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Interview with Denise Levertov.

The following interview took place at the Astor Hotel, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Monday, October 4, 1996, after her visit to a class and prior to Denise Levertov's reading at Marquette University. Dr. Ed Block, Professor of English at Marquette, as well as editor of Renascence, conducted the interview.

Q: You see poetry as a calling. How would you distinguish your sense of calling from that of some of the poets you admire? And how does that sense of calling relate to your apprehension of transcendence, your commitment to a spiritual vision?

A: I've always, since I was a young girl, felt some kind of affinity for Keats' feeling that he wanted to be great, he wanted to be numbered among the English poets. He was not ambitious in the here and now. He wasn't a careerist. He really wanted to be a poet; not to "have a career." And of course he was hurt when he got those horrible reviews; he was sensitive, and they were so nasty, referring to the Cockney accent and things like that. But it wasn't immediate recognition but posthumous fame that he really sought.

So, my concept of fame: I didn't want to be mediocre. I wanted to try to be, I hoped I could be, first rate. But I never have been a careerist, and I've been a very fortunate person in being sort of discovered by various people, especially when I was so young, and I have hid a very lucky publishing career and a lot of success and positive feedback. But I truly have not sought it. I have never gone after a job and never made a move that's supposed to be to my own advantage. These sort of dropped out of a tree into my own hand.

Q: So I take it that you didn't seek a career in teaching?

A: I sort of happened into teaching. I found I was quite good at that. Not first rate, but good. So I can't really 'Picture myself being anything else than a poet. I did want to be a painter, but I didn't have the drive to go on with that. You have to want to Paint more than anything. I didn't have that much talent anyway--only a little bit. My mother had a definite talent for art, and my son is a painter. So it's somewhere in the family. But I didn't feel the inner need to pursue it.

I used to draw from time to time, and then when my son went to art school, I stopped entirely, because he also wrote, and I thought it was probably really hard for him to have two parents who were writers. I thought that I didn't want him to feel he was in competition with me in the visual arts; so I stopped and didn't even miss doing it. I wasn't drawing or trying to paint that regularly anyway. But I can't stop writing poetry. I don't write every day, but it's something that my inner being needs to go on doing, and if I haven't written any poems for months, which sometimes happens, I don't feel right. I feel uncomfortable in my skin somehow.

To go back to the other part of your initial question: I'm not sure what an "apprehension of transcendence" means, to tell you the truth. I would say that I do believe that anybody who has any kind of gift, and has been given that gift, has an obligation to use it. And it's really hard to have a gift. When I stopped being an agnostic I perceived it [the calling] as a gift from God. What I thought it was in the interim I don't know. I thought it was a gift anyway, a gift from something somewhere.

Q: I guess by "apprehension of transcendence," I meant that your poetry--even some of the earliest--has a spiritual dimension, a sense of reality, something beyond our own capabilities.

A: Of course, although I was agnostic for years, I did grow up in a quite definitely religious atmosphere. And so that concept, certainly, was imparted to me in my earliest years, and I've always believed in other orders of being. When I was a child, I saw a little man, you know, one of the little people, and the dog saw it too. I was with my sister--I can't remember if she saw it too. Actually, I think she did, she must have. I was sitting on a bench in this old park--I mean "park" in the English sense, not the American sense--in the woods, and there was a bench, and a flat, wide walk, which had an edging to mark where the path was and where the woods were; which was like a wire strung between low uprights. And a little dinky person, less than two feet high, dressed in a one-piece garment and a little peaked cap came out of the woods. He was so small that to get over that wire he had to climb over it. He crossed the path without a glance at us, and clambered over the wire on the other side and into the woods.

Well, I've always believed that this was something that I actually saw. I'm sure that there are other orders of being. I went on believing that even in my agnostic days. How that relates to my calling, presently, I'm not sure.

Q: What poets have influenced you to write from a faith context?

A: I've always loved George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Some of George Herbert I've known from childhood, like

I got me flowers to strew Thy way,

I got me boughs off many a tree;

But Thou wast up by break of day,

And brought'st Thy sweets along with Thee.

