Moistening Our Roots with Music: Creative Power in Denise Levertov's "A Tree Telling of Orpheus." (Denise Levertov Issue)

By Kallet, Marilyn | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

Moistening Our Roots with Music: Creative Power in Denise Levertov's "A Tree Telling of Orpheus." (Denise Levertov Issue)


Kallet, Marilyn, Twentieth Century Literature


The sources of power in Denise Levertov's poem "A Tree Telling of Orpheus" are both ancient and contemporary, obvious and occult. Embodying myth and myth-making, the poem enacts its own genesis. Its rhythm and images continually remind us of beginnings: of the world, of language, and of poetry's birth from dance. Creation myths, according to Jungian scholar Marie-Louise Von Franz, have always had a stronger resonance than other mythic patterns: "Of a different class from other myths . . . they convey a mood which implies that what is said will concern the basic things of existence, something more than is contained in other myths. . . . Creation myths are the deepest and most important of all myths" (5). The telling of creation myths in many traditional societies forms a vital part of teaching the initiatory rituals. Such telling reenacts Creation, allowing the participants to experience renewal. In Levertov's poem, as in oral tradition poetry, language is active, effecting a sense of loss and renewal in the participant/reader. As the title promises, this is an Orphic hymn, sung by an initiate, one who celebrates Orpheus's gentle and powerful songs, who retells the Orphic story of death and rebirth. The mythic pattern of going underground, being buried like Persephone, being torn to pieces like the ancient corn god, and being remembered in ritual and song--this pattern is the vital nervous and circulatory system of the poem.

To revitalize an ancient myth is no small task. It would be impossible to narrate Orpheus's journey in a short poem, much less to evoke his famed music, or the spirit of his quest. But underlying and propelling the narrative, the sustained rhythm of Levertov's long poem permits a bodily and imaginative sense of loss and restoration. In its supple lines and precise rhythms, the poem approximates dance. It asks to be read out loud, and read as scored. In doing so, one has the feeling of inhabiting one's voice and body. There are few poems in contemporary literature which evoke this strong sense of physical and imaginative life on the move and in harmony. Among these are Charles Olson's "For Sappho, Back," and passages from his "As the Dead Prey Upon Us," as well as George Quasha's "Rilke's Third Elegy, Transposed," Robert Duncan's "Variations on Two Dicta of William Blake," and William Carlos Williams's "Rain." It is no coincidence that Olson and Rilke/Quasha also sing of death, dismemberment or tearing up of roots, and rebirth. This shamanic, initiatory theme has a hold on us, challenging our poets to bring to bear their most skilled use of rhythm.

Levertov's sources for poetry are contemporary as well as traditional and mythic. In the 1960s her work was strongly influenced by the theory and practice of projective verse as well as by the work of other innovative contemporary poets. Robert Duncan, who believed in poetry's magical qualities, and who had the most subtle ear for rhythm of any contemporary American poet, had a profound impact on Levertov's work. In addition, in her own writing on theory she quotes and assimilates Charles Olson's writings on projective verse. Some of Olson's ideas are particularly helpful in considering "A Tree Telling of Orpheus." According to Olson, the contemporary poet works in the "open field," listening for the form that is appropriate to each poem, rather than paying homage to inherited forms. The blank page is a charged field, a source of energy, for the poet who knows how to bring out its rhythmical life, to find the right "musical phrase" (Ezra Pound's term). "Kinetics," dynamism, the poem as "energy-discharge"--Olson's terms place emphasis on rhythm as the primary source of a poem's creative life. Along with Olson's theories, Levertov includes Gerard Manley Hopkins's "sprung rhythm" and "inscape" as having influenced her thinking about the dynamic quality and the sense of wholeness she expects from poetry. In harmony with sound and image, the rhythmical structure of each poem will tell its deepest story, inventing itself formally as the story unfolds. …

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