way Levertov described writing "Psalm." In this way, "Postcards" resembles the more obviously "archetypal" "Psalm." (18) "The Postcards" shows the power that art had for Levertov, even during the tumultuous "war years," and even before she wrote some of her most memorable ekphrastic poems. (19) Selection and arrangement of the postcards, as well as the precise and detailed meditation on the images, anticipate the rapt and attentive style of her ekphrastic poems.
I turn now to a poem from the 1989 collection, A Door in the Hive. (20) Hollenberg refers to "The Life of Art," but does not dwell on it. It is my contention that "The Life of Art" enacts Levertov's preferred way of viewing and responding to art, and the motive for her best ekphrastic poems. This is particularly clear when seen in context with "Looking at Photographs." A brief, commissioned essay, this piece has to do with photography as an inspiration for art. (21) But in the opening, Levertov observes:
I have always had a strong love for looking at paintings--a love for color, for the thickness or thinness of paint, and for the miraculous coexistence of sensuous surface reality--brush marks and the grain of canvas showing through--with illusion, the depicted world to be entered. (PIW 87)
We might recall here the importance that "illusion" had in Duncan's letters. But now, it is exactly "the borderland" between materiality and illusion that she describes at the start of "The Life of Art."
The borderland--that's where, if one knew how, one would establish residence. That watershed, that spine, that looking-glass... I mean the edge between impasto surface, burnt sienna,...
and Active truth ... (DIH 85 )
The poem invites the reader to imagine the speaker standing before a painting. Through a variety of figures the speaker describes "the edge" between the painted artifact and "Active truth: a room, a vase, an open door / giving upon the clouds." Here Levertov links in almost oxymoronic fashion "sensuous surface reality" and "illusion, the depicted world to be entered."
The second verse paragraph enacts the museum-goer's action of stepping back to see "the whole," then stepping forward "to the wall again." Through sensuous description, the speaker makes the experience "real." Then, by means of a bold indentation on the page, the speaker's thought shifts again: "But there's an interface,...." The next part of the verse paragraph discusses the difficulty of maintaining the two views, "just attainable, sometimes, when the attention's rightly poised." The next several lines imagine the artist at work, as if employing "the bravura gestures [which] hand and brush / proffer (as if a courtier twirled / a feathered velvet hat to bow you in)." At the same time, the speaker does not let the reader forget the artifice of the painting ("without losing sight of one stroke / one scrape of the knife"), as both speaker and reader are "drawn through into that room...."
The poem concludes as the speaker returns to that "interface," asking: "Couldn't one learn to maintain / that exquisite balance more than a second?" Again the speaker offers two opposed views: of the "penciled understrokes," on the one hand; and on the other, the feel of carpet or "cold fruit in a bowl," both evoked by an attentive "reading" of the painting. Without referring to a specific work of art (an interior, a still life, some view through a window are all alluded to), the speaker nevertheless provides something close to the lived experience of viewing a painting.
If "The Life of Art," viewed through the lens of "Looking at Photographs," says anything about the ekphrastic "moment" in Levertov's poetics, it shows her desire to maintain a tension between flat surface and the "represented" world. In the background, we might hear both Duncan on formalism and Howard Warshaw on the artist's existing and working within a specific historic (and artistic) milieu. In this particular instance, the viewer/speaker seems to assume an ahistorical position. This is not the case in "The Composition," a work that is both richer and more complex when we view it in light of "Looking at Photographs" and "The Life of Art."
Hollenberg's essay turns to "The Composition" after a nod at four ekphrastic poems in A Door in the Hive. Her purpose is clear.
This essay will focus upon Levertov's poems about works by five visual artists, Anselm Kiefer, Chaim Soutine, Jean Duvet, Eduardo Chillida, and Emmanuel de Witte, the contemplation of which helped her bridge the gulf between a despairing political awareness and an "imagined destination of faith." (520)
Her justification for jumping to Evening Train is the fact that "The Composition" is dedicated to the French poet Jean Joubert and the American artist Howard Fussiner, and that Levertov had already translated poems by Joubert in an earlier book, Oblique Prayers. Again, the thread of connection for Hollenberg is primarily political.
