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Denise Levertov
Tribute followed by an Interview —

Christianity and Literature, Vol. 43, No. 3-4 (Summer 1994), 429-30.

At the Annual CCL Luncheon on 29 December 1994, held during the MLA Annual Convention in San Diego, Charles A. Huttar and Jewel Spears Brooker presented Lifetime Achievement Awards, respectively, to Owen Barfield and Denise Levertov on behalf of the organization. 

 

Denise Levertov

The CCL Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry is being given to our special guest at today's luncheon, Denise Levertov, a poet who for many decades has been acknowledged as one of the finest writers in England and America. Ms. Levertov is the author of seventeen volumes of poetry. The earliest, The Double Image, was published nearly fifty years ago, and the most recent, Evening Train, just two years ago. Her commitment to both craftsmanship and exploratory modes was evident from the beginning, a commitment exquisitely realized in those engaging volumes of the early sixties, The Jacob's Ladder and O Taste and See. In the sixties she and her American husband were deeply involved in the peace movement in this country, and her work from this period, including The Sorrow Dance, Relearning the Alphabet, and Staying Alive, exhibits the courage of one who believes in coherence between one's values and one's action. Ms. Levertov has gathered most of the poems from these first three decades of her career into three collections, the first including most poems from 1940 to 1960, the second from 1960 to 1967, and the third from 1968 to 1972.

In the eighties Ms. Levertov began to "come out" as a Christian. In 1984 she explained that she had moved rather gradually from a position of "regretful skepticism" to one of Christian belief. In her own words, "I have been engaging[,] . . . during the last few years, in my own version of the Pascalian wager, and finding that an avowal of Christian faith is not incompatible with my aesthetic nor with my political stance, since as an artist I was already in the service of the transcendent, and since Christian ethics ... uphold the same values I seek in a politics of racial and economic justice and nonviolence" (New and Selected Essays [New York: New Directions, 1992], 243).

In an essay written in 1990, Ms. Levertov is again quite explicit about the interaction between her journey of art and her journey of faith. In moving testimony she associates the writing of poetry, her special work, with the development of faith. The process of writing, of being inspired or breathed through, builds faith. While others may speak of faith that works, she refers to work, the work of the artist, as work that "enfaiths." The imagination, she claims, is "the chief of human faculties," and it must be "by the exercise of that faculty that one moves toward faith, and possibly by its failure that one rejects it as delusion" (New and Selected Essays 246).

In retrospect, the religious depth of Ms. Levertov's work does not seem surprising. Her religious heritage, both Jewish and Christian, is unusually rich, and she gratefully acknowledges the blessings of having "Illustrious Ancestors." Her grandfather was a distinguished Russian Hasidic rabbi, and her father, Paul Levertoff, a Jew who encountered the New Testament as part of his studies and who decided that Jesus really was the promised Messiah. After moving to Britain, he became an Anglican priest. "My father's Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervor and eloquence as a preacher," Levertov has said, "were factors built into my cells" [New and Selected Essays 258). The poet's mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones, was from Wales. She was a talented and richly lyrical personality whose spiritual presence is clear in many poems. The most moving, I think, are those poems in Life in the Forest about her mother's final illness and death in Mexico. These poems, like almost all of her work, turn out on examination to manifest what she has called her most consistent theme from the beginning, the acknowledgment and celebration of mystery.

In some works of art—say, the paintings of Giotto or Van Eyck, Rembrandt or Rouault, or, say, the poems of Rilke or Wordsworth or Hopkins—Christ plays in a thousand faces, not his. And in Denise Levertov's poetry, too, "the Infinite / plays, and in grace / gives us clues to His mystery" ("Variations on a Theme by Rilke," Breathing the Water [New York: New Directions, 1987]).

