Essay on Poetic Theory

Some Notes on Organic Form (1965)

by Denise Levertov
A manifestation of form sense is the sense the poet’s ear has of some rhythmic norm peculiar to a particular poem, from which the individual lines depart and to which they return. I heard Henry Cowell tell that the drone in Indian music is known as the horizon note. Al Kresch, the painter, sent me a quotation from Emerson: “The health of the eye demands a horizon.” This sense of the beat or pulse underlying the whole I think of as the horizon note of the poem. It interacts with the nuances or forces of feeling which determine emphasis on one word or another, and decides to a great extent what belongs to a given line. It relates the needs of that feeling-force which dominates the cadence to the needs of the surrounding parts and so to the whole.

Duncan also pointed to what is perhaps a variety of organic poetry: the poetry of linguistic impulse. It seems to me that the absorption in language itself, the awareness of the world of multiple meaning revealed in sound, word, syntax, and the entering into this world in the poem, is as much an experience or constellation of perceptions as the instress of nonverbal sen­suous and psychic events. What might make the poet of lin­guistic impetus appear to be on another tack entirely is that the demands of his realization may seem in opposition to truth as we think of it; that is, in terms of sensual logic. But the appar­ent distortion of experience in such a poem for the sake of verbal effects is actually a precise adherence to truth, since the experience itself was a verbal one.

Form is never more than a revelation of content.

“The law—one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception” (Edward Dahlberg, as quoted by Charles Olson in “Projective Verse,” Selected Writings). I’ve always taken this to mean, “no loading of the rifts with ore,” because there are to be no rifts. Yet alongside this truth is another truth (that I’ve learned from Duncan more than from anyone else)—that there must be a place in the poem for rifts too—(never to be stuffed with imported ore). Great gaps be­tween perception and perception which must be leapt across if they are to be crossed at all.

The X-factor, the magic, is when we come to those rifts and make those leaps. A religious devotion to the truth, to the splendor of the authentic, involves the writer in a process re­warding in itself; but when that devotion brings us to un­dreamed abysses and we find ourselves sailing slowly over them and landing on the other side—that’s ecstasy.



(1) See, for instance, some of the forgotten poets of the early 20s—also, some of Amy Lowell—Sandburg—John Gould Fletcher. Some Imagist poems were written in “free verse” in this sense, but by no means all.

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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Audio Article
 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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