Poetry News

"I'll Move Like Cautious Sunlight": Emily Warn on Denise Levertov

By Harriet Staff

Emily Warn, a poet and former editor of poetryfoundation.org, remembers Denise Levertov in a long essay for Poetry Northwest, a little over 14 years after Levertov's death.

The piece is part personal reminiscence about their friendship— making tea together, talking about poetry, driving through Seattle— and part analysis of Levertov's work and her relationship to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. Warn writes:

Her poems' subject matter and aesthetic closely resembles nineteenth century Romanticism in its resolute striving to discover a universal truth, or at least a cultural one, in her subjective experience of "Nature." Adopting this stance in the twentieth century was tricky at best given the predominant view among poets and theorists that universality and a true, unique self are socially constructed, and therefore false. Yet in many of her poems about the natural world it seems as if she could not help but be transported to that earlier time, and finds there, not fixed truths, but the materials for mythmaking.

Warn then examines Levertov's interest in pilgrimage (which she defined as a journey that "leads from one state of being to another"), childhood, and the sacred, before concluding with these thoughts:

Denise didn't doggedly pursue poetry projects. She didn't force herself to write when she had nothing to say. Her poems arrived out of an intensity and delight in watching for the extraordinary in daily life. They were "always to trying / to share out joy as if it were cake or water, / something ordinary, not rare at all." ("Translucence")

Six weeks later Denise passed away. Her absence has become a presence for me. I see St. Simon in every heron on Lake Washington. When I drive around a bend and suddenly see snow-covered rocky clefts in the clouds, it's her mountain and not Mt. Rainier. I feel as if I've also glimpsed her, my sightings unpredictable and ephemeral, conspiratorial and companionable as our friendship: " ... next time," she writes in the last line of her last poem, "I'll move like cautious sunlight, open / the door by fractions, eavesdrop / peacefully."

Read the whole piece here.

Originally Published: January 4th, 2012