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Denise Levertov: poet and pilgrim.

WILLIAM BUTLERYEATS POSED THE DILEMMA: one must choose the "perfection of the life or of the work." Denise Levertov offers a refutation of that choice. As "poet in the world" she responded with full engagement to her historical environment. Her poetry of protest was written in response to the major political issue of her time, the Vietnam War. She later confronted the tragedies of her personal life through her poetic craft, ultimately coming to a renewed sense of awe and wonder. In the last years of her life this avowed agnostic turned to faith, and in the process produced a luminous and crystalline poetry. Levertov acknowledges that writing poetry was her means to faith, that her work "enfaithed." It is also true that her faith resulted in renewed creativity and produced poetry "in service to the transcendent." For Levertov, there was no choice between life and work; the desire for engagement and the consequent transformation linked the two.

Denise Levertov claimed few designations other than that of poet and pilgrim. At age seven or eight she intuited she was an artist; she soon understood her vocation was to poetry. When she was twelve she sent off her first clutch of poems to T. S. Eliot for critique, who offered the burgeoning artist encouragement. Just four years later, her first volume of poetry was published. Her commitment to verse was life long; when she died in 1997 at age seventy-four she had produced more than twenty books of poetry and was acclaimed as one of the best poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Secure in her vocation, she was less sure of her grounding. She had "illustrious ancestors" from Russia and Wales, and understood the formative influence of the English countryside on her psyche, but she considered herself a pilgrim. She belonged to no terrain, except perhaps "the borderland," and had no home except language itself, which she referred to as her "Jerusalem."

Although Levertov rejected much of the influence of her early family life, she was nonetheless greatly shaped by it. Her Welsh mother was a painter, a lover of nature, and later herself a poet. Her father, a complex man, a Russian Jew descendent from an important Hasidic line, converted to Christianity and ultimately became an Anglican priest ministering to the refugee Jewish population that flooded England in the 1930s and '40s. He was a scholar who wrote on Jewish mysticism, all the while intensely engaged in bringing Jews to the Christian Messiah. He kept an almost life-size stone statue of Jesus preaching in his study. During World War I, Paul and Beatrice Levertoff endured suffering for their socialist leanings, even as they welcomed refugees and exiles of many stripes to their home outside of London. Denise, who never attended school, was taught by her mother at home until she was about twelve. Then she was free to learn as she liked, exploring the ruins of the Essex countryside, wandering in the museums of London, reading widely and voraciously in English literature, studying ballet and painting. Since her only sibling was a sister nine years her senior, she was mostly alone.

Early on she was fascinated by the letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, who became her first literary mentor. From him she absorbed a sense of being a pilgrim, the value of inner experience, and the importance of solitude as the basis for poetic expression. Although she would have other mentors, Rilke was seminal; even in her seventies Levertov wrote poetic variations on his work. From Rilke she learned that "if a thing is to speak to you, you must for a certain time regard it as the only thing that exists, the unique phenomenon that your diligent and exclusive love has placed at the center of the universe, something the angels serve that very day upon that matchless spot." (1) Rilke taught her a way of proceeding as poet, a form of paying attention that confirmed what she had learned as a very young child from her mother in the garden of their family home. In a posthumously published poem titled "First Love," Levertov writes of her mother introducing her to a flower, the delight she took in it, and how by giving it her whole attention she entered into it and found there a "secret communion."
It looked at me, I looked
back, delight
filled me as if
I, not the flower,
were a flower and were brimful of rain.
And there was endlessness. (2)


Through that experience she learned a reverence for and attention to life that became the basis of her craft as a poet: to name the thing and hence reveal it. "The progression seems clear to me," she wrote later, "from Reverence for Life to Attention to Life, from Attention to Life to a highly developed Seeing and Hearing, from Seeing and Hearing ... to the Discovery and Revelation of Form, from Form to Song." (3)

If her mother provided her with the impetus to see and name, her father gave her a mystical sensibility derived from his Hasidic heritage. Her sense of awe and wonder had its source in his religious fervor. For her, wonder prompted a universal response, a primal speech, an "Ur-language," which showed itself in a "triumphant, / wondering, infant utterance, 'This! This!' / showing and proffering the thing, anything, the affirmation even before the naming." (4) Wonder and the ability to name things were the gifts of her parents and the grounding for her life as a poet.