But the choice of poem also includes a revealing, second perspective. Having cited Simon Schama's magisterial work on Dutch painting (as a kind of background), and further referencing Levertov's own disagreement with another critic of Dutch painting, Witold Rybscinski, on the meaning of de Witte's painting, Hollenberg introduces a historical dimension that is, at least implicitly, in contrast (if not direct conflict) with the political.
What my reading of "The Composition" on Emmanuel de Witte's Interior with a Woman Playing a Virginal (Figure 1) will add to Hollenberg's analysis is the place of broader context. Warshaw and "Looking at Photographs" show that "The Composition" needs to be read in conjunction with both those essays and "The Life of Art." My reading does not minimize Hollenberg's emphasis on history or politics, but it does emphasize a more specifically ekphrastic inspiration. "The Composition," perhaps even more subtly than "The Life of Art," holds in tension what Duncan would have called the formalist and the expressive responses to the painting, as enacted in the poem.
Reading "The Composition" (22) in conjunction with Warshaw's Nation essay adds depth and complexity to our understanding of the poem. We come to realize how much the concern with the artist and his/her time--and how content becomes infused with the broader cultural views of the time period--have been in Levertov's consciousness since 1961. Reading the poem in conjunction with Warshaw adds complexity, because, besides Schama and Rybcinski, Warshaw is, at root, a historical critic as well. Levertov's political commitments have transformed the historically influenced formalism of Schama and Warshaw, giving an almost utopian slant to what Levertov finds in the painting.
"The Composition" begins by focusing on the same kind of features that "The Life of Art" had singled out: textures, colors, and specific details. But in "The Composition" such details proliferate, making for an almost intoxicating dose of "reality." Finally, in the middle of line 15, the poem introduces the first of two figures who are central to the poem: the "young wife" and her husband. The remaining six lines of the first verse paragraph carefully describe the appearance and--by implication--the relationship of husband and wife: she playing the harpsichord, he "snug" in bed, "leaning his head on one hand, / intently, blissfully, watching and listening." The equivalent of the viewer's stepping back, as suggested in "The Life of Art," comes at the end of the first verse paragraph, where the speaker summarizes the whole scene: the visual perspective through two rooms, the servant girl, the husband, and the wife: "A human scene: apex of civilized joy, attained / in Holland, the autumn of 1660, never surpassed, probably / never to be matched."
The remainder of the poem actually ceases to be ekphrastic in the narrower sense of the term. Instead of "the verbal representation of visual representation," the concluding lines leap out of the "scene" as the speaker imagines the same Dutch scene being painted "with other colors," "from another distance, perspectives differently disposed." The poem concludes by opining that, had the conjectural painting "lacked this austere counterpoint of forms" that the de Witte painting manifests, "we'd never have known / that once, in eternity, / this peaceful joy had blessed an autumnal morning." This conclusion is patently representational in its focus. The speaker is taking de Witte's Woman at the Harpsichord as a historical record of life in seventeenth-century Holland.
Hollenberg's point, drawn from Levertov's letter to Howard Fussiner and David Eberly, is that "the painting records ... a joyful scene ... which is at the same time (like the painting itself, so that the painting which records it is itself part of what it records) a manifestation of a civilization" (533). This is precisely the point that Howard Warshaw's essay had made over twenty-five years earlier. And it is a point that Levertov, and her ekphrastic spirit, emphasize.
"The Servant Girl at Emmaus" (23) is one of Levertov's best ekphrastic poems. (24) The painting (Figure 2) is one of several that Diego Velazquez painted on the same subject, around 1619, and it is likely Levertov saw it in the National Museum in Dublin, Ireland. (25) It should be noted that, like many other paintings in the genre, Velazquez's painting is a "fictional" embellishment of the story in Luke's Gospel (24:13-35). Nowhere does the Gospel include reference to a servant--much less an African servant girl.
This painting likely appealed to Levertov because of the way it brings together a number of threads in her own thinking and writing about art and poetry. First, there is an at least quasi-historical background similar to what we saw in "The Composition." The foreground subject is a servant girl and a number of other elements that might appear in a Chardin still life. There is also a religious, specifically Christological, reference. Finally, as sketched in "The Life of Art," this painting prompts Levertov to become "absorbed" in the "story" that the painting "tells," at the same time that the poem is an "enactment" of the events portrayed, carrying it to the moment after Velazsquez records the servant girl's expression of dawning "revelation."
