Walking on Knives
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, ed. by Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey. New Directions. $49.95.
How many poets have written poems punning on feet? How many have done so while their days were numbered? I’m thinking of Denise Levertov’s “Feet,” collected posthumously. Is this an ars poetica, like Yeats’s final sonnet (“Malachi Stilt-Jack am I ... ”) also written by the poet on his — forgive me — last legs? If so, Levertov takes the via negativa: her poem makes no use of metrical feet, much less the Yeatsian “stilts” of elevated language. Nor does “Feet” praise vigor and pomp; it grieves for the trudgers of the world, seared with trade and smeared with toil. There are no shapely sonnets here; the poem, in six loosely associated sections, is as baggy as the plastic sacks she sees tied around a homeless veteran’s ankles. You can assess every one of Levertov’s refusals against Yeats’s affirmations, and tally it up to a grand rejection of mastery. Art and poetry exist to point toward something more profound: human suffering. A Neruda poem reminds her of a peasant carrying celery to market “trudging / stony Andean ridges.” Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid gets her wish — human feet — but every step “will bring her the pain of walking on knives.” A diabetic, elderly poet (Muriel Rukeyser) is brought to such a pass that her Vietnamese nurse must cut her toenails. The resplendent Catholic ritual of foot washing on Maundy Thursday evokes a vision of the shape the disciples’ feet must have been in, which would not differ much from the homeless vagrant’s or — to come full circle — the celery-carrying peasant’s.
“Feet” is an artistic summation by a poet of faith at the end of her life. Denise Levertov was one of the spiritual aristocrats. From the account given by her new biography (A Poet’s Revolution by former student Donna Hollenberg), she could be as critical, high-handed, and imperious as she was passionate and searching. Born in England in 1923, she had Christian mystics on her Welsh mother’s side and rabbis on her Russian father’s; she was schooled at home and later by various teachers in art and ballet (feet in pain!). She was pulled away from dance by her sense of humanitarian mission: when Germany began bombing England she became a civilian nurse. She has a fascinating poem about that experience, “The Malice of Innocence,” from her collection Footprints (1972). Her point of departure is a movie she is watching, a shot of a hospital ward at night, which triggers a memory:
when all the evening chores had been doneand a multiple restless quiet listenedto the wall-clock’s pulse, and turn by turnthe two of us made our roundson tiptoe, bed to bed,counting by flashlight how many pairsof open eyes were turned to us,noting all we were trained to note,we were gravely dancing — starchedin our caps, our trained replies,our whispering aprons — the well-rehearsedpavanne of power. Yes, wasn’t it power,and not compassion,gave our young heartstheir hard fervor?
I love all those subordinate clauses mustered to delay the central predicate, “we were gravely dancing,” eleven lines into the sentence! This passage by itself is a master class in Pound’s tongue-in-cheek edict, “Poetry must be as well written as prose.” And yet of course it has virtues of poetry too — mostly strong four-beat lines, subtle enjambments, a push-pull of iambs and trochees. And best of all, her landing on the figure of the “pavanne of power” (“well-rehearsed,” mind you). The pacing here dances en pointe — to a stabbing insight.
She loved that job, she remembers. But what was it she loved? She tells us:
remembering being (crudely, cruelly,just as a soldier or one of the guardsfrom Dachau might be) in love with order,an angel like the chercheuses de poux, floatingnoiseless from bed to bed,smoothing pillows, tippingwater to parched lips, writingdetails of agony carefully into the Night Report.
This reminds me of another WWII poem about lack of empathy: Roy Fisher’s “The Entertainment of War,” about a ten-year-old boy’s incongruent reaction to a bombing that obliterates his cousins. One small difference strikes me: Fisher’s poem doesn’t pose questions. Levertov’s “Yes, wasn’t it power, / and not compassion, / gave our young hearts / their hard fervor?” brings an element of rhetorical self-consciousness into the poem that momentarily breaks the spell.
This small detail is symptomatic of larger issues that divide readers into those that love Levertov’s poetry and those that don’t. There is, for instance, the sense that she is thinking out loud before an audience, signaling an oral rather than writerly poet, like Charles Olson with his mythos of “muthos” or Ginsberg with his penchant for chant. Her “organic verse” was one of the “process” poetries, like Jack Spicer’s serial book poems or Robert Duncan’s “passages,” that claimed to eschew the poem as artifact, and instead defined the poem as a record of thinking in time. She called her process “organic form,” as Duncan called his “composition by field” or Olson called his “projective verse.” What these process poetics had in common was their insistence that it is not the poet’s job to conclude, but to “keep our exposure to what we do not know.” The open-endedness of the poem was a hallmark of the form.
Historicizing can quickly become a stimulus to entrenched attitudes — about “the sixties” and the groundbreaking “New American Poetry”; about the controversial Olson coterie, with whom Levertov was grouped in the anthology; about such poets’ pacifist activism during Vietnam, and the political poems that disappointed Levertov’s early supporters while winning her many readers in the general public. Levertov is bigger than any one affiliation — she had early correspondences with T.S. Eliot, Herbert Read, William Carlos Williams, and Kenneth Rexroth; she remade herself as an American poet after her emigration to the States in 1948; she became a famous activist married to a journalist, holding many visiting professorships and lecturer positions; she was a poetry editor for The Nation and a poetry series at Norton; late in her career she returned to the Christian fold and became a poet of faith before dying of lymphoma in 1997. Publishing with New Directions her whole career, Levertov has stayed in print with dozens of collections of poetry and prose. Her “Some Notes on Organic Form” (1965) is widely anthologized in books on poetic craft. In short, Levertov was no coterie poet; she was a force in the world and had a wide readership.
