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…

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Poetry Review: May Sarton

MaySartonMay Sarton did her best to become a household name. At her death in 1995, she had written 53 books: 19 novels, 17 books of poetry, 15 nonfiction works including her acclaimed journals, 2 children’s books, a play, and some screenplays. She ran away to join the theatre aged seventeen, went bankrupt and switched to writing, was friends with Elizabeth Bowen, had tea regularly with Virginia Woolf, translated from the French with Louise Bogan. Her early work was highly acclaimed, then she fell out of fashion, though never quite out of print. Her reputation spread more through word of mouth, on college campuses and amongst feminists (especially after she came out as a lesbian in 1965). Towards the end of her life, she became better known for her frank discussion of loneliness and aging in her non-fiction.

And yet she is relatively little-known outside the world of poets and feminists. Gertrude Stein, with her meagre output and difficult style, is better-known as a grande dame of literature than May Sarton. Sarton herself blamed this on her refusal to ‘play ball’, because she did not buy into the academic world of teaching poetry or do the rounds at writers’ conferences. However, as I read her collected poems, I also thought that maybe her poetic style has something to do with it.

Her style is too simple (deceptively so), for those who like their feelings to be raw and overpowering, or else carefully hidden in layers of metaphor. She is not experimental or loud. In fact, she reminds me of a favourite middle-aged aunt: at one with nature, supremely cultured and civilised,  a delightful conversationalist, but a bit old-fashioned and unadventurous in poetic form. Yet a multitude of emotions – all human emotion – is contained within the seemingly tame confines of her verse.  All of the big themes of life: truth, beauty, love, loneliness, fear, ageing, illness are treated here. They are just not paraded about on a baroque stage, carrying out elaborate theatrical gestures.

There is pure joy at loving and being loved, careful observations of nature:

And then suddenly in the silence someone said,

“Look at the sunlight on the apple tree there shiver:

I shall remember that long after I am dead.”

Together we all turned to see how the tree shook,

How it sparkled and seemed spun out of green and gold,

And we thought that hour, that light and our long mutual look

Might warm us each someday when we were cold.

And I thought of your face that sweeps over me like light,

Like the sun on the apple making a lovely show,

So one seeing it marveled the other night,

Turned to me saying, “What is it in your heart? You glow.”

Not guessing that on my face he saw the singular

Reflection of your grace like fire on snow –

And loved you there.

CollectedPoemsMany of her poems are love poems, and also suffused with prayer and spirituality, which perhaps are topic which have fallen slightly out of fashion. Her emotions are carefully restrained and calibrated, rather than given free rein: the ‘stiff upper lip’ is perhaps not perceived as an asset in poetry. And of course, she loved classical poetic forms, although she was able to (and did, on occasion) write exhilarated bursts of free verse. In an interview, she talks about the power of metre and beat in poetry: ‘The advantage of form, far from being “formal” and sort of off-putting and intellectual, is that through form you reach the reader on this subliminal level. I love form. It makes you cut down. Many free verse poems seem to me too wordy. They sound prose-y, let’s face it…. Very few free verse poems are memorable.’

There is indeed great musicality in her poetry, as well as references to music throughout:

We enter this evening as we enter a quartet

Listening again for its particular note

The interval where all seems possible,

Order within time when action is suspended

And we are pure in heart, perfect in will.

Some poems (especially later ones) seem little more than jotted down observations, and she does not always resist the temptation of a lazy cliché or facile rhyme. At times, she even has a tendency to preach (in her poems written at the time of the Vietnam War for instance). Yet there is no doubting the sincerity of her introspection, her powers of observation of nature, or how seriously she does take her poetry. Some of her descriptions of the essence of poetry will make any poet shiver in recognition:

It is not so much trying to keep alive

As trying to keep from blowing apart

From inner explosions every day. […]

Prisoner at a desk? No, universe of feeling

Where everything is seen, and  nothing mine

To plead with or possess, only partake of,

As if at times I could put out a hand

And touch the lion head, the unicorn.

Not showy, not immediately life-changing, but the kind of poetry that seeps through your pores gradually. I’m glad that Open Road Media are reissuing her Collected Poems. I’m also curious to read her journals now and hope they are still in print. The kind of writing to savour, to dip in and out of, like going to have tea every week with your favourite aunt.

One interesting final point about the difficulty of reading poetry ebooks.The publisher comments on this in the introduction: how, because of the shape-shifting qualities of electronic type, it is hard to see the exact visual layout of lines as the poet imagined them. I also find it much harder to remember certain poems or find them again to quote from them. I think I will stick to print copies for poetry collections of more than 1-2 poems in the future.