An interesting, initial parallel: "The Composition" resembles "The Servant Girl at Emmaus" in that de Witte includes a servant girl as a significant background figure. But, instead of being in the background, the servant-girl in the "Emmaus" poem is now in the foreground, and she is the vantage point from which the whole poem is seen. By the perspective he chooses (and the look on the servant's face), it is as if Velazquez--and Levertov after him--invites the audience to take the servant-girl's perspective.
The young woman "listens" intently, "holding her breath." Her attentiveness and receptivity enable her to guess, before the men who had invited Him," Who it is that sits with them." From the distance of the kitchen, she listens--she must have been looking, too, for she thinks she recognizes the face. And then, even as all the events and rumors of that man's life swirl round in her head, she is able to respond. "She swings round and sees / the light around Him / and is sure." A large part of the beauty and power of the poem comes from Levertov's articulating the implicit point of the painting: the first person in this scene to recognize Jesus is a young, black servant girl.
"The Servant Girl at Emmaus" is the equal of "The Composition" as an example of the ekphrastic spirit. Loosely organic in form--anticipating some of her best later poems--it nevertheless hews close to the contours of the painting that inspired it. But, in its own way, the poem also pushes against the limits of the form, perhaps in more interesting ways than "The Composition" did. Here, in a new and different way, the poem manifests what Hollenberg called "the ground between self, world, and divinity" (520). In fact, "The Servant Girl at Emmaus" prepares for one of the most fascinating of Levertov's ekphrastic poems, "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell."
In turning to "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell" (DIH 105-06 ), I have to note Hollenberg's virtual dismissal of this poem. Does she overlook it because it is not a genuine "ekphrastic" poem? Is it because "Ikon" ends by leaving ekphrasis behind? But so does "The Composition." Certainly, like the two previous poems discussed, "Ikon" starts out as an ekphrastic poem. The poem also occurs at a climactic point in The Door in the Hive, and it follows the trajectory that Hollenberg had identified: the move to "life journey and religious quest" (Hollenberg 522), though it has nothing even vaguely "political" about it. But, whereas we can point to the exact painting that inspired "The Composition" and "The Servant Girl at Emmaus," with "Ikon" it is more difficult.
In the end, it may be necessary to admit that "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell" occupies a liminal space within the body of Levertov's ekphrastic poems. An extensive search turns up no specific work of art that "matches," in all its details, the poem itself. (26) Like the numerous "Emmaus" paintings found throughout the Christian era, there are many paintings--if not all exactly "icons" (27)--from almost all eras depicting Christ's "harrowing of hell" (his descent into Hell--really Limbo--after the Crucifixion, in order to free the souls of those who had died before the Redemption and the opening of the gates of Heaven). (28) Some of the paintings closest to the poem in their details are Giotto's, Andrea da Firenze's, Fra Angelico's, and Albrecht Dtirer's.
The most that can be said about a possible "trigger" inspiration for the poem, which is dated "Lent, 1988," is as follows. According to Hollenberg, Levertov was in Cleveland, Ohio the previous fall, and her notebooks record a visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art. (29) At the museum, there is a woodcut by Albrecht Durer, "The Large Passion: Christ Descending into Limbo," from about 1510 (Figure 3). Rendered--as is usual with woodcuts --in black and white, it has a number of features that might have inspired the poem. One of the chief of which--though not unique to Durer's work--is the kinesthetic pose of Christ. He is bending over, reaching into a tomb-like space, and grasping the hand of a bearded individual. Dtirer's style has something of the medieval about it, something that might incline an autodidact like Levertov to call her own poem an "Ikon," despite Durer's usually being identified as early German Renaissance.
