Politics by Parable: Denise Levertov and the Gulf War

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Denise Levertov has the reputation of being a didactic poet who wrote angrily and often about the "leaden burden of human evil" endured by people of good will in the modern era. (1) Her poems denouncing the Vietnam War are justly famous and controversial. Those who read them as they appeared in the late 1960s, and I am one, and heard the poet declaim them in her ceaseless round of visits to college campuses and public venues, can testify to their clarion effects. Readers and listeners were roused to activism by the felt passion of such poems. Their deliberate rejection of standards of decorum mandating temperance and disinterestedness struck readers then as a subversion as bracing as the brazen confessionalism of Sylvia Plath's Ariel or the impudent neo-Dadaism of John Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath. Young writers who had been drilled repeatedly in creative writing workshops on the modernist gospel--to use Western Union if they wished to send a message--embraced the breakdown of the taboo against vehement and partisan rhetoric. Just as paperbacks like Poems of Protest Old and New (1968) and Where is Vietnam: American Poets Respond (1967) became talismans for the counterculture, so Levertov's The Sorrow Dance, Relearning the Alphabet, and To Stay Alive fell onto one's bedside table and into one's heart, cohabiting with Joseph Heller's Catch-22, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night. They became an essential part of the Zeitgeist, of what we summon when we refer to "The Sixties."

Though it did not matter during the furious years of the war whether the poems were fashioned for posterity, it came to matter a great deal after the war. The backlash came as no surprise, and no doubt some advocates of Levertov's protest poems half welcomed the spirited defense of the status quo ante in matters of taste. Robert von Hallberg, quoting a section of Levertov's poem "Part I (October '68--May '69)," wrote in 1985 that "These lines (a shame to quote them, really) are the nadir of political poetry of the later 1960s.... This is what choosing sides can come to for poets: a sentimental simplification of history." (2) Paul Breslin complained in 1987 of Levertov's "programmatically lurid" imagery pressed into service without judicious consideration of both sides of the political equation: "Levertov's argument ... leaves the motives of the Vietnamese themselves entirely out of account.... To function historically, the imagination must include analytical intelligence." (3) A concerted effort to rescue the prestige of poetry from the hortatory sermonizing of (some) poems by Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, and less famous poets became a revisionist wave informing the discourse of critics in almost every literary journal.

Levertov did not change her poetics to suit her critics, not for a while. By and large, she continued to believe that "There is no reason why a poetry of political and social engagement can't be as good as any other poetry." (4) She argued that the poet was obligated, at least intermittently, to make immediate and compelling contact with a large mass of readers and to move them to action by her rhetoric, including her rhetoric of protest, no less than an orator like Martin Luther King, Jr. Just as sequences like "Life at War," "Elegies," and "Staying Alive" did choose sides, Hanoi against Washington, so later poems like "El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation," "Protesting at the Nuclear Test Site," and "Alienation in Silicon Valley" persisted in condemning American social and political abuses in the most emphatic way. Even readers who felt uneasy about the free-swinging, in-your-face language of such poems nevertheless had to acknowledge that Levertov had a point. Is choosing sides really the issue in our evaluation of a poem's value? Do we blame Milton for choosing sides in his sonnet of fierce partisanship, "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont," or Wordsworth in his anti-Napoleon sonnets, or Wilfred Owen in his denunciations of the facile patriotism of the home front? …