I was responding to the language, not the meaning. Hopkins I came to a little later.

Q: What about your sense of calling relative to someone like R. M. Rilke?

A: Well, what could Rilke have been but a poet?

Q: Do you see a religious or spiritual dimension in Rilke? Do you have some sense of his apprehension of different orders of being?

A: Well, I'm not sure. The strongest influence for me of Rilke really came from his letters; not so much the Letters to a Young Poet, but the later collections of letters. Rilke cannot be co-opted as a Christian poet. I mean, you can, but it's too forced. He had assimilated Christian cultural influence, and he wrote some marvelous poems on Christian subjects; but he didn't consider himself a Christian.

Q: It sounds like what you were saying in class about the poet's work having to sustain the meaning. You can try to find things in what he said, but . . .

A: It's putting an agenda on him which I don't think he held himself.

Q: I know some would interpret him in a Christian fashion. But that's the kind of distinction I like to hear you make. And Hopkins. I've read some of your essays where you talk about inscape and the importance the concept had for you. Your praise of Herbert, on the other hand, is interesting. But I take it that that's not something you'd say informs your writing now?

A: I've always loved his work, and of course I like some of the poets of that period, like Traherne; but also The Centuries of Meditation. Have you read them? They're a kind of prose. They're highly charged prose. You could almost call them prose poems except no one can really define what that term means. But they are so wonderful in language and imagery.

Q: That sounds like a reason you'd like Julian of Norwich A: Yes, it's her images that drew me to her.

Q: Are there any other Christian writers who provide inspiration?

A: Another poet is Henry Vaughan. Also I like Cowley and Crashaw; all those Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century do appeal to me, and yet the extreme baroque style--it's almost what in Spanish literature is called Gongorism--it's fascinating, but it's not my main cup of tea. Vaughan and Traherne are my favorites; their poems are much less dependent on conceits; their images more concrete.

There's a wonderful image in Vaughan. It's in his poem "Night," and he speaks of "God's silent searching flight." That image absolutely had to have come from observing owls. Talk about Incarnation! That's such a wonderful image if you've ever watched an owl--I mean, a big white owl, a barn owl: "God's silent, searching flight," and a few lines later, "his still, soft call." They fly so searchingly, and also so silently. It's an amazing thing to see these big birds in flight in the moonlight. I know they're predators, but so is every creature, humans included. I'm sure he [Vaughan] wasn't that conscious of that aspect in writing this image. He might have thought it was sort of blasphemous if he had. But I am sure that the image came to him through his direct observation of owls, of which there must have been many more in England in his day.

Q: Did your close acquaintance with owls begin at Stanford, or since you've gotten to Seattle?

A: I became reacquainted with them at Stanford.

Q: Where was the first?

A: Oh, in England.

Q: Were your first twenty or so years in England formative, then?

A: Oh, absolutely. Although culturally I am a mish-mash, and always was, since my father came from Russia and my mother came from Wales; two religious backgrounds, although, as I said, I didn't have a lot of Jewish input, but I had some, because it was part of my father's earliest scholarship and of his work as an Anglican priest who tried to educate people about the Jewish roots of Christianity. Although I was not "English English," the English countryside was absolutely formative for me, and I miss it to this day. I mean, I will watch reruns of All Creatures Great and Small on TV just to see all the English details.

Q: Do you trace your emphasis on attentiveness back to the early years as well?

A: Yes, and especially to the influence of my mother. I have a poem in Life in the Forest about how in springtime my mother would go down the garden pathway and say, "Oh, look, the snowdrop has come up" and "Look, there's a crocus!" And I remember recognizing how she had done that the year before and I was bored, because I was too young to pay attention, and now I am a child, not a baby, and I can see what she was talking about.

She was a pointer-outer. She pointed out clouds, and she pointed out flowers. She started one off looking at things. When she was living in Mexico in her last eighteen years or so, the child of the family in which she was a sort of paying guest and an unofficial adopted grandmother, that one child in that family who had spent a lot of time with her in her first years, was the only one who would run in and say, "Oh, you must come and look; there is a beautiful sunset," because my mother had made her look at things.

