"The Art of the Octopus": The Maturation of Denise Levertov's Political Vision

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

"The Art of the Octopus": The Maturation of Denise Levertov's Political Vision


Dewey, Anne, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


The Vietnam War and Denise Levertov's political activism during it bring a profound change to her poetry. In her 1971 To Stay Alive, Levertov rethinks her poetics in political terms to represent poetic creativity and meaning as products of active interrelation between individual and group. The long poem "Staying Alive," which comprises most of the volume, is a collage of newscasts, letters, conversations, diary entries, and poetic passages which reveals the public forum inspiring and receiving Levertov's poetry as she participates in protest against the war. Levertov devotes her poetry to creating concrete images for the protesters' slogan, "Revolution or death," and feels exhilarated at the unexpected political meaning they give her poem "A Man" when it is read at a rally. The attempt to open poetic value to group determination ends, however, in impasse and exhaustion. Initially willing to overhaul life and poetry to match the protesters' ideals, to change when the "clamor / of unquenched desire's radiant decibels shatter[s] / the patient wineglasses / set out by private history's ignorant / quiet hands" (P 159). Levertov finds subordination of private imagination to public destructive. Fighting the loss of self in a political cause at the end of To Stay Alive, she must establish a healthier relation between individual and group and the authority of private imagination as an agent of social change in her subsequent work. She develops a theory of political poetry and activism as grounded in personal voice. Candles in Babylon attempts both to create the conditions within which personal voice may survive in mass culture and to use this voice in constructing a new public space where the individual imagination may flourish.

While Levertov's poetry of the mid-seventies reflects unresolved conflict between individual and group vision, her theoretical writing works toward an understanding of politics and political poetry beginning from the individual person. Her essay "On the Edge of Darkness: What Is Political Poetry?" defines modem political poetry as fundamentally lyrical and personal. For Levertov, the Romantics emphasized the individuality of the poet, his or her uniqueness rather than typicality, and thus "elevat[ed] ... the lyric mode as the type or exemplar of poetry, because it was the most personal mode." Since then, the association of poetry with lyric rather than "dramatic, epic, narrative, or satirical modes" has led to the exclusion of "ideas, convictions, and even mere opinions" from poetry, leading ultimately to the belief that poetic beauty and political content are incompatible (LC 135). The accuracy of Levertov's understanding of poetic tradition aside, her focus on personal experience reflects its centrality to her conception of political poetry. The essay goes on to argue that personal testimony is the most powerful political statement because it "demonstrates active empathy," motivating the reader through emotional rather than hortatory power (120-21). Levertov praises Pablo Neruda and Muriel Rukeyser for their fusion of "lyricism and overt social and political concern" (189) and articulates her own poetic goal as "such osmosis of the personal and the public, of assertion and of song, that no one would be able to divide our poems into categories" (128). Personal experience becomes the measure of justice and the motive of political action. Her focus for political reform through poetry is thus the individual.

I don't think one can accurately measure the historical effectiveness

of a poem; but one does know, of course, that books influence

individuals; and individuals, although they are part of large economic

and social processes, influence history. Every mass is after all made

up of millions of individuals. (123)

Imagining poetry as a force that influences the course of history, Levertov reduces the mass to thinking individuals capable of reimagining their world and thus transforming society. …

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