Poetry Friday: Denise Levertov

I was reminded of Denise Levertov this week when talking with a friend about poets who express faith in their work—Levertov is particularly skilled, I think, because her grasp of faith is so inclusive and humanity-affirming, and she stays so genuine as she works her way into the nameless and calls it what it is, and not what she expects to see.  And that, combined with my feelings about Libya, and Japan, and the length of a long academic quarter (which, in the light of those global events, pales so by comparison that it can hardly really be seen), made me want to reach out to Levertov and find something new—so here it is, “Making Peace”:

A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

I like the challenge in this poem, the idea that there is a difference between “the absence of war” and “peace”, and that poets have some kind of obligation to bridge that chasm. I think these poems are harder and harder to write, as society asks less and less of its poets. A century ago poets were expected to make sense of the awful…someone in England, for instance, would have to write a poem for the newspapers about Japan and the tsunami, probably the laureate. We don’t do that anymore. In some ways, that’s a benefit…”occasional verse” was only occasionally any good. But in other ways it leaves us open to the blows that life deals out without an art to give us perspective. As much as I like the movies and pop music, it’s hard to see them as perfect substitutes.

Anyway, Levertov does some really great stuff with these sparing phrases—what is, after all, the “grammar of justice” or the “syntax of mutual aid”? They push on my teeth like ripe berries; the sounds seem full of something I can’t taste just yet, but I will. There’s a way in which they tie together poetry and peace (the way that grammar and syntax tie any two words together in language), and I like the shadows in the poem there, where Levertov sees something but is unwilling to paint the whole picture for me. In that way, she makes me find the poem the way she is telling me poems are found…by feeling towards it, and learning it as I say the words, resonating with some and not others and making what stays in me mine. The closing stanza is intense for me: I feel the heft of peace in my hands like a weapon that heals the things it strikes. She loses me at the very end—the image of the crystal seems overdone to me—but before that, the notion of peace “pulsing” into the world, like some enormous backbeat, through the echo chamber of poetry hits me right. Makes me think of Dr. King and Lincoln and the other poets who made peace happen, not just by talking about it, but never without words. I wonder if you feel the same connection to this poem I do, though: it’s very abstract. Drop a note in the comments and let me know.

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2 comments on “Poetry Friday: Denise Levertov

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    I can’t get past the beauty of the line

    “might pulse then”

    appearing on its own. Three. Stressed. Beats. Like a heart.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      That’s a great observation: I think I read past that before. I like that use of the spondee, in small doses, and you’re right about its effect on that moment in the poem. Isn’t that crystal an over-reach, though? I feel like with a tiny edit or two the poem could be 2-3 lines shorter and stronger.

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