(1923 - 1997)
Poems O O O O O O O
Poems - Directory
Modern American Poetry - Directory
The Academy of American Poets
Famous Poets and Poems
For Chile, 1977
Laying the Dust
Life at War
Note to Olga
O Taste and See
The ache of marriage
The Day the Audiences Walked Out on Me, and Why
What Were They Like?
disasters numb within us
weighing down a child's stomach on baking day.
contents were simply balled into
the knowledge that humankind,
delicate Man, whose flesh
whose music excels the music of birds,
still turns without surprise, with mere regret
are the humans, men who can make;
do these acts, who convince ourselves
this is the knowledge that jostles for space
nerve filaments twitch with its presence
The Sorrow Dance, 1967
What Were They Like?
Did the people of Viet Nam
The world is
the subway Bible poster
grief, mercy, language,
into our flesh our
hungry, and plucking
The ache of marriage
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth
We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each
It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it
two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.
Don't lock me in wedlock, I want
I told you about the
green light of
(a veil of quiet befallen
the downtown park,
shadows and cool
air, scent of
blossom on the threshold of
and the birds I met there,
birds of passage breaking their journey,
three birds each of a different species:
the azalea-breasted with round poll, dark,
the brindled, merry, mousegliding one,
and the smallest, golden as gorse and wearing
a black Venetian mask
and with them the three douce hen-birds
feathered in tender, lively brown---
a half-hour under the enchantment,
no-one passed near,
the birds saw me and
let me be
I would be
and meet you
in a green
airy space, not
of flowers, leaves, thorns
was twined round our two necks.
Drawn tight, it could choke us,
yet we loved its scratchy grace,
our fragrant yoke.
We were Siamese twins.
Our blood’s not sure
if it can circulate,
now we are cut apart.
Something in each of us is waiting
to see if we can survive,
lies in a basket
There's in my mind a woman
of innocence, unadorned but
fair-featured, and smelling of
apples or grass. She wears
a utopian smock or shift, her hair
is light brown and smooth, and she
is kind and very clean without
but she has
And there's a
turbulent moon-ridden girl
or old woman, or both,
dressed in opals and rags, feathers
and torn taffeta,
who knows strange songs---
but she is not kind.
lead and emerald
slung round my neck
Though I forget you
a red coal from your fire
burns in that box.
On the Times Square sidewalk
we shuffle along, cardboard signs
- Stop the War –
slung round our necks.
shoulder to shoulder,
Your high soprano
sings out from just
in back of me—
We shall--I turn,
you’re, I very well know,
and your voice, they say
from shouting at crowds. . .
sounds then hoarsely
from somewhere in front,
you that is lifted
limp and ardent
off the dark snow
and shoved in, and driven away.
The Day the Audiences Walked Out on Me, and Why
(May 8th, 1970. Goucher College, Maryland)
Like this it happened:
after the antiphonal reading from the psalms
and the dance of lamentation before the altar,
and the two poems, Life at War and What Were They Like,
I began to rap, and said:
Yes, it is well that we have gathered
in this chapel to remember
the students shot at Kent State,
but let us be sure we know
our gathering is a mockery unless
we remember also
the black students shot at Orangeburg two years ago,
and Fred Hampton murdered in his bed
by the police only months ago.
And while I spoke the people
- girls, older women, a few men –
began to rise and turn
their backs to the altar and leave.
And I went on and said,
Yes, it is well that we remember
all of these, but let us be sure
we know it is hypocrisy
to think of them unless
we make our actions their memorial,
actions of militant resistance.
By then the pews were almost empty
and I returned to my seat and a man stood up
in the back of the quiet chapel
(near the wide-open doors through which
the green of May showed, and the long shadows
of late afternoon)
and said my words
desecrated a holy place.
And a few days later
when some more students (black) were shot
at Jackson, Mississippi,
no one desecrated the white folk’s chapel,
because no memorial service was held.
Author reads the poem, here
Heavy, heavy, heavy, hand and heart.
the buying and selling
Gowns of gold sequins are fitted,
weddings are held in full solemnity
picnic parties return from the beaches
Their parents at night
fill freezers with food.
at their ears the sound
FALL OF 1967
You who go out on schedule
to kill, do you know
there are eyes that watch you,
eyes whose lids you burned off,
that see you eat your steak
and buy your girlflesh
and sell your PX goods
She is not old,
she whose eyes
She will outlast you.
her five young children
writhe and die;
in that hour
she began to watch you,
she whose eyes are open forever.
