Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

A Visionary Element

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

A Visionary Element

Article excerpt

Three years ago Denise Levertov and I gave a reading together in Galway. It was a cold spring night and as we walked over a bridge on our way to the reading, I could hear the small, noisy churning of the Corrib. That night she read a poem by which I was powerfully and immediately moved. When it was published, I was even more struck by it. That poem is the subject of this piece. It deserves, I believe, to be considered with her very best work. It is also, I am sure, an innovative, important contemporary poem. I will be trying in this essay to indicate some of the windows it opened for me, to show some of the distances it reaches into, to argue for some of the contexts it establishes.

To do that, I intend to take a circuitous route through impression and argument, some of it entirely personal. But then, the poem itself is circuitous. It promises the reader an explicable journey, then appears to turn in a circle, then ends with an open architecture of mystery and suggestion. After that, it continues happening in the reader's mind, reestablishing its dark tone and insistent cadences in the memory. Certainly, in my mind and memory it continued to happen in such a way that I began to ask myself why was it I was so struck with it. The reasons, of course, are within the poem itself. But there may be another reason also. This is a rare poem--almost an extinct species in terms of recent poetic tradition. It has the exact qualities which Eliot admired Tennyson for: it is a poem of doubt by a poet of faith.

The poem's title is "Uncertain Oneiromancy" and what follows is intended to be a brief account of its narrative, its appearance as a text, its apparatus of sound and argument. Of course, the true account can only be on the page, between poet and reader. Any account, such as I intend to give, is absolutely secondary to the reader's own encounter. And the poem, in fact, is easily available, published in Denise Levertov's most recent book Sands of the Well (4) and reprinted at the end of this essay. When the poem opens, the speaker is describing a dream, although that fact becomes obvious only some way down the page. The opening line--"I spent the entire night leading a blind man"--is deft and ambiguous. It suggests that the speaker has been through some ordeal, some mysterious passage of darkness, leading someone behind her who can't see. For a few lines, the impact of this will itself be so striking that whether it happened in dream or reality will seem, in fact, less important.

The second line fills in the location. This blind man has been led through "an immense museum." The reason for this quickly becomes plain. He has been taken into and led through the building for nothing less than his own safety. He has been guided through this great, but still badly defined, enclosure so that he could avoid the danger of the open streets outside--"all the swift / chaotic traffic." "Uncertain Oneiromancy" isn't a long poem. It accomplishes its dark and inward narrative in twenty-five lines. By now six have already occurred and the scene is set: An unknown speaker has spent the hours of darkness guiding a man who has lost his sight through an institution specifically established for those who have it. The setting is a monument, in fact, to the world of sight. But the poem has little time for its own ironies at this point, and hurries on. Its destination is more irony still. The man has been brought there for his safety, the speaker tells us, and yet the unexpected has happened. The museum turns out to be surprisingly dangerous. To protect him from falling or colliding into comers and angles, the speaker has to keep warning him about "jutting chests and chairs and stone angles." So absorbing is this task, that the speaker--and this is important--becomes beauty-blind. All that she can see are the hazards to this man she first brought here to protect from the traffic. Now in a traffic of their own, she misses the power of the objects around her. …

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