Denise Levertov, for all the clues in your extraordinary life, for all the whispers of being in your splendid poems, we are grateful, and in homage we present you with our Lifetime Achievement Award. The quotation on your certificate, from "Two Threnodies and a Psalm" (A Door in the Hive [New York: New Directions, 1989]), is a prayer: "Lift us, Spirit, impel / our rising / into that knowledge. / Make truth real to us, / flame on our lips."

 



 

Christianity and Literature Vol. 45, No. 2 (Winter 1996), 217-24.

A Conversation with Denise Levertov
Jewel Spears Brooker

The Conference on Christianity and Literature sponsored a reading by Denise Levertov at the 1994 Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association in San Diego. In addition, CCL presented the poet with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and president Jewel Spears Brooker interviewed her for Christianity and Literature. The interview, which had to be conducted by mail, was completed in November 1995.

JSB: The poet has been viewed in different ways in different ages—as entertainer, teacher, prophet, priest, legislator. Some of your writing suggests that the poet may be a historian, a witness, a participant. Does the poet have special responsibilities? Are they constant, or do they vary with circumstances?

DL: The only responsibility peculiar to the poet is to poetry, language, art, the aesthetic conscience. Historical moments elicit response, more in some individuals than in others; if that individual is a poet, that response may take the form of poems, but that is an opportunity, not an obligation. As for obligations, as I've said before, poets share the same obligations as others. No more, no less. A poet can be historian, witness, participant—but that is always an individual response. Walt Whitman wrote about the Civil War, Emily Dickinson did not.

JSB: In essays on poetry and politics, you sometimes allude to the responsibility of the poet in public discourse. Some of your poems seem to be rhetorical in the classical sense of the word—that is, concerned with persuasion, with moving the reader to action. What are some of the challenges with moving today's readers? How, if at all, is your poetic shaped by an awareness of the need to engage the reader?

DL: I don't consider my work "rhetorical," designed to persuade to action. If any of it "awakens sleepers," that may lead some readers, sooner or later, to actions they might not otherwise have taken. But my poems do not tell people what to do. I never think about an "audience" when I'm writing. As I've written, and as I've tried to teach students, one locates that in oneself which needs a certain poem, and writes for that inner listener. Then it goes out into the world—and I rejoice if it corresponds to what others also need. But I don't write for them. Of course, poems that articulate political rage and grief are bound to seem rhetorical, it is true, because in them opinions and passions become indistinguishable; and it would be disingenuous to deny consciousness of their possible effect. But their motive is not rhetorical.

JSB: What about the reader's imagination? Do poems about pain or about God require imagination in readers? What resources can the poet draw upon when faced with illiterate or unimaginative readers?

DL: Of course the reader must have a receptive imagination, no matter what the theme, and be reasonably literate, too—though a less than fully literate person can sometimes respond to the sensory aspects of a poem better than an over-analytic intellectual who may be poorly developed in sensuous response.

ISB: In "My Prelude" you invite your reader to associate your muse with Wordsworth's. "One summer evening, led by her. ..." In HIS Prelude Wordsworth invites the reader to associate his muse with Milton's. Milton is present in some of your poems too ("They Looking Back," for example), and images suggesting your own evolving version of paradise lost and indeed paradise regained are scattered throughout your work. In the opening lines of Paradise Lost, Milton's evocation of the muse modulates into a prayer to the Holy Spirit: "And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer / Before all temples th' upright heart and pure, / Instruct me, for thou know'st." Could you comment on the evolution of your muse—from the early muse that "remain[s] in your human house, / and walk[s] / in its garden" ("To the Muse") to the spirit that moves through so many of your later poems—"Blessed is that which . . . bears the spirit within it. / The name of the spirit is written / in woodgrain, windripple" ("Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus")? Has your muse changed in character over the years? Have you come, as many Christian poets have, to recognize in poetic inspiration a place for the Holy Spirit?