It was a land where the winged mind
Andean silver dazzling the Southern Cross;
the long shore of gold beaten by the Pacific
into translucency vanishing
into Antarctica –
but not for these
our minds flew there,
but because they knew
the poor were singing there
and the homeless
were building there
and the down trodden
How brief it was, that time
when Chile showed us how to rejoice!
How soon the executioners
arrived, making victims
of those who were not born to be victims.
The throats of singers
were punched into silence,
hands of builders
into the pens.
all over the earth,
from pole to pole, are the lands
where our minds can perch and be glad,
clapping their wings, a phoenix flock!
From Chile now
they fly affrighted, evil smoke
rises from forest and city,
hopes are scorched.
When will the cheerful hammers sound again?
When will the wretched begin to dance again?
When will guitars again
give forth at the resurrected touch
or broken fingers
a song of revolution reborn?
PARA O CHILE, 1977
Era uma terra onde a mente alada
Prata andina ofuscando o Cruzeiro do Sul;
as longas costas de ouro batidas pelo Pacífico,
na Antárctida –
mas não foi por isto
que as nossas mentes para ali voaram,
mas porque sabiam
que os pobres lá cantavam
e os que lá não tinham casa
Como foi curto esse tempo
em que o Chile nos ensinou o júbilo!
Como chegaram depressa os algozes,
dos que não nasceram para o ser.
as gargantas dos cantores,
as mãos dos construtores,
arrebanhados os dançarmos
Como são poucas,
por todo o mundo,
de pólo a pólo, as terras
onde as nossas mentes podem, alegres, repousar,
um bando de fénixes adejando!
Hoje, do Chile
fogem aterradas, fumos maus
erguem-se da floresta e da cidade,
esperanças são queimadas.
Quando soarão de novo os martelos da alegria?
Quando começarão de novo os pobres a dançar?
Quando entoarão de novo
as violas, ao toque ressuscitado
dos dedos destruídos
um canto de renascida revolução?
Lay down that
Proof of Denise Levertov's intense life can be found in her New Collected Poems and in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, says David Herd
Saturday October 30, 2004
New Selected Poems
by Denise Levertov
244pp, Bloodaxe, £9.95
The Letters of
Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov
edited by Robert J Bertholf and Albert Gelpi
617pp, Stanford University Press, $39.95
How intensely should you live your life? No, really, how intensely? For Thoreau it was clear. Thinking his Concord neighbours hopelessly caught up in the business of living, Thoreau set out to make an example of himself. He built a house, lived on his own by Walden Pond and, from the splendour of his isolation, threw down a challenge: "You must love the crust of the earth on which you dwell. You must be able to extract nutriment out of a sandheap. You must have so good an appetite as this, else you will live in vain."
Denise Levertov, who among other things had a great ear for epigraphs, cites this at the beginning of her poem "Joy". She might have cited Thoreau at the beginning of many other poems, "Action", for instance, with its deliberate gesture of setting unimportant things aside:
I can lay
down that history
I can lay down my glasses
I can lay down the imaginary lists
of what to forget and what must be
done. I can shake the sun
out of my eyes and lay everything down
on the hot sand, and cross
the whispering threshold and walk
right into the clear sea ...
This is what Levertov did; she laid the unimportant things down in order to live an intense life.
Levertov was born in Ilford in 1923. She was lucky enough to miss out on a formal education, being taught at home by her Welsh mother and her Russian immigrant father. She was briefly an apprentice dancer at Sadler's Wells, giving this up to work as a nurse in London during the war, at the end of which, while staying in Switzerland, she met the American writer Mitchell Goodman. She went with him to New York and never came back. Ilford, and the British publication of her first book, The Double Image, notwithstanding, Levertov soon became a thoroughly American poet. Goodman was friends with Robert Creeley, who encouraged Levertov to correspond with William Carlos Williams. At the same time she became associated with Charles Olson's Black Mountain school. This now looks odd. Levertov's poetry of this period shows neither Olson's huge cultural ambition nor his profound formal restlessness. What they had in common, however, was the simpler part of Olson, the desire to make a fresh acquaintance with the world. Often, in her early poems, like "Laying the Dust", Levertov writes as if she is minting the language, as if she had just discovered words, and in discovering words had discovered the things they were capable of revealing:
What a sweet
when you lay the dust -
bucket after bucket of water thrown
on the yellow grass.
each time you
make it leap -
arching its glittering
The sound of
pouring into the pail
almost quenches my thirst.
