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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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.

Inspiration Is a Capricious Guest

The poet of this afternoon died suddenly at end of night,

jostling to pen a word, yawning bile in the long

run-up to the creep of dawn pebble-dashing the curtains.

Knuckled under weight of forms, proof of income, applications

flung in free tote bags he cannot begin to classify,

he’d like to burn but who has fireplaces nowadays, so instead

he snatches at garbled predictive jottings made in ghostly glow,

leave no strand untwisted, no word untravelled,

no innocence.

Divine dictations long since ceased, words do not meet the ear

ready-formed like birdsong. It’s digging in the garden,

toiling in manure for a speck of solid rock.

 

Linking this up to my favourite poetic forum on the internet the dVerse Poets Pub, with their fortnightly Open Link Night.

Poetry Immersion in Geneva

What a delight it was to be back in Geneva this past weekend and plunge into the refreshing, healing power of poetry!

Lac Leman on a typical November day...
Lac Leman on a typical November day…

I attended a poetry workshop and masterclass organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group, with guest instructor Laura Kasischke. I’d read and admired Laura’s poetry and novels and was very keen to hear her in person. The workshop was everything I had hoped for and more and you can see some of my initial impressions of it on the GWG blog.

Prose can not quite do it justice, so instead I will attempt a confetti of poetic impressions, like petals gathered from the quotations, ideas and timed writing exercises we listened to over the course of these two days.

Laura Kasischke at Payot Rive.
Laura Kasischke at Payot Rive.

You can’t create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion
where is the body, where are your senses?
I have no way to express this in words
so I just sit down with a pen and try to find the words
it’s the very essence of being
but it has to use the language of shared experience

The recipe for writing a poem?
It’s simple.
Nothing to do with subject matter.
It comes from somewhere else, as if your mind
and pen is seized by someone
the poem was coming to him
although he had yet to hear the words
he knew it was already written

wp_20161120_12_55_16_proSharp edges she slices to
control the slopes
feel the reassuring bite
and crunch of bones and dreams beneath her

poetic and creative insights come not haphazardly
but only in those areas in which we are intensively
committed
on which we concentrate our waking, conscious experience

wp_20161120_16_55_21_proa writer who means to outlive the useful rages
and despairs of youth
must somehow learn to endure
the desert of writer’s block

Nothing was in the mind that was not first in the senses.
When our mind is actively thinking about one thing,
we can be writing about something far more interesting
unawares
I throw a lot of stuff away
better start from scratch then spend too many years
on a mediocre poem

wp_20161122_12_51_49_proThere’s plenty more where that came from

The time-maker, the eye-maker, the voice-maker, the maker
of stars, of space, of comic surprises
bent together
over the future

I’d rather be a restaurant that is not to everyone’s liking
than the lowest common denominator
of McDonald’s.

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5 Days in Provence: A Working Holiday

Karen and Jack’s house in Provence may be a little corner of paradise, but I wasn’t just going to laze around in a night-gown and listen to harp music all day. I had tremendous plans going there: I was going to finish my novel and send it to my mentor for structural edits. But that was based on the flawed assumption I made back in early June that I would have spent a total of 5 weeks on the novel by now. Needless to say, that did not happen between July and October. I wrote precisely zero words since mid-June.

View from the window of my room
View from the window of my room

Having all the time in the world and inspiring landscape galore was not immediately productive, however. I wrote about 1500 words and rewrote a full outline of the novel, filling up any plot holes, but no more than that. Now, I could choose to focus on what I did not achieve, but for once I will focus on the positive.

Lulled to sleep in the evening and woken up in the morning by poetry (Karen has a whole room full of poetry books – 4 bookcases full!), it’s to be expected that I succumbed to my old passion. I read 13 books of poetry during those five days, so it was like bathing in sunlight. Of course, you know what it’s like with poetry collections,  you don’t read them cover to cover,  you find the poems that really resonate with you.

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Here are some which I would love to share with you, all by women poets (although I also read William Stafford and Peter Meinke, I spontaneously picked up women this time):

Let’s start a conversation. Ask me where I’m from.

Where is home, really home. Where my parents were born.

What to do if I sound more like you than you do.

Every word an exhalation, a driving out. (Vahni Capildeo)

I keep finding you in ways I didn’t know I noticed, or knew.
Every road, every sea,
every beach by every sea,
keeps lining up with what you loved.
Here’s a line of silent palm trees.
It’s as if you answered the phone.
(Naomi Shihab Nye)

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I caution you as I was never cautioned:

you will never let go, you will never be satiated.

You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.

Your body will age, you will continue to need.

You will want the earth, then more of the earth –

Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.

It is encompassing, it will not minister.

Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,

it will not keep you alive. (Louise Gluck)

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I, like a river,
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.
I am a substitute. My life has flowed
Into another channel
And I do not recognise my shores.
O, how many fine sights I have missed,
How many curtains have risen without me
And fallen too…
And how many poems I have not written
Whose secret chorus swirls around my head
And possibly one day
Will stifle me… (Anna Akhmatova)

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This poem is dangerous; it should not be left

Within the reach of children, or even of adults

Who might swallow it whole, with possibly

Undesirable side-effects. If you come across

An unattended, unidentified poem

In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it

Yourself. Send it (preferably in a sealed container)

To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered

Harmless by experts. Even the simplest poem

May destroy your immunity to human emotions.

All poems must carry a Government warning. Words

Can seriously affect your heart. (Elma Mitchell)

The result of this electrolyte bath of poetry? I wrote 25 new poems of my own. All requiring a lot of work still, but more than I’ve written in the 6 months January-June 2016. I will make sure I always have at least one book of poetry on the go at any moment in time.

