Perfect Poem at the Right Time

From Denise Levertov’s A Woman Alone

When half her bed is covered with books

and no one is kept awake by the reading light

and she disconnects the phone to sleep till noon

Then

self-pity dries up, a joy

untainted by guilt lifts her.

She has fear, but not about loneliness;

fears about how to deal with the aging

of her body – how to deal

with photographs and the mirror. She feels

so much younger and more beautiful

than she likes.

…she is past the time of mourning

now she can say without shame or deceit

O blessed solitude.

Denise Levertov in Her Own Words

After reading Robert Bly’s ruminations about poetry, I wanted to read more poets on poetry. It’s always inspiring, even though occasionally it sounds like they are making it up, to provide legitimacy after writing a poem. Perhaps it’s their own way of reflecting on their work. I certainly find poets have much more trouble articulating consistently what they try to achieve with their poetry. They are perhaps too open to change, to different interpretations, to evolving over the course of one’s lifetime. And, of course, there is probably no ‘purpose’ in poetry at all, or if it has too obvious a purpose, it ceases to be poetry.

A young Levertov.

Anyway, long preamble to say that I borrowed a small volume from the libary entitled Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, published in 1979 but containing essays and interviews going as far back as the 1950s. Levertov is truly a citizen of the world: an American poet with a Russian name, born and raised in England, with a Welsh mother (and a Russian Jewish father who became an Anglican priest), she also translated from French and Italian (although she only spoke the former). She was also very politically engaged, worked as a nurse during the war, campaigned against the war in Vietnam, supported and encouraged feminist and leftist writing. She is perhaps the perfect contrast to Robert Bly’s far more ivory tower approach to poetry, with his need for solitude and finding inspiration in nature. This becomes obvious when she talks candidly about Bly, but in fact they have similar thoughts about inspiration and craftsmanship.

But visual imagery can be overemphasized, and I think that is what dissatisfies me about so much of the poetry of Robert Bly and the Sixties group write. I like some of it very much, but Bly’s point of view is too much based on phanopoeia (visual image). I think the visual image is terribly important, but it must be accompanied by melopoeia (sound)… of a distinctly expressive kind, not just the musical over-and-aboveness that Pound speaks of in How to Read.

Elsewhere, she has the dancer’s discipline when it comes to poetry (she trained as a dancer in her youth). She creates (in my mind) this image of poetry as some kind of primordial sea that all poets flow into whether rivers or streams. They are all contributing to Poetry in some small way.

I believe that the gift of being able to write poetry must always be considered as a gift. It’s a responsibility, whether one considers it given by God or Nature. It’s something which the poet must take seriously. His responsibility is not to himself, not to his career, but to poetry itself…

She is also very clear-eyed about reading and teaching poetry:

It’s natural that people want to feel that they have understood what has been said, and sometimes a degree of interpretive paraphrase may be necessary if you want to talk about a poem. But you can receive a poem, you can comprehend a poem without talking about it. Teachers at all levels encourage the idea that you have to talk about things in order to understand them, because they wouldn’t have jobs otherwise. But it’s phony, you know.

Above all, I enjoy her discussion of inspiration, what sparks a poem and gives it life.

There is often a kind of preliminary feeling, a sort of aura… which alerts one to the possibility of a poem. You can smell the poem before you can see it. Like some animal… Hmmm, seems like a bear’s around here…

Very tempted to try and locate this biography of Levertov now…

A poem in which the intellect and conscious mind have predominated can be a very good poem, but not at deep levels… In the first-rate poems, something the method breaks and something utterly unpredictable happens… a sudden illumination.

The most interesting poetry can move back and forth with perfect ease between the rational and the irrational.

She was well known as a bit of a stickler for how poetry should be read and carefully ‘annotated’ her own poems with indentations and punctuation, becoming too prescriptive, as her students used to tell her.

I defend it, absolutely, because I feel that it’s exactly like the writing down of music. When music is written, it allows a considerable amount of interpretation to the performer, and yet it is always definitely that piece of music and no other… without that much care about the structure of a poem, I think what you have is a lot of slop.

Given how demanding she is with the way her poems appear on the page, you can imagine that she is frustrated by the limitations of the printed format (I dread to think what she’d have thought of ebooks, which I find almost unusable for poetry). As someone who adores oddly sized books but has experienced some frustrations with shelving them, I could relate to the following:

It bugs me when I have a line broken up that way… I have wished that poetry books could be different dimensions… but my publishers tell me it’s very hard to change the dimensions of books. Bookshelves are designed to hold books of certain dimensions, booksellers don’t like to handle books that are odd shapes…

Robert Bly in Conversation

Here are some passages that resonated with me from the book Talking All Morning with Robert Bly, in the series Poets on Poetry published by the University of Michigan Press. Although Bly keeps referring to ‘he’ and ‘him’ when he talks about poets (typical of the late 1960s perhaps), I do agree to a large extent with his breakdown of poetic talent or craft.  

Let’s imagine the poem to be some kind of knife. The poet uses the poem to cut through the dead tissues in himself, and through certain filaments or sinews that are holding him to past patterns… But the poem can also be a two-edged knife, with two sharp edges. The whole thing moves like a pendulum and when the knife swings back, it swings away from the private and cuts into something public.