Whatever exact--or, more likely, composite--source, the poem employs vividly representational techniques suggesting specific pictorial inspiration. This visualization becomes the occasion for a meditation on Christ's transit from the tomb to Limbo. The remainder of the poem then reflects on the difficulty Christ faces in returning to the tomb in anticipation of the Resurrection. The language of the poem transforms or transcends the stasis of the visual and tactile images, as the poem stresses the "timelessness" of God's--and the crucified Christ's--supernatural "world." The poem also heightens the sense of gesture. The selection of details and the choice of words infuse the resulting images with the power of symbol, creating a transcendent aura.
The poem begins with the vivid kinesthetic image: "Down through the tomb's inward arch / He has shouldered out into Limbo...." The poem pictures Christ releasing "the merciful dead, the prophets, the innocents just his own age ...," referring to those young male children killed by Herod (Matthew 2: 16-18). The "endless void" from which Christ pulls them might refer to various ways that artists had represented the underworld. (30)
Then the poem states: "Didmas (31), / neighbor in death, Golgotha dust / still streaked on the dried sweat of his body ... is here." Until a specific painting can be identified, one is tempted to combine aspects of the Durer and Fra Angelico works. The latter (Figure 4) portrays Christ in something of a kinesethetic pose, having just stepped inside the portals of Limbo.
In this painting, too, he is reaching out a hand to the first of the souls in Limbo, in this case an older man with a white beard, perhaps one of "the merciful dead, the prophets.... But behind the old man is a younger figure with brown hair and a somewhat shaggy beard, presumably the good thief of Luke's Gospel.
The remainder of the poem leaves the ekphrastic behind. With the souls "safe" on the "Paradise road," the speaker shifts focus, saying: "That done, there must take place that struggle / no human presumes to picture" --that is, Christ's struggle back "through earth and stones of the faithless world" to the sepulcher where he will rise from the dead. The poem closes with a last Biblical allusion to another of the highly dramatic--and easily visualized--post-Resurrection Gospel stories where the disciples meet Jesus on the shore and he gives them "food--fish and a honeycomb" (DIH 106 ).
If we consider the compositional structure of the volume (A Door in the Hive) in which it appears as the penultimate poem, "Ikon: the Harrowing of Hell" looms larger even than the other more indisputably ekphrastic poems in the volume. If, as we know, Levertov "composed" her volumes for maximum effect, then seeing "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell" in this penultimate position increases the poem's significance. The poem also points to later poems like "Ascension" and "On Belief in the Physical Resurrection of Jesus," which are not ekphrastic, but are "ekphrastic in spirit"; that is, they are inspired by a vivid visual--almost artistic--imagination, and the desire or need to understand religious experience in concrete, physical fashion.
"Ascension" (ET 115-16 ), for instance, imagines the difficulty Christ would have returning to his body in order to experience ascension into heaven. There are the same kinesthetic images; "Stretching Himself as if again, / through downpress of dust / upward ...." There is the same sense of resistance--physical, and metaphysical--overcome. Both "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell" and "Ascension" are, together, best seen in context with "On Belief in the Physical Resurrection of Jesus." (32)
This latter poem may, in fact, contain a final insight into Levertov's ekphrastic inspiration. Here, the speaker reveals herself among "literalists of the imagination" for whom "miracle / is possible, / possible and essential." The speaker is one for whom metaphor must be "grounded in dust, grit, / heavy / carnal clay." For her, Resurrection is the ultimate miracle. She is among those for whom such miracles "are miracles just because / people [are] so tuned / to the humdrum laws / in bone and blood." There is a strong representational dimension here.
The final Biblical allusions underline the importance of stories that stress the representational and also return us to the story of "The Servant Girl at Emmaus." Like the allusion at the end of "Ascension," these references call attention to highly dramatic and easy to visualize aspects of the Resurrection. The poem ends first with a further allusion to St. Thomas Didymus putting his hand in Christ's side (John 20:29), and then moves to reference the Emmaus story. The speaker ends with this double assertion:
We must feel the pulse in the wound to believe that 'with God all things are possible,' (33) taste bread at Emmaus that warm hands broke and blessed. (SW 116 )
The speaker needs the assurance that Incarnation underwrites. It is the tension between the seen-and-experienced on the one hand and the unseen-yet-experienced on the other. Levertov, at this point, is only imagining details not represented in any particular painting, but the inspiration is obviously visual, and Incarnational, if not ekphrastic, in spirit.