Q: Would your mother also name things? A: Yes, she'd name them too.

Q: Some would say that pointing and naming are the poet's primal tasks.

A: Yes. Very few people really see things unless they've had someone in early life who made them look at things. And name them too. But the looking is primary, the focus. I saw the difference in that child. She wasn't more intelligent than the other children in the family. She wasn't personally particularly sensitive. But she had had that experience of my mother's pointing. And there's a curious sort of obliviousness to things that I have noted with students, quite intellectual students. I first noticed it when I was teaching at Vassar, which has a very pretty campus. That was back in 1966. I don't know what it's like now, but it was not yet coed. Students came from good high schools, and so they were rather well prepared. They were much less ignorant than the typical student, even in a supposedly good school, is today.

The Vassar campus has a lake, a pretty little lake, and I discovered that quite a few of these students (a lot of them were senior English majors) had never walked around the lake. They were too book-oriented. I have always been book-oriented too, but they were study- and analytically-oriented. So I made them walk around the lake. A couple of times when it was warm enough, toward the end of the school-year, we had class and a picnic there. I've experienced, dozens of time in my life, walking with someone across some campus or park, or just a city street, and interrupting myself in mid-sentence to say, "Oh, look, isn't that gorgeous . . ." And they've kind of blinked and said, "Oh, yes! I pass here every day, and I've never noticed that before." So I think that people need a pointer-outer, and the earlier the better. And my mother gave me that.

Q: You spoke in class about Pound. I do see in your early poetry the emphasis on images and on clear and sharp and accurate imagery. Do you feel compelled to "make it new," or to see it in unusual ways, in order to say, "look, look; see it in a new way"?

A: No, I don't feel compelled to see it in unusual ways, but I think anything that one really sees is new and fresh. I mean, when one really gives one's attention to something, you probably see something in it that you didn't see before. But the Pound book that was most influential for me was not the Cantos, nor the early Imagist poetry. Of course I read them and no doubt learned something from them. But it was The ABC of Reading. I don't use it to teach so much anymore, but I used to make all of my students read it. Pound failed to see many things; he never dealt with his own unconscious, for instance, and he never really acknowledged it in others; but what he had to say about precision, accuracy, and integrity in craft is very valuable.

Q: Do you know the work of Donald Davie, who wrote a book on Pound?

A: I think I skimmed through that book, but I wouldn't say I knew it. He did do a book about Milosz that is very interesting.

Q: What do you think of Davie as a poet?

A: The first book of poems of his I read was when he was being published by Wesleyan University Press, and I was on their board for a couple of years. There was some question of whether they should do another book of his, but I defended him. I liked that particular book a lot, but then I read a more recent book of his poems that came out a few years before he died, that I thought I was going to love, because it was about English counties, but I didn't like it at all.

Q: It's Pound's craftsmanship, then, that attracted you.

A: Well, I mean there are marvelous passages in the Cantos, passages of amazing poetry. But, when he's talking about other writers . . . there's a whole slew of other great writers whom he either never read or simply dismissed. He was very narrow-minded in some respects; or rather, highly idiosyncratic in his "pros" and "cons". His canon was idiosyncratic. I always tell students that these lists of what you have to have read, that he gives you in The ABC of Reading, you have to take with a pinch of salt. What it really implies is that everyone has to make their own canon. You don't have to accept his wholesale.

An example is Golding's Ovid. Golding was an Elizabethan poet, whose translation of Ovid Pound thought was great. He says it in more than one place: one of the greatest poets in the English language. So when I had the opportunity, because I was working as an adviser for W. W. Norton for a short while, I had the ear of their senior editor, and I said, "You ought to do Golding's Ovid." And they did do it; they did a nasty little edition, though, in very small print. Afterwards some other publisher brought out a better-looking edition. But I did pay that much homage to Pound's "canon," although I never got through Golding's Ovid myself. I mean, I found it pretty tedious, to tell you the truth.

Q: You said that you found most literary criticism uninteresting, except for a few people like George Steiner and Simon Schama. What is it about Steiner that you find interesting?