Five Days in Provence: How It All Began…

Of course we all dream of relaxing and creative holidays in beautiful landscapes, so it won’t come as a surprise to hear that the 5 1/2 days I spent in Provence were simply fabulous! The weather was mostly cloudy, there was even some rain, so I only had 1.5 days of sunshine, but I didn’t care. This was paradise.

The Hameau Les Reys, near Roussillon, in Luberon.
The Hameau Les Reys, near Roussillon, in Luberon.

You won’t fully appreciate just how much those days away from family and work meant to me, until you hear of the weeks preceding it. Of course, the usual insomnia, anxieties great and small, travelling for work with tiring, woefully unprepared workshops (not only on my part), tense moments with my parents who had come to look after the children while I was away, meticulous forward planning but still not enough time to do all the laundry. It all culminated on 21/22, when I had the following timetable:

  • 06:00 CET: get up extra early to get to the training venue to change some slides and check in online (as the friend I was staying with was having some internet issues)
  • 09:00 – 16:30 CET – ‘stand and deliver’ all day
  • 16:30 – 17:00 CET – polite small talk and feedback with client
  • 17:00-17:30 CET- rush to the airport
  • 17:30 – 20:30 CET – discover the flight is delayed and there are additional security checks in force for UK destinations, while the 90 minutes free Wifi at Geneva airport expires and doesn’t allow me to access my mobile boarding pass at the gate
  • 23:00-01:30 GMT – unpack one suitcase and pack two (for myself and the children), leave the house reasonably tidy for some friends who would be staying there over the holiday week, print out boarding passes for everybody, make sure my parents have packed everything, driving instructions to the Provence, telephone numbers for all of my children’s friends, confirmation for rental car, save chapters of my novel on a USB stick etc. etc. etc.
  • 01:30-05:15 GMT – disturbed sleep on armchair-bed in study, with a restless cat trying to rest on my legs and waking up with a wonky shoulder
  • 5:15-7:15 GMT – make sure everyone eats, gets dressed, leaves behind keys they don’t need, takes with them medicines and keys they do need, don’t forget their mobiles or cuddly toys, take everybody to the airport, leave car at long-term car park, make sure my parents find the way to Terminal 4 while we get through security in time at our terminal
  • 7:15 GMT – 12:00 CET – another flight, another delay, but arrived safely in Geneva, where I hand the boys over to their Dad, and get my rental vehicle
  • 13:30 – 19:30 CET – drive down to Provence, but have to avoid the Swiss motorway (no vignette, you see), then take a wrong turn and end up going the long way round, adding at least an hour to my journey
  • 19:30 – 20:30 CET – the final portion of the journey was in complete darkness, along narrow country lanes with ditches on either side, trying to find a tiny ‘hameau’ while avoiding the beguiling road signs for Roussillon
  • FINALLY make it to my friends’ house and have a glass of wine to celebrate before collapsing in bed and sleeping for 12 hours straight

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My friends, Jack and Karen McDermott, are American, but used to live in Geneva. They retired to the south of France four years ago and bought an amazing farmhouse in the Luberon, which they have lovingly renovated.Karen is an artist (painter, ceramicist, photographer), as well as a poet, so you can imagine all the lovely little touches that have gone into both interior and exterior decoration.

The kitchen, where Karen prepares breakfast for her guests.
The kitchen, where Karen prepares the most delicious meals for her guests.

Three years ago, Karen and Jack opened up their wonderfully cosy, welcoming house to writers and artists who need some quiet time to rest, refocus and create. So far, all their guests have come through personal recommendations, so you can be sure that you will feel very much at home. Prices vary according to room size and season, but each room has its own quirky décor and, more importantly, all contain a desk for writing and good reading lights. A family after my own heart, who knows just what a bookworm needs. Oh, and did I mention that the house is full of books?

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Outdoors is just as enticing, pure balm to the wounded or exhausted spirit.

The swimming pool was just being prepared for its winter cover.
The swimming pool was just being prepared for its winter cover.

Plenty of inviting spots to read and write.
Plenty of inviting spots to read and write.

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Of course, the vineyards of Provence are all around (and Karen and Jack have the perfect wine cellar for it), as are lavender fields and olive trees. The delightful ochre cliffs of Roussillon, the picture-perfect hilltop village of Gordes and Menerbes of Peter Mayle fame are a short drive away, while Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Chateauneuf du Pape and Manosque (home of Occitane en Provence cosmetics) all make for perfect day-trips.

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But I was there to work, not gallivant about. There was a small amount of gallivanting involved though, as you shall discover in another post. But, for now…

My little corner of paradise, a studio with a separate entrance.
My little corner of paradise, a room of one’s own, with a separate entrance.

Van Gogh Erasure Poetry

Picture and art credit to Emily Blincoe at www.emilyblincoe.com
Picture and art credit to Emily Blincoe at http://www.emilyblincoe.com/arrangements

 

Even if I go under in the attempt

this I know:

I have a definite belief as regards art.

The great doesn’t happen through impulse alone.

If one is competent in one thing

one can learn rhythm in other areas.

It’s the succession of little

things

events

even if we’re tired, we go on –

because we’ve already gone a long way.

You may not always be able to say what confines you.

And the Prison is sometimes called mistrust.

If it were that easy

one wouldn’t have any pleasure of it.

That is all I seek:

always something other than heroism.

I try not to forget how to jest.

Based on the Selected Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. The picture above is one of a series of pictorial prompts on the theme of ‘Arrangements’ from dVerse Poets Pub. The colours reminded me so much of Van Gogh’s palette. Plus, I tend to be a stickler for a tidy desk arranged just so before I can start writing…