As the winds of fashion in art and poetry shift, the expressive and self-referential work that Robert Duncan had praised in artists like Jackson Pollock, or which we have come to expect from poets like John Ashbery, gives way to artists and poets of the real. In that process, Levertov's abiding commitment to a robust and complex sense of the representational --in her artistic tastes as well as her ekphrastic poetry--will come to be seen as a commitment to a tradition. It is a tradition that comprehends Angelico, DaVinci, Rembrandt, Velazquez, and de Witte, as well as such giants of Abstract Expressionism as Klee, Kandinsky, Soutine, and Chillida. On the way to working out a nuanced theory of the visual arts to justify her love for the traditional, Levertov also shows how the study and reflective contemplation of art belong to the story of her conversion, and her success as a writer of powerful religious poetry.
Archer, Emily. "Denise Levertov and Paul Cezanne: In Continuance," in Denise Levertov: New Perspectives. Edited by Anne Colclough Little and Susie Paul. West Cornwall, CT, 2000.155-76.
Bertoff, Robert and Albert Gelpi, eds. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2004.
Greene, Dana. Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 2012. Hollenberg, Donna K. '"History as I desired it': Ekphrasis as Postmodern Witness in Denise Levertov's Poetry." Modernism/Modernity 10.3 (September 2003): 519-36.
--. A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov. Berkeley: U of California P, 2013.
Levertov, Denise. Collected Poems. Ed. Paul Lacey and Anne Dewey. New York: New Directions, 2013.
--. Collected Earlier Poems. New York: New Directions, 1979.
--. A Door in the Hive. New York: New Directions. 1989.
--. Evening Train. New York: New Directions, 1992.
--. Light Up the Cave. New York: New Directions, 1981.
--. New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992.
--. Poems 1960-1967. New York: New Directions, 1983.
--. Poet in the World. New York: New Directions, 1973.
--. The Sands of the Weil. New York: New Directions, 1996.
--. Tesserae. New York: New Directions, 1995.
--. This Great Unknowing. New York: New Directions, 1999.
MacGowan, Chirstopher, ed. The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1998.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
_. The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries. New Haven: Yale U P, 1997.
Rybscinski, Witold. Home: A Short Study of an Idea. New York: Viking. 1986.
Schama, Simon, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
Warshaw. Howard. "Return of Naturalism as the 'Avant Garde'" The Nation 192 (April 22, 1961): 344-50.
David N. Beauregard, O.M.V.
(1) See Bertoff and Gelpi, The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Hereafter referred to as L.
(2) This Great Unknowing 56 , Hereafter cited as TGU. Numbers appearing in brackets refer to the Collected Poems.
(3) I leave out a number of poems that refer to or seem inspired, in whole or in part, by music or musicians, starting with "Notes of a Scale" and "Ring of Changes"--in Collected Earlier Poems and continuing on to the end of her career. "Anamnesis at the Fault Line" (The Sands of the Well, hereafter referred to as SW 67 ) is a borderline case because it is inspired by an "installation" by Barbara Thomas in 1992. "Drawn in Air" (TGU 49 ) describes a tree branch as if drawn by an artist like "Degas. Holbein," concluding with the "pleasure in simply / line as line."
(4) This is the succinct definition offered by James W. Heffernan in Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashhery (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993) 3. For other, broader and more qualified definitions, see Heffernan and W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994); Jean Hagstrum, The Sister Arts (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1958); Murray Krieger, "Ekphrasis and the Still Movement of Poetry, or Laokoon Revisited," (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP. 1967); Kreiger, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of Natural Sign (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991).
(5) Hereafter referred to as T.
(6) Collected Earlier Poems vii, , Hereafter cited as CEP.
(7) Published in Herbert Read: A Memorial Symposium (London: Methuen, 1969), and reprinted in Light Up the Cave 233-37. Hereafter the latter is cited as LUC.
(8) Despite his early advocacy of artists like Duchamps and the Dada movement (for instance in the 1920 Kora in Hell). Williams's own ekphrastic poems, found in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), emphasize the representational--and secular-aspects of Brueghel's work.