A: His book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was probably the first thing of his I ever read. And then I read Real Presences, which is a wonderful book. I read him in The New Yorker, or anywhere else I can find something by him.

Simon Schama; I read that book of his on landscape and history, a very fascinating book. Some environmentalists had certain objections to it. I think they misunderstood it. It's a most stimulating book. I also read his The Embarrassment of Riches, which is about seventeenth-century Dutch painting and the culture of Holland at that period, out of which the painting comes. Schama's quite an amazing man. You can't define him; he is professionally an art historian; he only writes about literature incidentally. The history of ideas and culture is what he deals With, I think the same is true of Steiner. Although he does write about literature, he's essentially a philosopher of some kind, isn't he?

The kind of literary criticism that bores me is purely analytical and always seems to read as if it had been developed from a thesis. It's very academic in the negative sense of the term. I don't find it illuminating. I like Walter Jackson Bate on Keats. See, I like critics who really love the work and plunge into it for their own pleasure, and they bring to it thoughts about life in general. They're not narrow and they're not trying to bring their own agendas to it. They open doors for the reader.

Q: What you say about doing it for pleasure sounds like what Steiner says about readers having to be "amateurs" in the original sense.

A: Yes, exactly. Those are the kind of critics that I enjoy reading.

Q: Who would be the best critic of your work?

A: I don't think that a writer ought to even try to answer that question. The people who have written about me that I have felt most pleased by have been Edward Zlotkowski and Paul Lacey. Both of them I know well, but I know them well largely because they came to my work first and then we became friends.

Q: How do you imagine the ideal audience? W. H. Auden speaks of all those passionate readers of his work who don't know each other. What kind of person do you see being a reader of your work?

A: When someone recounts to me their reading of one of my poems and seems to have understood everything, really "gotten it," then, of course, I say to myself, "Oh, wow!" and feel I have met an ideal reader. But I can't describe "the kind of person." I suppose the ideal reader is one with a kind of receptive affinity to the work of the writer. Robert Duncan pictured the ideal reader as an old lady in a bonnet, sitting in a garden, with her back to him.

Q: This suggests that either the best reader or the best critic is the one who gives him or herself to the poem in the same way that you gave yourself to the experience or the inspiration?

A: I suppose so; something like that. Yes, yes.

Q: Earlier you spoke about "giving your attention"; "if you really give your attention to something . . ." It sounded almost like a kind of "offering"; that there's a gesture on the individual's part; I can only put it in philosophical terms; that somehow the subject-object separation breaks down.

A: Yes, I think that's probably true.

Q: I loved the way you stated in class, "content finds form," and "inspiration and craft have to work together," because I think that is part of what I'm talking about now. Would you elaborate a little on that?

A: I think what I was trying to say to the students was that, when a person is just beginning to write, they may have the inspiration, but they don't yet have the craft; so they have to go in stages. First they have to get out the first draft that notates the inspiration before it fades or is forgotten, then look at it critically, and then go back and revise; look at it critically again; revise again: an alternation. But as you go on, you internalize your craft so much more that you have both things working from the start. Maybe the inspiration always has to be a step ahead of the craft, but once they've both gotten going they do work in tandem. I think young writers have to understand that that is something that will happen later, because if they think it will occur at once, but they just haven't got the craft, it's discouraging. It's unrealistic. Only the exceptionally gifted can do without that more laborious process.

Q: That prompts a question. In one of your early essays about William Carlos Williams you talk about "following through the metaphoric stages of experience with a persistence that is open to whatever may befall." Could you comment on that passage in light of what you just said about inspiration and craft?

A: Well, of course, I was talking about a mature artist there. I think that to take that journey there'd have to be some maturity of craft as well as ability and inspiration. Such maturity is not necessarily a matter of age: there is the occasional Rimbaud, let's say; he was so young, and he only wrote for a few years; so he hadn't acquired the mastery of craft by laborious stages. But such precocious genius is rare. I think the quote describes what happens to any artist in any medium when they're doing their art, and how craft plays into that in any individual instance.