DL: I don't really subscribe to the "muse" idea. I've used the word more or less playfully in the past. But I've never really entertained the sense that I had a more or less embodied figure dictating to me or whispering in my ear. In "To the Muse" it was a figure of speech. In "The Goddess" that was the Goddess of Truth, not the muse as some readers seem to have thought. And in "She and the Muse" I was having fun with the idea of lovers as muses. I would consider it impertinent, if not blasphemous, to claim the Holy Spirit as a muse!

JSB: Many of your writings—that poignant sketch of initiation, "When Anna Screamed," the elegies for Olga and your mother and Muriel Rukeyser, the marriage and divorce poems and "A Woman's Document," the poems about women as hypocrites and men as deaf-mutes—these and more deal with your consciousness of yourself and others as female. Could you comment on your evolving sense of yourself as female and perhaps say how these special gendered experiences have shaped your epistemology, your spirituality?

DL: I can't really address this question. I have always simply taken for granted the fact that I am female, and I have never understood the problems of consciousness of gender which seem to have become prevalent. To me the question (which of course others have asked me sometimes) is as baffling as it would be to be asked how my life has been affected by having brown eyes.

JSB: Much has been made of the neo-Romantic origins of your work. But what about the old Romantics? You once mentioned that in your youth you enjoyed reading Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson. You refer to Keats in your essays, especially to Negative Capability and to this world as the Vale of Soulmaking. You often refer to Wordsworth too. His natural supernaturalism, his insistence on presence, his experience of joy in the things of this world, his emphasis on the role of the imagination in cognition—all of these seem important in your work. How do you understand your kinship as an artist with the greater Romantics, and most especially could you comment on your reading of and attitude toward Wordsworth?

DL: My early (and abiding) love of Keats and Wordsworth is inseparable from my early (and equally abiding) love for the English countryside. In the case of Keats, the other strong factors were the sensuous music of his poetry (which is what I also enjoyed in Tennyson) and—when I got into my teens—the personality so vivid in his letters. And in his attitude to poetry. In the case of Wordsworth, certain lines have great music too, but as you well know, Wordsworth walks and Keats dances. I loved the details of nature in Wordsworth, and the evocation of rich solitude, and much else. I took in and absorbed much of his more philosophical content unconsciously. Keep in mind that I was (and remained) a solitary reader, unexposed (thank God) to academic requirements and critiques and analyses.

JSB: In a 1972 interview with Ian Reid, you defined the imagination as "the power of perceiving analogies and of extending this power from the observed to the surmised . . . The poet sees, and reveals in language, what is present but hidden—what Goethe . . . called the open secret." Is imagination, then, part of knowing, of cognition? If so, in what way is it creative? Is there a sense, as Wordsworth claimed there was, in which the imagination in the process of perceiving actually creates life out of the dust?

DL: I would stand by what I said in 1972. But, yes, I also see the imagination as creative—it combines the analogies and "open secrets" it perceives and fashions from them new works. This, I believe, is the act of synthesis that Coleridge called "esemplastic power." And, of course, the materials of the poet (or any artist) are not solely that which is perceived but include the medium itself—in the poet's case, words, syntax, sounds, rhythms. This is what the famous dictum "Poetry is not made of ideas but of words" means. And William Carlos Williams' "No ideas but in things" likewise includes among "things" the physical entity, language.

JSB: You also say in this fascinating discussion that imagination is inextricable from doing, from process, that just as the painter only sees when he is painting, the poet only sees when he is writing—"the vision is given in the work process." In the final books of the Prelude, Wordsworth discusses imagination as more of a state than an act— "reason in her most exalted mood," a "spiritual love," an "intellectual love" resulting in a fusion of intellect and feeling or, as Eliot would put it, from a unified sensibility. How, if at all, does this emphasis on love, in Keats's and Hazlitt's terms, on sympathy, fit into your present thinking about the imagination?