In Anglo-Saxon literary life we’ve always had the knife sharp only on one edge, with the other edge deliberately blunted, so that when it swung back into public life, it did not cut… It’s perfectly clear that Pasternak, by contrast, uses a two-edged knife…

Basho said, ‘To express the flavor of the inner mind, you must agonize during many days.’ That is a wonderful sentence! The purpose of it all is not to write long, endless poems, but to express the flavor of the inner mind… Two hours of solitude seem about right for every line of poetry.

The Japanese say the haiku is a poem in which there’s a tiny explosion inside – and if that’s not there, I don’t care how many syllables it has, then it’s not a haiku. And that little tiny explosion brings the life to this creature.


I dislike the word ‘craft’ when it comes to poetry. Craft suggest an inanimate object, as when we say a carpenter crafts a chest of drawers… Making the poem from the beginning involves three different areas of experience. The first … is interior… When the poet touches something for the first time, something far inside of him. It’s connected with what the ancients called The Mysteries… If any person comes near that experience he or she will never forget it the rest of his life. If he writes poetry it will come from that.

The second necessary stage… I would call something like cunning. And cunning involves the person’s rearranging his life in such a way that he can feel the first experience again. This is worldly and involves common sense… For Rilke… cunning meant finding long periods of solitude.

The third stage could be called ‘letting the animal live’… psychic energy. Living energy is more growing the tree than shaping it. In the US the emphasis on craft and technique comes too early, before the wood has been grown.

Taking care of animals is the best preparation for writing poems. When you write poems, you feed poems language. Instead of craft, I talk about ‘letting the creature live.

Speaking in Tongues (Poetry)

I learnt to breathe in Romanian
but I swallowed the secrets of English with my breakfast
sprinkled German consonants on my lunch
and took small French sips of my champagne

And now I cannot unsay
or jump in tangential arcs from one rooftop to the next
with gleeful glance at the abyss
rushing up to stun me at every move.

At times I fear
to speak at all in words
of more than one syllable.

But if, by the side of a poem,
there is a sharp intake of breath, that too
is the echo of my mothertongue.

The WB Chronicles: Court Battle

Your Honour, we were students, not in the money
for a wedding, anticipated trouble, so my then-honey
and I kept our nuptials secret from our parents,
only informed them a good while after the events.
By then mine had bought a flat for me alone,
or so they thought. Its value soared like a drone,
so we got our next house, and the next. Twenty years later
we’ve had many more donations from the pater…

Mr Judge Sir I protest…
This woman thinks she’s the best,
but she kicked me out less than three years after she found out
that I’d had moments of joy with another. But I called her out,
‘cos it was her lack of uncritical admiration
and the general sense of deprivation
that I could not rule with absolute decree
which drove me to the arms of Gina, Becky, Lee.
She expected me to be apologetic – more like apoplectic
wouldn’t cook or do my laundry while I was texting
the latest mistress I was sexting.
Now I have to pay a massive rent to get a house of similar size –
so what if the kids only spend 6 days here a month – in their eyes
it’s got to be attractive, have room to fit 88 inch TV and Playstation,
while she complains of boiler repairs, lording it in the old location.
That’s the state of our nation.

His salary is high, his pension secure,
why do we have to drown in manure,
when it’s clear as day, eat or pray, doom and gloom,
the boys are mainly spending time in my room?
I feed and clothe them, know all the ins and outs of school…

Your Honour, it’s time to overrule. Food bills are such a drag
why bring up the subject? I don’t mean to brag
but the science the boys get from me
are worth 3 of your books, theatre or history.
Just admit it, you’ll never be as good
as my mother tells me I am. That’s understood.
They’re boys, they need a father to set an example or else
they’ll end up as unhappy as I was
when she made me pick them up from school while she was travelling.
All the while my social life was unravelling,
couldn’t go out for beers more than twice a week.
I’ll teach them to be manly not so weak.
I spend as much on my children as she does, or does she believe
that holidays chasing solar eclipses come through charity relief?
Cinema tickets, theme parks all cost money,
so curb your spending on socks, shoes and school trips, honey!

And if you don’t know, now you know…

With apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Cabinet Battle in Hamilton, which inspired this.

Haibun: Compassion

She was a wild cat really. She never moved inside the house, but would show up at feeding time and sleep on the veranda. She used to be a pristine ball of white fluff. Now she can no longer clean herself, big patches of dry skin show through. She used to be playful and loving. Now she cannot hear so well, jumps and scratches when you come upon her from behind.

I looked at her ageing, diminished body in disgust. I thought of all the unsavoury germs and told my younger child: ‘No, don’t touch!’ But he ignored me. ‘Poor kitty-kitty!’ he said, bending down to caress her, not at all dismayed by decay. I love the fact that he is a better person than me. I hope he will be as tender with me one day.

When frost crackles bones
how sweet to find a warming
spot in river’s flow

A lovely prompt about compassion based on the poetry of Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) from the dVerse Poets Pub.

Basenotes

When I bought you the perfume that best described you, you were flattered. Power word to you, not an epithet of shame. I too fell for the gander. Self-belief – so attractive in one gender. I forgot you were no longer sixteen.

Incisive topnotes of tangerine reeled me in then left me stranded in male territory. No heartnote, mere cynical mime of floral romance. I knew it was fraudulent but I soared one brief inkling on spiderly thread and landed with the bitterness of ambrette seeds. Too late to flourish in this sandalwood ground.

The perfume I bought
to celebrate beginnings
soon foresaw our end.