Ironically, what Levertov did not inherit from her devout parents was any positive inclination toward religion. For many years she regarded Christianity as childish, boring, restrictive; in short, an embarrassment. Until very late in life she claimed she was a non-believer.

As a young adult, she led a peripatetic life. During World War II she worked in an English hospital and received nursing training. After the war she traveled to Europe, supported herself as an au pair, and met Mitch Goodman, an American GI, whom she married. Together they moved to New York City and within a year she had a child. It was 1949 and she was twenty-six, struggling with little money to care for a baby, run a household, and continue to write. During the early 1950s she became associated with the Black Mountain School of poetry, a group of new poets committed to purifying ordinary language, and with William Carlos Williams, who helped her develop colloquial language and move away from the formalism of the Romantic style that characterized her first book of poetry. She published two more books of poetry and began writing about the craft of poetry and the vocation of the poet. In this work she was influenced again by Rilke and also by Gerald Manley Hopkins, the English Jesuit. Her essay on organic form, published in the mid-1960s, is a defense of her poetics.

In confronting the reality of her world in the 1960s, she became what she called a "poet in the world." She could be no other. For her the vocation of the poet involved both seeing and making. She wrote: "I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays. But they are also makers, craftsmen: it is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees." (5) To be a poet implied a prophetic impulse to engage others in the vision encountered. The role of the poet was to "awaken sleepers" by fostering imagination, the chief human faculty that synergized intellect, emotion, and instinct. "The imagination," she wrote, "of what it is to be those other forms of life that want to live is the only way to recognition; and it is that imaginative recognition that brings compassion to birth. Man's capacity for evil, then, is less a positive capacity, for all its horrendous activity, than a failure to develop man's most human function, the imagination, to its fullness, and consequently a failure to develop compassion." (6) The roots of Levertov's prophetic response to the Vietnam War emanated from the craft of poetry itself. Once one engaged with the other, war was inconceivable. Once the sleepers were awakened, compassion inevitably followed.

Increasingly in the 1960s and early 1970s her poetry was that of political protest against the war; she published three volumes dominated by that theme: The Sorrow Dance, Relearning the Alphabet, and Staying Alive. These poems are filled with rage, despair, and grief. In "Life at War" she writes of "disasters that numb, pock the lungs, and coat the membrane of dreams, and film over the imagination with a gray filth." (7) In 1967 her husband was arrested with Dr. Benjamin Spock for protest activity. In 1970 she traveled with other artists to Moscow, and in 1972 to Hanoi to investigate the war and bring back information to persuade Congress to end it.

She participated in protest readings throughout the United States, and helped organize artists and writers against the war. Her frenetic protest activities combined with problems in her personal life put her under great strain. At this point she was a well-known poet, the author of nine books of poetry and recipient of several important poetry prizes, but her sense of joy, so prominent in her early writing, was at a low ebb. She claims metaphorically that a cataract had formed over her eye; she was no longer able to see, which was for her the primary work of the poet.

Psychologically and artistically exhausted, she nonetheless continued to teach, write, and protest. After the war ended her protest focused on opposition to nuclear power and to U.S. policy in Latin America. The late 1970s was a period of personal disorientation for her. Her marriage ended, her parents and sister died, she became estranged from her grown son, a new love relationship failed, and her inner life was depleted. If joy had been the theme of her poetry, it was now very dim. Even more urgently than earlier in her life, she sought now to reconcile the realities of joy and sorrow. She wrote
Joy
is real, torture
is real, we strain to hold
a bridge between them open,
and fail,
or all but fail. (8)


Toward the end of her life her vocation as a poet led her to what she called "an unorthodox faith." She claimed not to have undergone some sudden, dramatic conversion; rather, her coming to faith was subtle, gradually taking place by means of her poetry. Many of the poems of her last years are religious, yet her language is that of ordinary life. In these she is able to connect again with the primary speech, the Ur language, from which both poetry and prayer emanate.