Q: I guess I was trying to highlight the sense that you have to give yourself to that experience. I see in many of your poems a central metaphor, to which you give your attention, or which Steiner might say "arrests" you, and you do follow it in a way that reveals new things to the reader and, I assume, to you too.

A: Yes. You know there's that passage in the introduction to Robert Frost's Collected Poems: he says, "no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader; no this for the writer, no that for the reader." You can't expect the reader to enter into an experience if that experience wasn't authentic for the writer in the first place.

Q: Could you tell me what kind of experience you are seeking in such poetic efforts as "Contraband" and "Ascension"?

A: I see these as two very different kinds of poems because "Contraband" is a little more playful. It does imagine, it's not merely fanciful, but it's a different enterprise, I think. Whereas "Ascension" is a more "Ignatian" effort. In that kind of poem I try to imagine what such and such an experience was to that person I'm writing about: it's a matter of getting inside the person and the experience. But in "Ascension" it's not about any ordinary historical figure and so it is more of a religious exercise, to try to make clear to oneself what might have been going on inside Jesus Christ the individual.

Q: I smiled when you said "Ascencion" was a more "Ignatian" effort. Some Renascence readers may not be clear on the exact reference. How do you mean that?

A: Well, I wrote the poem before I had actually done the Ignatian Exercises. But when I did do them, what really struck me was how much of what St. Ignatius recommended resembles what a poet does anyway. As a religious exercise, he recommends imagining oneself a witness of Gospel events and noting every physical detail that one can conceive. And in writing poetry one must do the same thing--one must observe (or re-observe, re-collect)--every concrete detail of your subject, whether or not you ultimately include all of them in the poem.

Q: A final question. Six years after the essay "Work that Enfaiths," you've moved to Seattle. You are now a Catholic. You've done the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. What might you be able to say about the attraction religious subjects will continue to have for you? Perhaps we could relate this question to a comment Paul Lacey has made about the importance of a line in your poem, "The Showings of Julian of Norwich." Lacey stresses the importance that "enacting metaphor" carries for you. The line in "The Showings" reads: "it's the desire to enact metaphor, for flesh to make known to intellect. . ."

A: Well, I am sure "religious subjects" will continue to have an attraction. But going to the question about "enacting metaphor": I also think that when Julian wanted to experience these wounds, and so forth, that's why I say, she wasn't just a fourteenth-century neurotic. She wanted to experience concretely, whether literally or only by imagination's power, the reality of Christ's passion. She wanted to know not only in her head but with her whole being, and thus in her body, in her senses. It's an impulse close to St. James' emphasizing works as well as faith. "There's no faith without works." It's obviously not identical, and she wasn't talking about works, though no doubt as an anchorite, she gave advice and maybe arranged that the hungry should be given soup. Dorothy Day, in the Catholic Worker movement wanted not to feel bountiful, but to share the life of the poor. I have to say I do not have that impulse, but I admire it where it occurs. So I think Julian of Norwich had a similar impulse. She wanted to share the life of Jesus, by suffering. She wanted actually to experience that physically. So it wasn't neurotic; you could almost say it was ideological.

Q: Or to make it real for her? A: Making it real; yes.

Q: That seems somewhat contradictory, in that the poet is creating things on paper; words that evoke images and so forth. In what sense do you think that poetry makes things real?

A: Well, I think poetry is another way of making things real. I mean, Julian had to experience these mystic wounds, and St. Francis had to receive the stigmata (though he was a poet), and Dorothy Day had to go and live on the lower East Side and share a room with bag ladies. But poetry is another way. It's not as virtuous a way, but it certainly is another way to make things real. There's a tree in the ground and a tree in the poem, and if the poem is a really good poem, the tree in the poem, while it can't claim equality of reality with the tree in the ground-that would be too presumptuous-does awaken the reader to a new relationship with the physical tree and also takes a place in the reader's memory and sensibility. Great literature and great painting have their own independent reality as intensely as the tree. They are not merely reflections, descriptions, or depictions, whether of things or of states of emotion or whatever, but autonomous entities in the world as much as the tree is.
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Title Annotation:Spirit in the Poetry of Denise Levertov
Author:Block, Ed, Jr.
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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