Essay on Poetic Theory

Some Notes on Organic Form (1965)

by Denise Levertov
When my son was eight or nine I watched him make a crayon drawing of a tournament. He was not interested in the forms as such, but was grappling with the need to speak in graphic terms, to say, “And a great crowd of people were watching the jousting knights.” There was a need to show the tiers of seats, all those people sitting in them. And out of the need arose a formal design that was beautiful—composed of the rows of shoulders and heads. It is in very much the same way that there can arise, out of fidelity to instress, a design that is the form of the poem—both its total form, its length and pace and tone, and the form of its parts (e.g., the rhythmic relation­ships of syllables within the line, and of line to line; the sonic relationships of vowels and consonants; the recurrence of im­ages, the play of associations, etc.). “Form follows function” (Louis Sullivan).

Frank Lloyd Wright in his autobiography wrote that the idea of organic architecture is that “the reality of the building lies in the space within it, to be lived in.” And he quotes Coleridge: “Such as the life is, such is the form.” (Emerson says in his essay “Poetry and Imagination,” “Ask the fact for the form.”) The Oxford English Dictionary quotes Huxley (Thomas, pre­sumably) as stating that he used the word organic “almost as an equivalent for the word ‘living.’”

In organic poetry the metric movement, the measure, is the direct expression of the movement of perception. And the sounds, acting together with the measure, are a kind of extended onomatopoeia—i.e., they imitate not the sounds of an experience (which may well be soundless, or to which sounds contribute only incidentally), but the feeling of an experience, its emotional tone, its texture. The varying speed and gait of different strands of perception within an experience (I think of strands of seaweed moving within a wave) result in counter­pointed measures.

Thinking about how organic poetry differs from free verse, I wrote that “most free verse is failed organic poetry, that is, organic poetry from which the attention of the writer had been switched off too soon, before the intrinsic form of the experi­ence had been revealed.” But Robert Duncan pointed out to me that there is a “free verse” of which this is not true, because it is written not with any desire to seek a form, indeed perhaps with the longing to avoid form (if that were possible) and to express inchoate emotion as purely as possible.(1) There is a contradic­tion here, however, because if, as I suppose, there is an inscape of emotion, of feeling, it is impossible to avoid presenting something of it if the rhythm or tone of the feeling is given voice in the poem. But perhaps the difference is this: that free verse isolates the “rightness” of each line or cadence—if it seems expressive, then never mind the relation of it to the next; while in organic poetry the peculiar rhythms of the parts are in some degree modified, if necessary, in order to discover the rhythm of the whole.

But doesn’t the character of the whole depend on, arise out of, the character of the parts? It does; but it is like painting from nature: suppose you absolutely imitate, on the palette, the separate colors of the various objects you are going to paint; yet when they are closely juxtaposed in the actual painting, you may have to lighten, darken, cloud, or sharpen each color in order to produce an effect equivalent to what you see in nature. Air, light, dust, shadow, and distance have to be taken into account.

Or one could put it this way: in organic poetry the form sense or “traffic sense,” as Stefan Wolpe speaks of it, is ever present along with (yes, paradoxically) fidelity to the rev­elations of meditation. The form sense is a sort of Stanislav­sky of the imagination: putting a chair two feet downstage there, thickening a knot of bystanders upstage left, getting this actor to raise his voice a little and that actress to en­ter more slowly; all in the interest of a total form he intuits. Or it is a sort of helicopter scout flying over the field of the poem, taking aerial photos and reporting on the state of the forest and its creatures—or over the sea to watch for the schools of herring and direct the fishing fleet toward them.

Denise Levertov, “Some Notes on Organic Form” from New & Selected Essays, copyright © 1973 by Denise Levertov.  Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. First published in Poetry, Vol. 106, No.6, September 1965; reprinted in New Directions in Prose and Poetry 20, 1968.
Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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 Denise  Levertov


During the course of a prolific career, Denise Levertov created a highly regarded body of poetry that reflects her beliefs as an artist and a humanist. Her work embraces a wide variety of genres and themes, including nature lyrics, love poems, protest poetry, and poetry inspired by her faith in God. "Dignity, reverence, and strength are words that come to mind as one gropes to characterize . . . one of America's most respected . . .

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