Levertov's turning from agnosticism to faith can be tracked in her poetry. The beginning point is her 1979 poem, "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus." She claims she began the poem as an experiment in structure: it was to be an "agnostic mass." Yet in the process of writing over several months, she emerged in another place. The stunning language of the poem harkens back to her Hasidic heritage. The Kyrie, a cry for mercy, begins
O deep unknown, guttering candle,
beloved nugget lodged
in the obscure heart's
last recess,
have mercy upon us.


In the Benedictus she announces that the name of the spirit is written in the natural world, in "woodgrain, windripple, crystal" in dust. She blesses all of this, and in acknowledging the Word that became flesh she writes: "In the blur of flesh / we bow, baffled." The Agnus Dei, the poem's most revelatory section, expresses her new understanding. Here the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world is portrayed not as the powerful Son, but as an innocent, defenseless lamb: "Omnipotence ... reduced to a wisp of damp wool." She asks if it is we--the frightened, the bored, the raging--who must protect this weak animal, must hold "to our icy hearts / a shivering God"? The poem ends:
So be it.
Come, rag of pungent
quiverings,
dim star.
Let's try
if something human still
can shield you,
spark
of remote light. (9)


Later she wrote, "When I had arrived at the Agnus Dei, I discovered myself to be in a different relationship to the material and the liturgical form from that in which I had begun. The experience of writing the poem--the long swim through waters of unknown depth--had been also a conversion process." (10)

Levertov's awakening to a new reality is expressed in Oblique Prayers, published when she was sixty-one years old. In several of these poems she speaks of the experience of living in the mystery of God as "a place without clear outlines," of her realization that her happiness is a "provisional" yet "ineluctable" prompting of "this need to dance, / this need to kneel: / this mystery." In another poem she analogizes grace to the experience of swimmers lying face to the sky, of hawks resting on air. She writes of "freefall into Creator Spirit's deep embrace, knowing no effort earns / that all-surrounding grace." In another she wonders about
An awe so quiet
I don't know when it began.
A gratitude
had begun to sing in me. (11)


In 1984 Levertov wrote the text for an oratorio commemorating the deaths of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the American nuns in El Salvador. In her long libretto she confronts the horrors of war, torture, suffering, and pain. The format is that of chorus and narrator who chronicle the oppression of the Salvadoran people and the murders of their leaders. Romero, "prince of the church, whose riches were faith, hope, and love," offers the way to healing. In Romero's unfinished work there is joy because there is resistance to injustice. In this poem Levertov holds together suffering and joy, death and resistance, remembering the dead as sparks of God.
yet the voices that tell us
our broken bodies are not after all
worthless rubbish, but hold
sparks of the God--
these voices
begin to give us our freedom.


She closes with prayers to unite in faith and hope for the dead and for ourselves.

By the late 1980s Levertov was recognized as a major American poet. She received honorary degrees from several universities and garnered poetry prizes from the Poetry Society of America, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She was in her prime. Known first as a lyric poet, and then a poet of protest, she now admitted that much of her poetry was religious. In an interview in 1985 she revealed a sense welling within her of gratitude for life itself and for being protected and led. She acknowledged that such gratitude implied an object to whom one could be grateful. (13) Initially fearful that her new orientation might cause her to lose readers, she found it did not.

Breathing the Water contains several poems with religious themes. Of particular importance are two on the mystic Julian of Norwich. In these Levertov tackles her life-long preoccupation with the reconciliation of joy and sorrow. In a long poem on Julian's Showings, Levertov depicts Julian as having a single longing, the desire for wounds,
the desire to enact metaphor, for flesh to make known
to intellect, (as uttered song
makes known to voice,
as image to eye)
make known in bone and breath
... God's agony.