Surely when flowers
grow here, they'll not
smell sweeter than this
wet ground, suddenly black.
And then, if not suddenly, more suddenly than her some of admirers were able to stomach, Levertov stopped writing poems like this, choosing instead to write poems like "Advent 1966":
Vietnam the vision of a burning Babe
Is multiplied, multiplied,
the flesh on fire
not Christ's, as Southwell saw it, prefiguring
the Passion upon the Eve of Christmas,
but wholly human and repeated, repeated,
infant after infant, their names forgotten,
their sex unknown in the ashes,
set alight, flaming but not vanishing,
not vanishing as his vision after lingering
With the onset of the Vietnam war Levertov asked hard questions of herself. What form, she wanted to know, should the poem take when the thing pressing itself on the consciousness is not thrown water but burning flesh? How can one carry on, in good faith, revealing the beautiful in the full knowledge of the world's horror? How, in other words, do you sit down to write a poem when there are pictures of men being tortured on the front page of your morning paper? Levertov's response to these questions was, as she saw it, to set the unimportant things aside.
One of the most active of poet-protesters against the war, she demonstrated, edited anthologies, organised benefits and, when she had time, wrote chiefly politicised poetry; poetry filled with declarations and pronouncements, filled with knowledge of war. Except that Levertov didn't know the war, didn't know it, anyway, in the way that previously she had thought poetry could and should know things. Whereas before, knowing - in the sense of revelation - had been axiomatic to her work, now her forms were, roughly, the conventional forms of protest, while the content was not that which poetry comes to know, but the stuff of leftist, oppositional opinion. Or so Robert Duncan thought.
Until this point one of her very fiercest admirers, Duncan, also a Black Mountain poet, was horrified at the turn Levertov's poetry took during the war, their correspondence (running to some 700 pages in the Stanford edition) documenting one of the most intense poetic arguments and then one of the most catastrophic splits of the 20th century. "The poet's role", as Duncan puts it, "is not to oppose evil but to imagine it". This is aesthetically persuasive - Duncan cites Shakespeare's Iago - but what it entails is less so: "I draw back from commanding conscience, as I would avoid whatever tyranny of the will ... being so convinced seems deeply involved with conviction for me. And where there is conviction I would be neither convicted nor convicting, but undo the very conviction itself."
Levertov emerges well from the correspondence. This is partly because of the dignity she maintains when Duncan, for all his talk against conviction, becomes increasingly coercive, savaging her book To Stay Alive in page after page of relentless, single-minded, illiberal criticism. And partly she emerges well because what she was aiming for was a poetry which, without losing intensity, might speak to public issues in a public language, which would not reserve itself only for sandheaps and dust. But Duncan was right, I think - and having read the ferociousness of the assault it almost pains one to say it - about her poems. Which is not to say that he was right about the impossibility of a poetry of conviction, or even of a meaningful political poetry. This would be a cause for despair. Where he would seem to have been right is in his sense that, in his terms, by turning her poems over to politics Levertov was turning away from her particular "gift".
Some time after the war Levertov converted to Catholicism, proceeding to write, in the 1980s, a series of religious poems that tend to fail in the way her political poems tended to fail, because again she inhabits pre-established rhetorics and form. It was perhaps this, above all, that she wasn't suited to, as maybe she realised at the end of her life. What this New Selected Poems contains, which the old one didn't, are the very late poems; poems, such as "Le Motif", "Suspended" and "Settling", which move with a rediscovered freedom, and which are untroubled by any expectation or convention. Or with anything at all, save, at this stage in life, the desire to be acquainted with the world.
full and clear,
eastward, the sky
over fir trees, the dark hill.
I remember, decades ago,
"day coming and the moon not gone,"
the low ridge of the Luberon
beyond the well
and Ste Victoire
shifting its plains and angles
David Herd is the author of John Ashbery and American Poetry: Fit to Cope with Our Occasions. His first collection of poems, Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir, is published next year.