DL: I think the state, rather than the act, that Wordsworth refers to (and I would relate this to your other allusions also—"unified sensibility," "love," "sympathy," etc.) is what Rilke spoke about in describing his perception of a dog not as an "inspection" which involves seeing through the dog, using it as a "window upon the humanity lying behind it," but as Einsehung, an "in-seeing" which allows one "precisely into the dog's very center, the point where it begins to be dog" (see my New and Selected Essays 235-36).

JSB: One more question about the imagination please. A dozen years after the Reid interview, you write about the imagination from the point of view of a Christian poet. And, again, your comments seem extraordinarily rich. If in 1972 you were saying, "I imagine that I may know," here you seem to extend it to "I imagine that I may believe." Instead of saying, as Stevens does, that "God and the imagination are one," you make a crucial distinction—arguing that it is through the exercise of the imagination that "one moves toward faith, and possibly by its failure that one rejects it as delusion . . . Imagination . . . is the perceptive organ by which it is possible, though not inevitable, to experience God" ("A Poet's View"). Now this seems clear enough in the case of Julian of Norwich, as your wonderful sequence, your own Showing, reveals. But for poets who are not mystics, and for the rest of us, could you comment, please, on what seems to be a vital point: the connection between imagination and faith?

DL: I am certainly not a mystic! So I have no way of knowing how mystics' faith related to their imagination, other than what anyone can deduce from their testimony. For a poet (and poets don't tend to be mystics: the poetic and mystic modes of experience are quite different, I think, though some mystics may also be poets), imagination (which, obviously, comes with the territory) is a prerequisite for faith, though all poets must have imagination and only some have faith. Poets are typically too mentally active and questioning to have the kind of faith that is an extension of trust, the kind of faith a simple and perhaps uneducated, or at least unsophisticated, person may have, the faith of "un coeur simple." And yet poets are "right-brain" people. So if they do attain faith, it must involve the imagination. It is perhaps their substitute for the childlike direct assumptions of the naturally pure in heart

JSB: In "A Poet's View" you describe something that was becoming evident in your poems, especially in Candles in Babylon, Oblique Prayers, and Breathing the Water—a movement from an altar to the unknown gods to an awareness of God (capital G) to an understanding of "God as revealed in the Incarnation." The Incarnation is central in a number of your poems, for example "Mass for the Day of St Thomas Didymus" and "On the Mystery of the Incarnation." Would you comment on your deepening understanding of the Incarnation as it figured in your gradual conversion to Christianity and as it figures in your present faith?

DL: I cannot add anything to what is in the poems.

JSB: In "Origins of a Poem" you suggest that art is an incarnational experience, an act of "realizing inner experience in material substance" (The Poet in the World). And in "A Poet's View" you reaffirm that your aesthetics are incarnational. In a 1989 essay you mention that you have come to appreciate Four Quartets. I am wondering if this might have something to do with Eliot's incarnational poetic, his emphasis on the word made flesh, and his incarnational theology, his emphasis on the Logos, particularly in Part V of each section. Could you share some of your reflections on Four Quartets?

DL: I turned against Four Quartets in the mid-60s when Eliot's lines came to seem limp and lacking in vitality compared to those by Williams, Pound, D. H. Lawrence at his best, and Jeffers. When I reread the Quartets in the late 80s, they seemed less flabby, and I again felt the beauty of many parts of them (though there are sections that I still find flat and over-abstract). It is true that I found their content more interesting by the time of rereading than I had in the 60s, but my primary problem had been with the quality of the writing.

JSB: In view of your consistent interest in issues related to war— from "Listening to Distant Guns," your first published poem, to the more recent "In California during the Gulf War"—I am wondering if you would be willing to comment on today's war in Europe. Is Bosnia a European problem, none of our business? What, if any, is our responsibility as Christians when we see entire populations sorted like bags of flour—the old and very young exported, the girls sent to rape camps, the boys murdered on the spot?

