I’ve been reading Denise Levertov throughout the past year, a patron saint. I think (bold statement) that she’s my favorite poet. (Though Jane Kenyon sits quietly on the same “favorite poet” train, looking at the hills out the window.) My mom got me her Collected Poems for my birthday, all 1063 pages of them. Her work is expansive, it spreads out far. So many poems. It would take a book or a series of books to really talk about her work, and I’ve read hardly a fraction of her poems so far, but I’m thinking about something in particular, something I keep thinking about Denise, something about her work that I can’t put out of my mind.
At a certain point, Denise’s poems became deeply political, like a light switched on and it shone on everything she saw. I’ve been reading To Stay Alive, written in 1971, which settles, decidedly, in resistance to the Vietnam War. It’s a thick and painful theme, the poems are heavy with war, with guilt, with anger. To read it, it feels like Denise can’t write anything else, just war, the sick of it, war, the terror.
the disasters numb within us
caught in the chest, rolling
in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
resembles a lumps of raw dough
weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day.
Or Rilke said it, ‘My heart. . .
Could I say of it, it overflows
with bitterness. . . but no, as though
its contents were simply balled into
formless lumps, thus
do I carry it about.’
The same war
These words from a poem called “Life at War.” The poems go on and on and on like this, one after another, luminous with unhealth, with sickness, nausea, fear and disgust.
Heavy, heavy, heavy, hand and heart.
We are at war,
bitterly, bitterly at war.
And the buying and selling
buzzes at our heads, a swarm
of busy flies, a kind of innocence.
Gowns of gold sequins are fitted,
sharp-glinting. What harsh rustlings
of silver moire there are,
to remind me of shrapnel splinters.
This from “Tenebrae,” a famous poem from the volume. But the most heavy poem of all is the anchor of the book, “Staying Alive.” In the Collected Poems, it spans pages 345-396. It’s an epic poem, an epic of war, of fear, of living in America. It’s quiet, it weeps. I haven’t even read all of it yet because I have to go very slowly, in little sips. It’s confusing. It includes roman numeral’ed “parts” and “entr’actes.”
In looking to the Introduction of the Collected Poems for some sort of interpretive guidance, I read this:
“A volume like To Stay Alive, published in 1971, shows a deepening attachment to “total involvement.” There is no doubt that, with such commitments, Levertov took risks with here subject matter which translated into risks with her audience. She was unswerving and even unapologetic in her purpose: ‘My didactic poetry,’ she wrote, ‘should be judged by the same criteria as my lyric poetry; in my opinion it won’t be found wanting.’ And yet, inevitably, some of these books, some of these poems remain a controversial part of her achievement… But for some readers–especially as they tracked the anti-war activist–there was a keen disappointment at the loss of their earlier lyric witness: that glowing poet who had written down their visionary dawns, their attitudes to marriage, their twilight winters in Central Park. Who now seemed focused on a different kind of experience, just no longer theirs.”
Levertov disappointed her readers with these poems. That feels so important to this work, that it isn’t what people were looking for from her. She surprised them. And they were still excellent poems. The introduction goes on to say:
“Even the reader who disagrees with the politics can be excited by this throwaway, heraldic stylist, writing as freely of ‘the gray filth’ or ‘the gas-fog’ of an antiwar march as of taking down clothes from the line in ‘on the roof’: gathering the washing as if it were flowers. The beautiful, thrifty lines from ‘A Cloak’ in Relearning the Alphabet still hold true:
I could write about this forever, I could go on researching about this forever, but I’ll save that for the 1063 page crazy book I’ll write someday (whether anyone ever reads it). The point my own mind is getting to as it churns through all of this *information*: I want to be like Denise. I want to carry something, not put it down. I want to remind everyone of something they’re trying not think about. I want to do so with everything I have. I want to be disappointing. Who will write about the kids at the border and keep on writing about them after everyone else forgets? Who will write it as a poem, in a poem that weaves in and out of our own daily life, so we can all hear it fresh, see the strangeness of the fabric we live in. I don’t know if it’s me, but I’m so happy that it was Denise, in another time and place. I am learning so much from these bold and sickening poems. I am remembering something I never experienced, I am seeing my own world with new eyes. I want to hear the news, I want to remember if not to remind. Poetry is part of resistance, and maybe it’s also a way of welcoming the stranger. We always need new songs to sing, or the same song, funeral dirge, just with new lyrics for a new day’s particularities.
To breathe in / my life and to breathe out / poems has to include the world’s thick pain, its politics, its war that goes on and on and on. To exclude it is to not write poetry at all.
In “Staying Alive,” Denise describes anti-war activities, recounts news stories of resistance, thinks about her own friends and family and her own life as it is. She imagines horrors, real and projected, she remembers over and over again explosions and dust. It’s long and thick, it carries everything in it, and ultimately, it’s still about experience, about herself. This is what draws me in, the intimacy of her working it out. If only we all could work out the pain of the world with such tenderness, immediacy, care, and self-hood. To take the world’s pain into yourself is such a Christ-like thing to do, only possible, I think, because of the poetry as a way to exhale. I don’t know how she did it, I’m not sure what it felt like or why she felt like she was able. I am so often numb, so often curled in toward just myself. But I want to be a political poet. Our days demand it. We need new songs. We need to stay alive.
I’ll leave you with this fragment as I go on reading and thinking.
I lug home
the ham for Christmas Eve, life
whirls its diamond sparklers before me.
Yes, I want
revolution, not death: but I don’t
care about survival, I refuse
to be provident, to learn automechanics,
or how to shoot.
O gray desert,
I inhabit your mirages,
palace after palace. . .
pineforest. . .
palmgrove. . .
from “Daily Life,” from “Staying Alive”