(9) It is also interesting that the article takes to task Sir Herbert Read, who, we have seen, had championed Levertov's work, and contributed in an unspecified way to her "art education."
(10) "Chardin" in Marcel Proust: On Art and Literature, 1896-1919, trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner (London: Chatto and Windus Ltd.. 1957). Levertov also refers to the Proust article in "Williams and the Duende" (written 1972, delivered '73) in The Poet in the World (hereafter referred to as P1W) 257-66. She begins by comparing Williams's Franciscan wonder at the ordinary to Chardin's paintings, and the treatment of "servants among their kitchen utensils," these referring to Proust's essay on Chardin.
(11) This essay came before the break with Duncan; he even praises the review (L 489).
(12) Levertov had worked on this essay for some years. When it appeared in Poetry in 1965. Duncan praised it in a letter of October. 1965 (L 510).
(13) For a thorough-going treatment of the poem, but without much of the artistic context of Levertov's art education, see Cristina Giorcelli, '"The Servant Girl at Emrnaus (After a Painting by Velazquez)': Denise Levertov's Religious Ekphrasis." Revue d'Etudes Anglophones 12 (2002): 69-92.
(14) That the two volumes were published so close together in time raises the question: might not the ekphrastic poems in both volumes have been composed about the same time, even if published two years apart? The only answer--if there is one--lies in the archives. These are not issues addressed in either of the 2013 biographies of Levertov.
(15) In Poems 1960-67. Hereafter cited as Poems.
(16) Taking a different critical perspective, one might read this as a Jung-inspired meditation designed to "secure" the poet's sense of self, as woman, as artist, as someone with power, but also protected.
(17) Levertov would later write another poem inspired by a postcard, "Letter to a Friend," (Evening Train hereafter cited as ET, 53-54) which, however, does not have the ekphrastic motive.
(18) From a different angle, the three postcards might also be--as with "Psalm"-objects for (Jungian) meditation.
(19) Levertov shared "Postcards" with Duncan, and he praised the poem in a letter of August 17, 1966 (L 544), though he says nothing about its artistic focus.
(20) Hereafter cited as DIH.
(21) We find an interest in photography manifested in a number of her collections, for instance "Spinoffs, First Group" in Breathing the Water (1987), 11-15, and a number of poems cited in the notes to Sands of the Well (1996), 131. Hollenberg's biography (357-58) discusses Levertov's attitude toward paintings and photographs.
(23) Breathing the Water 66 .
(24) As Hollenberg intimates, one direction that Levertov's ekphrastic imagination in the 1980s takes is toward religious or spiritual quest and iconography. "The Servant Girl at Emmaus" is certainly that. The poem raises a number of complex problems that I cannot address here: the fictional character that Velasquez "creates," the artist's possible "sociopolitical" intent (which Levertov understates). But the theme and the character are in keeping with her sensibility--and her activism--in the 1980s.
(25) Paintings on this Gospel story compose a "genre" in itself; with examples by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jacopo Bassano, and even the early twentieth-century American painter, Gari Melchers. Many include a servant (male or female), but Velazquez's black servant girl appears to be unique.
(26) Greene's biography only notes that the poem was written "for use at Emmanuel Church in Boston" (186) without providing any information about a possible artistic source. Hollenberg's biography (370-71) adds that Levertov saw icons in Jaroslov Pelikan's Jesus Through the Centuries, but there is no icon in that work whose details correspond to those in the poem.
(27) A technical term, referring to an Eastern form of religious art, characterized by great stylization.
(28) There is even one--from 1867--by Levertov's beloved Paul Cezanne.
(29) Personal e-mail response, 2009.
(30) In the Angelico this is suggested by the black hole out of which the figures step. There are no "sarcophagi" in the Angelico, but--as noted--there is in the Diirer a kind of "crypt" from which he pulls the one individual.
(31) This character, found in Luke's Gospel (23:43) and usually referred to as "the good thief," is generally identified as "Dismas." Levertov may be confusing Didymus (about whom she had written an earlier poem) and Dismas. The Collected Poems (847) maintain the spelling, with no explanatory note.
(32) SW 115-16 .
(33) This line alludes to the angel Gabriel's words to the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation.
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|Author:||Block, Ed, Jr.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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