She turns to Julian, inspired by her "fierce" clinging like an acrobat to her certainty "of infinite mercy, witnessed / with your own eyes ... with inward sight / in your untrammeled spirit--knowledge we long to share: Love was his meaning." In another Julian poem, Levertov explores the agony of Jesus. Why was his suffering different from that of any other? Julian knew the difference. "The Oneing, she saw, the oneing/with the Godhead opened Him utterly/to the pain of all minds, all bodies." His agony was unique. Only he was "King of Grief." "He took to Himself / the sum total of anguish. ... every sorrow and desolation / He saw, and sorrowed in kinship." (14)

Julian, who lived in dark times and knew great evils, could still be "glad with a most high inward happiness." She knew the mercy of God revealed in the Incarnation and the desolation embraced by the "King of Grief." (15) Through Julian, Levertov experienced both the Incarnation and the Crucifixion not as doctrines requiring assent, but as expressions of God's mercy. It is this mercy that allowed her to understand joy and sorrow conjoined, of awe breaking through even in the midst of evil and grief.

Having entered into the life of Julian, Levertov began to grasp the experience of the mystic. In the poem "Contrasting Gestures," which appeared in Evening Train, she explores the distinctive transformation of the mystic and the artist, claiming that although both desire transformation, mystics want the transformation of life while artists want to be subsumed by their work. Here there is a nuanced echo of Yeats, but for Levertov mystics and artists share a desire for transformation; work or life are only the means to that end.

In an effort to find religious community and meaningful liturgy, Levertov explored a variety of Christian expressions, trooping off to Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Catholic services. Yet, it was her encounters with Christians of deep spirituality and social justice commitments that resonated with her most profoundly, those like Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Raymond Hunthausen, Thomas Gumbleton, Helder Camera, Oscar Romero--as well as Thomas Merton, Murray Bodo, and David Steindl-Rast. She became aware that "there is something else I must do."
I know a different need has begun
to cast its lines out from me into
a place unknown, I reach
for a silence almost present,
elusive among my heartbeats. (16)


She soon entered the Catholic Church, admitting all the while to a wavering faith. In "Flickering Mind" she writes, "Lord, not you, / it is I who am absent." She speaks of eluding God's presence, of her inability to hold still, of her wandering and darting away. In another poem she petitions the Spirit to waken our understanding from "the sullen immobility" in which we perish. She begs to be lifted by the rushing wind of the Spirit to
Make truth real to us,
flame on our lips.
Lift us to seize the present,
wrench it
out of its downspin. (17)


Up to this point, Levertov emphasized human freedom and volition. But increasingly she speaks of gifts given, rather than chosen or won. She returns again to Thomas Didymus and unbelief in the face of suffering, what she called the persistent question that "throbbed like a stealthy cancer." After Golgotha, Thomas cries for help in his unbelief. He needs blood and touch to teach him the truth. When his fingers entered the wound he does not feel pain or shame but light. It was as if he had come out of a dark cave. He senses that a knot was unraveling,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun. (18)


Thomas's belief comes through the material world, through touch and light. Like Thomas, Levertov's coming to God was gradual and experiential, even fragile. She writes of being suspended, of "everlasting arms" upholding her: "I claw at empty air and feel / nothing, no embrace, / I have not plummeted." (19)

In the late 1980s Levertov moved to Seattle and purchased a home in sight of Mount Rainier. Her poetry came to increasingly reflect her experience of the natural world as a witness to the presence and absence of God. She imagines God as morning mist,
in the white stillness
resting everywhere,
giving to all things
an hour of Sabbath.


In another poem she conjures her relationship to the mountain as like that with God:
Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue. (20)


Sands of the Well contains many religious poems. She writes of purgatory as a place of sifting, of "rubbing to finer substance," a time to await the common resurrection. She describes the experience of being encompassed and enveloped in God, of being held, of floating, "once you dared / to live in the mercy of God." She likens God's love to a "Vast / flood of mercy / flung on resistance." The final poem of this, her last book of poetry published during her lifetime, is one of her most compelling. Earlier she had written of primary speech, that Ur language of awe. Now she writes of primary wonder, harkening back to the Hasidic instinct now modified by the hard-won experience of sorrow. She has at this point moved beyond the reconciliation of joy and sorrow to the more primal question: Why is there anything at all? She writes of forgetting the mystery in the midst of problems and diversion:
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng's clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it. (21)


In a group of posthumously published poems collected as This Great Unknowing, Levertov returns to the silence of God that is like the ubiquitous mountain, Rainier:
The mountain's daily speech is silence.
Profound as the Great Silence
between the last Office and the first.
Uninterrupted as the silence God maintains
throughout the layered centuries.