“Some Notes on Organic Form” is a good place to turn if you want to get a sense of Levertov’s method, and what she values in technique. The impetus for it can be found in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s theory of inscape: all beings are expressions of their own singular, intrinsic form; likewise the poem, representing being, must find its own singular, intrinsic form. Organic poetry is
a method of apperception, i.e., of recognizing what we perceive, and is based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories. Such poetry is exploratory.
This Platonic idealism expands into Romantic idealism, and utopian idealism. Pilgrim, poet, and activist meld seamlessly into the bardic archetype, or, as her editors put it in an afterword, “the poetics of presence and orality.”
Of the avalanche of poetics manifestos, theories, and apologias that have buried us in prose since the abolition of “poetry” as metrical language, Levertov’s contribution is mercifully short, if also (at times) vague. Her poems are not vague. Her life was full and varied, and intricately documented: too much so, I often thought while reading the thousand-page Collected Poems. Take “At the ‘Mass Ave Poetry Hawkers’ Reading in the Red Book Cellar,” a groaner about an open-mic reading:
And songs from thesebeloved strangers, these close friends,moved in my blind illumined head,songs of terror, of hopes unknown to me,terror, dread: songs of knowledge, songsof their lives wanderingout into oceans.
The charge of sentimentality followed Levertov as it does all humanists. But this isn’t just sentimentality, it’s pure afflatus. En face, “Small Satori” is not as badly written, but is inconsequential — more a poet’s note to herself about two acquaintances that she hasn’t bothered to properly introduce to the reader. These two poems are sequenced, incidentally, right after “The Malice of Innocence.” The wonder is not that Levertov could write two bad poems for every amazing one; the wonder is that we have to pretend there’s no better or worse at all, just the honest goodness of the organic. Over a lifetime of writing, one may write many, many diaristic poems, fragments, records of the weather, like “The Absentee”:
Uninterpreted, the daysare falling.The spring windis shaking and shaking the trees.A nest of eggs,a nest of deaths.Fallingabandoned.The palms rattle, the eucalyptusshed bark and blossom. Uninterpreted.
There’s nothing terribly bad (or good) about this poem in isolation; in bulk, it becomes deadening. Process poetries, almost by definition, require faith in the intrinsic interestingness of the poet’s thought. Combined with a vatic tendency in which the poet’s authority is quasi-divine — as in Ginsberg, Olson, or Duncan — a poet might begin to think that editing is tantamount to cheating.
True, insofar as Levertov’s process was to chart her thinking, she was attentive to design and motif. As her editors note, she “‘composed’ her books from The Sorrow Dance on, carefully ordering poems so that both individual works and groups of poems could throw light on one another and themes and counterthemes could weave larger patterns.” Even in her Vietnam poems, absorbed as they are in retelling atrocities, one can track her use of the word “sequins” to stand for the glitter of America and the glitter of napalm bombs. It’s when too many seemingly throwaway poems marking the quotidian are preserved because they may liminally bulk up “themes and counterthemes” that one may find oneself longing for more — more virtuosity, more variety, more evidence that the poet is actively challenging herself rather than reacting to events and feelings.
Underbaked process poems, though, aren’t the only pitfall of the Collected. The tenor of complaint is loud, as it must be in political poetry. “If affluent Whites took it into their heads to wrap their feet in plastic, a new fashion, how long would the ‘eateries’ exclude them?” That’s a disingenuous question, and it mars “Feet,” for instance. It’s her honest feeling, one might argue, and if she puts her self- righteousness on display she also puts her vanity on display (as in a poem congratulating herself for overtipping a cabbie) and her morbidity on display (“She is weeping for her lost right arm. / She cannot write the alphabet any more / on the kindergarten blackboard”). Honest feeling and truth-telling are thought by some to be unequivocal virtues. But I think Robert Duncan was right when he wrote her, cruelly,
I am not talking about prisoners, blacks, children, and angry women in revolt — I am talking about those with work to do deserting their work. And our work is surely to get the words right.... Does “suffering” guarantee the image?
He was objecting to her banal and accusatory imagery (“her face / painted, clownishly, whorishly. Suffering”). Indeed one might ask of any number of poets even to this day: Does suffering guarantee the poem?
Levertov had worked painstakingly “to get the words right”; the evidence is there especially in the early work, modeled after William Carlos Williams, her mentor in the American idiom. Everyone knows, or should know, the oft-anthologized “The Ache of Marriage”: “two by two in the ark of / the ache of it.” She could do wondrous vowel music, showcased in natural observation:
In the autumn brilliancefeathers tingle at fingertips.This tingling brillianceburns under cover of gray air andbrown lazilyunfalling leaves,it eats into stillness zestfullywith sound of plucked strings,steel and brass strings of the zither,copper and silver wireplayed with a gold ring,a plucking.— From Air of November
Levertov has many poems about wonder and beauty. But there’s no arguing with the fact that she saw the poem as a means, not an end. She refused mastery, and thought it was incompatible with care, as she implied in “The Malice of Innocence.” I’m not convinced that the role of poets is to point, perpetually, at injustice. I’m reminded of a scene in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, where the eponymous protagonist, a novelist, debates her sister, a missionary nun who runs a hospital in Africa. Blanche, now Sister Bridget, insists that art must be for something in a suffering world. But Elizabeth, old as she is, and well aware of what awaits her decaying body, can’t prioritize suffering over all the other experiences of life — beauty, sex, adventure, and yes, even power. She just can’t.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...