Old Impulses, New Expressions: Duality and Unity in the Poetry of Denise Levertov

By Little, Anne Colclough | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Old Impulses, New Expressions: Duality and Unity in the Poetry of Denise Levertov


Little, Anne Colclough, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


On the surface, Denise Levertov's career as a poet has seemed to consist of a series of changes in direction. After the British neoromantic apprentice collection The Double Image, she wrote her first five American volumes, which Ralph J. Mills, Jr., called her "poetry of the immediate" (32). In clear, vivid language contrasting with that of the first book, many of the poems in Here and Now, Overland to the Islands, With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, The Jacob's Ladder, and O Taste and See celebrate the joy she finds in brief moments or objects in ordinary life. With her next three works (The Sorrow Dance, Relearning the Alphabet, and To Stay Alive), she became known and often received criticism for her political activism. One anonymous critic for The Ohio Review voiced the assessment of many during this period saying that Levertov was "a failed lyricist" whose "politics obscured her poetic insight" (128). The nine volumes that followed (Footprints, The Freeing of the Dust, Life in the Forest, Candles in Babylon, Oblique Prayers, Breathing the Water, A Door in the Hive, Evening Train, and Sands of the Well) seem to represent another shift with the inclusion of more meditative and even Christian poems. While these apparent changes in direction may suggest alterations of or even confusion in her view of the task of the poet, even to sympathetic critics like Paul Lacey and Lorrie Smith,' Levertov has not radically emended either her theory or her practice. In a two-part series of articles in Christianity and Literature, Edward Zlotkowski found unity in Levertov's poetry by tracing the religious elements (Biblical references and themes, allusions to the numinous, and so forth) in all stages of her career. Also present in Levertov's work, however, is another kind of unity related to the very aspects of her poetry that seem to be leading her in different directions, the tremendous joy and celebration of life associated with her first American poetry and the sadness and even anger associated with her politically engaged poetry.

Several essays and lectures collected in her prose volumes, The Poet in the World, Light Up the Cave, and New & Selected Essays, address in some way the role of the poet or the function of poetry in today's world. Much of what she says in these volumes, though, seems grounded in two quotations from oddly diverse sources. In her 1968 lecture at the University of Michigan, "Origins of a Poem" (later published in The Poet in the World), Levertov explained that even as a young poet she valued Ibsen's statement, "The task of the poet is to make clear to himself and thereby to others the temporal and eternal questions" (44). Closely related in her mind is a variation of a line from a Toltec poem she had translated: "The true artist maintains dialogue with himself, with his heart" (45). Throughout her career Levertov's poetry has achieved a unity that comes from her attempts to define the temporal and eternal questions in the dialogue she has held with herself and her heart.

Although the temporal questions include public and private issues, the eternal questions are often related to what might be seen as a duality in Levertov, her capacity for joy as well as her anguish over suffering. Levertov has frequently explored the eternal questions: What is joy? What is suffering? How can a compassionate poet feel and express joy when she sees so much pain in the world? How can a poet with the gift to sing still that voice? Can the duality of this vision be reconciled? Although some volumes emphasize joy and others, suffering, these questions have woven thematic threads of unity through her work. Raising these issues has helped Levertov articulate, refine, and clarify for herself and others how she sees the poet's role.

In The Double Image, the tide of which suggests the duality of Levertov's vision, one sees celebration in poems like "The Air of Life," as she rejoices, "The air of life is music, and I live" (41). …

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