Denise Levertov: Testimonies of the Lived Life

Article excerpt

IN "Some Affinities of Content" (1991) Denise Levertov speaks of a "deep spiritual Longing" in writers and readers which makes irrelevant the kind of literary criticism "which treats works of art as if they were diagrams or merely means provided for the exercise of analysis, rather than what they are: testimonies of the lived life, which is what writers have a vocation to give, and readers ... have a need to receive" (New and Selected Essays 20-21). We now have a significant and growing body of critical work on Levertov's religious poetry, well represented in the essay collections edited by Albert Gelpi and by Linda Wagner-Martin and in this journal (Renascence 50.1-2, Fall 1997/Winter 1998) devoted to "Spirit in the Poetry of Denise Levertov." I hope to supplement that rich criticism by exploring both some "affinities of content" and some analogues between Levertov's poetic practice and the meditative practices taught in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, which Levertov herself undertook in fall 1993 and winter 1994. Then, using that framework I will focus on her poem, "Conversion of Brother Lawrence" (Sands of the Well 111-13) as one particular testimony of the lived life, expressed and mediated through her poetic craft.

Levertov loved to explore what she called the borderland of art, the interface between form and content, where we can see the brush-strokes or "penciled understrokes," smell the turpentine, delight in the craft itself, at the same time discerning the large patterns, the fictive truths, the whole world of vision. Such a borderland is the place of double vision, the place where process and product interconnect, where she typically locates the artist, the pilgrim, the wanderer, the mystic and the saint--all reflections of a single archetype, as the journey of art and the journey of faith become, for her, reflections of a single life on a pilgrimage from relinquishment to transformation:

   ... when I'm following the road of imagination (following a leading, as the
   Quakers say), both in the decisions of a day and in the word-by-word,
   line-by-line decisions of a poem in the making, I've come to see certain
   analogies, and also some interaction, between the journey of art and the
   journey of faith. (New and Selected Essays 248-49)

She calls every poem an "act of faith," in the sense that it is "a venture into the unknown," and in that the move from improvising on poetic themes and ideas to actual writing "resembles moving from intellectual assent to opening the acts of daily life to permeation by religious faith" (New and Selected Essays 249). The implied analogy here is with St. Augustine's distinction of the conversion of the intellect which precedes but is incomplete without the subsequent conversion of the will to Christian faith. In her 1990 essay "Work that Enfaiths" she describes her Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus as a poem which "began as an experiment in structure" and an attempt at "do-it-yourself theology" aimed at clarifying her mind on questions of belief. In that complex process of imagination, apperception, thinking/feeling, feeling/thinking, as she elsewhere describes it, and through enacting in the poetry the contention of belief with disbelief, she came to Christian faith. "The experience of writing the poem--that long swim through waters of unknown depth--had been also a conversion process, if you will" (New and Selected Essays 249-50).

She cites subsequent writings--her libretto El Salvador, the poems "Standoff," "The Task," and those which "explored passages of Julian of Norwich and passages of the Gospel"--which have "brought me a little bit closer to faith as distinct from mere shaky belief." This she calls "work that enfaiths" (New and Selected Essays 250-55). What she says late in her life about this exploratory function of poetry gathers up and extends some of her richest and earliest insights. In "The Sense of Pilgrimage" (1967) she calls humans ". …