DL: I certainly don't have any answers to all this!—except to say that violence breeds violence and that world disarmament is the only sane and righteous yet seemingly unattainable strategy. If the U.S., France, and other manufacturers would stop making and selling weapons of every land, it would be a first step. Yet even if that were to occur, what vast, virtually inconceivable problems would remain: every kind of injustice and inequity, the sources of hatred and resentment and despair and thus of violence. Personal conversion to non-violent action of all human beings is what's needed, and it is—obviously—not a realistic hope, at the present state of human evolution. If we don't destroy the planet first, we can perhaps hope for further evolution . . . spiritual evolution.

JSB: In reading over your work again, I am impressed with the many intersections between your long-held political positions and the theology of your later work. It seems, for example, that one of the consistent principles in your writings and indeed in your life as an activist is that in the final analysis deeds are more important than words, works more powerful than faith. "Even the ascent and descent of the angels depend on my deeds," as the epigraph from The Jacob's Ladder puts it. In a 1990 essay you again shy away from the Protestant idea of a faith that works in favor of the Catholic idea of "works that enfaith." You are referring, of course, to the work of writing, but could you comment on this general idea—this emphasis on works—as a more comprehensive principle in your personal, political, and spiritual life?

DL: Faith without works (unless, say, in a physically incapacitated person) is surely hypocritical. That is surely clear to any Christian. Whereas works without faith are no less valuable than works with faith (maybe even more valuable since the saintly atheist, for example, would be acting under a handicap). As for the person whose physical situation precludes works in the sense of action, his or her attitude to caregivers, say, or to fellow-prisoners if confined, also constitutes a form of "works." At the extreme, human value resides in being, not doing—but when action is possible, it is often the only truthful expression of being. Or, if you can, do; but if you can't, all is not lost. One thinks of the Hasidic story about "Why were you not Moishe?"

JSB: In conclusion, I want to focus on what has been a favorite metaphor of yours, life as a pilgrimage. In 1967, in a talk presented to a coalition of poets and theologians, you mentioned that Pilgrim's Progress was one of the childhood books that most affected your imagination, and there or elsewhere you revealed that Bunyan's hymn on valor was one of your childhood favorites. You have written of your struggle to bring together "for myself my sense of the pilgrim way with my new, American, objectivist-influenced, pragmatic and sensuous longing for... living in the present" (The Poet in the World). And in a recent essay you say that "though I own a house and have steady work, I am by nature, heritage, and as an artist, forever a stranger and pilgrim" ("A Poet's View"). You have come a long way, have crossed many geographical and spiritual worlds, in your more than threescore years and ten. Could you comment retrospectively on your own pilgrimage and, perhaps, if you wish, comment on the road ahead.

DL: Though I now have a nice edition of the unabridged Pilgrim's Progress, I've never waded through it all. What I read as a child was a children's abridgment. The "To Be a Pilgrim" hymn was in the English Hymnal (with a different tune than the one mainly used in America. I think maybe it was arranged by Vaughan Williams). The concept, the sense of a land with geographical features and various personages with descriptive names, and [the idea] of quest were what impressed me so indelibly. Some of these same factors were among those which, at a slightly later age, I loved in Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur—the romance of wandering and of quest . . . Thus, eventually, of life itself—the inner life, the artist's life—as journey, as personal Bildungsroman, . . . I can't comment on my life as a whole, as your question invites me to, nor on what may lie ahead for me.

JSB: Thank you, Denise.

Eckerd College

 

WORKS CITED

Levertov, Denise. "Discussion." A Meeting of Poets and Theologians to Discuss Parable, Myth, and Language. Cambridge: Church Society for College Work, 1968. 14-18, 19-36, 53-56.

. "'Everyman's Land': Ian Reid Interviews Denise Levertov." Southern Review (Australia) 5 (1972): 231-36.

. The Jacob's Ladder. New York: New Directions, 1961.

. New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992.

. The Poet in the World. New York: New Directions, 1973.

. "A Poet's View"(1984). New and Selected Essays 239-46.

—. "Work That Enfaiths" (1990). New and Selected Essays 247-57.