A Poetics of Consenting Attention: Simone Weil's Prayer and the Poetry of Denise Levertov

By Wright-Bushman, Katy | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

A Poetics of Consenting Attention: Simone Weil's Prayer and the Poetry of Denise Levertov


Wright-Bushman, Katy, Christianity and Literature


Abstract: This article examines the practice of attention as a subject of Denise Levertov's poetry, one that emerges fully only after her commitment to Christianity and its convictions of immanent, incarnate transcendence. Simone Weil fluidly and precisely describes this practice and the receptive consent to the subject that accompanies it in her response to stark contemporary circumstances earlier in the century. I explore Levertov's exemplification of this practice in Well's terms, arguing that Levertov's hesitant and late-arriving Catholicism, like Well's own devotional experience, underwrites the responsorial practice of attention. It operates for Levertov as both a poetic method and as a response to contemporary questions of poetics and language, producing a poetics that privileges the possibility of knowing as love and speaking as prayer.

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In an endnote to her late poem, "The Servant Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velasquez)," Denise Levertov describes the telling history of the image that provokes her poem: "Before [the painting] was cleaned" she writes, "the subject was not apparent: only when the figures at table in a room behind her were revealed was her previously ambiguous expression clearly legible as acutely attentive" (86, n. 66). Though she speaks here of that servant girl who watches Jesus break bread with his unknowing disciples at the margins of the painting, the description uncannily suggests the increasing legibility of Levertov herself as a mid- and late twentieth-century British and American poet whose ambiguity of expression flowers into a self-consciously sharp attentiveness across the course of her career.

That acute attentiveness displayed on Velasquez's painted face might well stand as an emblem for the approach Levertov herself took throughout her career to the craft of writing poetry: though the practice of attention itself becomes a clear subject of her writing only after her own commitment to Christianity and its convictions of immanent, incarnate transcendence of the Christ breaking bread in the same plane as the servant girl--it describes her poetic practice over the course of her writing. This practice of attention, and the receptive consent to the subject of the attentive gaze that accompanies it, distinguishes Levertov's poetry. It is an attention that operates for Levertov and other twentieth-century poets not only as a poetic method, but as a response to particular contemporary questions of poetics and language, philosophical cares, and crises of power. (1)

This mode of response, expressed in the realm of poetics, is exemplified by an approach not through denuded and fragmented skepticism, but through consenting attention--consenting because it is a responsive attention marked by an active openness to the other and, eventually, the Other. (2) This consenting attention, described fluidly and precisely by Simone Weil in her writings about human virtue in response to stark contemporary circumstances earlier in the century, is exemplified by Levertov, whose hesitant and late-arriving Catholicism, like Weil's own hesitant but rich religious practice, underwrites such a response. I mean here both that Weirs and Levertov's Christian faith underwrites the practice of attention and that their hesitancy in coming to that faith suggests the value and character of that attention: for both, it began not as a theologically confident spiritual exercise, but as an agnostic one. Christianity did not lead either to attentiveness, but rather, the reverse. (3) This approach to the world, to the other, and to the poetic subject, marked by consenting attention, produces a poetics that privileges the possibility of knowing as love and speaking as prayer, growing out of what George Steiner calls "a wager on transcendence" that itself enables language and, consequently, poetry (4). (3)

The approach to the observable and lived-in world, to the other (and as I suggest above, often a transcendent Other), as a practice and as a poetics shared in remarkable ways by Weil and Levertov, underwritten by certain ontological, metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical commitments or concerns, is ancient and far-reaching: from classical ethics to early Christian monasticism, to various and multivalent asceticisms advocated down the ages, attention as an aspect of religious practice, especially, is key. …

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