God, like the mountain, gives "measured self-disclosure" revealing its greater height and breadth, but always maintaining its lonely grandeur. (22)

As the mountain witnesses to God's presence, so too do holy ones in whose faces and joyful actions the presence of God is revealed. In a meditation on what she calls "the source / of unconscious light in faces" she writes of half-opaque, holy faces that permit "the passage of what is luminous." And further on
I perceived that in such faces, through
the translucence we see, the light we intuit
is of the already resurrected ...
They know of themselves nothing different
from anyone else. This great unknowing
is part of their holiness. They are always trying
to share out joy as if it were cake or water,
something ordinary, not rare at all. (23)


For Denise Levertov, the work of the poet was to be not only the instrument on which the power of poetry played, but also the prophet, a bridge to the transcendent. Over time, she became the true embodiment of her given first name: Denise, in Hebrew the letter "D," Daleth, meaning an open door through which all things pass. It was this openness that was central to imagination and hence to poetry. Thirteen years before her death she wrote that to have imagination was to "live with a door of one's life open to the transcendent, the numinous." For her to be poet was to be in service to the transcendent, "a channel for something beyond my own limitations," "an open door to specifically religious experience." (24)

It is only in the intersection of the work and life of Denise Levertov, in the consideration of her as poet and as lifelong pilgrim, that the full richness of her person and the profundity of her creativity are revealed. In her life there was choice, but it was not for life over work or vice versa. Rather it was for the transformation of both, their "perfection" and completion in each other.

Notes

(1.) "Great Possessions," The Poet in the World (New York: New Directions, 1960), 97. She quotes from Rilke's Selected Letters (London: Macmillan, 1964), 324.

(2.) "First Love," in This Great Unknowing (New York: New Directions, 1999), 9.

(3.) "Origins of a Poem," in The Poet in the World, 55.

(4.) "Primal Speech," in Sands of the Well (New York: New Directions, 1994), 95.

(5.) "A Testament and a Postscript: 1959-1973," The Poet in the World, 3.

(6.) "Origins of a Poem," 53.

(7.) "Life at War," in Poems 1968-72 (New York: New Directions, 1987), 121-22.

(8.) "Modes of Being," in Poems 1972-82 (New York: New Directions, 2001), 65.

(9.) "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus," in ibid., 266-73.

(10.) "Work that Enfaiths," in New and Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1992), 250.

(11.) Oblique Prayers (New York: New Directions, 1981). Reference is made to "Oblique Prayer," "Of Being," "The Avowal," and "'... That Passeth All Understanding.'"

(12.) "El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation," in A Door in the Hive (New York: New Directions, 1989), 16-39.

(13.) Denise Levertov, "What I Believe." Written for Jan Wallace, July 1985. Privately held.

(14.) "On A Theme from Julian's Chapter XX," in Breathing the Water (New York: New Directions, 1984), 68-69.

(15.) "The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich," in Breathing the Water, 75-82.

(16.) "Intimation," in A Door in the Hive (New York: New Directions, 1984), 5.

(17.) "Flickering Mind," "Two Threnodies and a Psalm," in ibid., 64, 45-48.

(18.) "St. Thomas Didymus," in ibid., 101-3.

(19.) "Suspended," in Evening Train (New York: New Directions, 1990), 119.

(20.) "Morning Mist," "Witness," in ibid., 5, 97.

(21.) "A Heresy," "To Live in the Mercy of God," "Primary Wonder," in Sands of the Well, 121, 127-28, 129.

(22.) "The Mountain's Daily Speech is Silence," "Noblesse Oblige," in This Great Unknowing (New York: New Directions, 1999), 42, 50.

(23.) "Translucence," in ibid., 48.

(24.) "A Poet's View," in New and Selected Essays, 241-42.
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Author:Greene, Dana
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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