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.

WWWednesday 21 November, 2018

What are you currently reading? A lovely meme to help us catch up with ourselves and others, as hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

You may know by now that I have several books on the go. I’m still rereading The Master and Margarita, a chapter here and there, because it’s amusing and doesn’t demand much effort when you know it well. I’m also reading The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley as a crime fiction light read in the background (which usually ends up with me finishing it off in a frenzy late at night). But my main current read is Ahmet Altan’s Like a Sword Wound, an Asymptote Book Club title that I am really looking forward to reading, about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire seen through the eyes of a disintegrating family.

Just finished:

I’ve just finished reading Eva Menasse’s Quasikristalle for German Literature Month. It could be described as 13 different perspectives on Xane Molin, and not just from the point of view of family and friends, but also casual acquaintances, landlords and doctors. Each story tells you far more about the narrator than it does about Xane, and yet they all add up to tell you the story of this Viennese woman without destroying her mystery. I’ll be reviewing it in more depth shortly.

Coming up next:

I’ve borrowed these two books from the library, so I’d better get cracking on them soon. First, a series of interviews with and essays by Robert Bly Talking All Morning. The list of contents alone seems fascinating: government support for the arts, universal vs. political art, how poetry is a dream that is shared with others, the masculine vs the feminine in poetry and infantilism and adult swiftness (surrealism and automatic writing and the rational mind). The second book is The Essential Acker, selected writings of American firebrand Kathy Acker, whom I know mostly from literary gossip rather than through reading her work. So, time to change that!