April 12, 2013

NPM 2013 - L is for Levertov

Have a plethora of choices to choose from today - Three Bostonians: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amy Lowell and Robert Lowell; Detroit's own Philip Levine; Denise Levertov, the British-born American poet; then crossing continents to the south, Federico García Lorca; crossing the pond to England - Philip Larkin and DH Lawrence, a very talented poet from my generation: Li-Young Lee (ok; he is older than I am but most of the poets I read were born before World War II; anyone born after WWII, in my books, is a poet of my generation! ;-)).... and then there is Mina Loy, about whom the father of American modern poetry, Ezra Pound wrote to Marianne Moore: "... is there anyone in America except you, Bill [William Carlos Williams] and Mina Loy who can write anything of interest in verse?".

So, how does one choose? By posting a few poems by poets whose work I am most familiar with (I have read and enjoyed quite a few poems from Larkin and a few from Levertov in the last few years) or exploring some poet whose work I am not familiar with? But time is limited and I have decided to go with someone whose poetry I was not familiar with at all couple years ago but whose poems have delighted me a lot - Denise Levertov. Like the profile at the Poetry Foundation site says:

During the course of a prolific career, Denise Levertov created a highly regarded body of poetry that reflects her beliefs as an artist and a humanist. Her work embraces a wide variety of genres and themes, including nature lyrics, love poems, protest poetry, and poetry inspired by her faith in God. "Dignity, reverence, and strength are words that come to mind as one gropes to characterize . . . one of America's most respected poets," wrote Amy Gerstler in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Gerstler added that a "reader poking her nose into any Levertov book at random finds herself in the presence of a clear uncluttered voice—a voice committed to acute observation and engagement with the earthly, in all its attendant beauty, mystery and pain." 

Three poems, then, by Denise Levertov:

The Ache of Marriage
by Denise Levertov

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,  
are heavy with it,  
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,  
each and each

It is leviathan and we  
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy  
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of  
the ache of it.

Read about the poem here.


This poem has to be shared, if only for the lovely ending lines: "Life after life after life goes by without poetry, without seemliness, without love."

The Mutes
by Denise Levertov   

Those groans men use
passing a woman on the street
or on the steps of the subway

to tell her she is a female
and their flesh knows it,

are they a sort of tune,
an ugly enough song, sung
by a bird with a slit tongue

but meant for music?

Or are they the muffled roaring
of deafmutes trapped in a building that is
slowly filling with smoke?

Perhaps both.

Such men most often
look as if groan were all they could do,
yet a woman, in spite of herself,

knows it's a tribute:
if she were lacking all grace
they'd pass her in silence:

so it's not only to say she's
a warm hole. It's a word

in grief-language, nothing to do with
primitive, not an ur-language;
language stricken, sickened, cast down

in decrepitude. She wants to
throw the tribute away, dis-
gusted, and can't,

it goes on buzzing in her ear,
it changes the pace of her walk,
the torn posters in echoing corridors

spell it out, it
quakes and gnashes as the train comes in.
Her pulse sullenly

had picked up speed,
but the cars slow down and
jar to a stop while her understanding

keeps on translating:
'Life after life after life goes by

without poetry,
without seemliness,
without love.'


And here is one of the first Levertov poems I read a long time ago. Captured me right away wit the right balance of nostalgia and melancholy, sans sentimentality.

A Time Past
by Denise Levertov

The old wooden steps to the front door  
where I was sitting that fall morning  
when you came downstairs, just awake,  
and my joy at sight of you (emerging  
into golden day—
                         the dew almost frost)
pulled me to my feet to tell you  
how much I loved you:

those wooden steps
are gone now, decayed
replaced with granite,
hard, gray, and handsome.  
The old steps live
only in me:
my feet and thighs
remember them, and my hands  
still feel their splinters.

Everything else about and around that house
brings memories of others—of marriage,
of my son. And the steps do too: I recall
sitting there with my friend and her little son who died,  
or was it the second one who lives and thrives?
And sitting there ‘in my life,’ often, alone or with my husband.
Yet that one instant,
your cheerful, unafraid, youthful, ‘I love you too,’  
the quiet broken by no bird, no cricket, gold leaves  
spinning in silence down without
any breeze to blow them,
                                    is what twines itself
in my head and body across those slabs of wood  
that were warm, ancient, and now
wait somewhere to be burnt.


There are many more poems by Levertov (66 in all) at the Poetry Foundation website which you can go read but I'll leave you with this video of Denise Levertov reading six poems from her later collections, three from Evening Train (1992) and three from her posthumously published collecte, Sands Of The Well (1998).


P.S. Have to add this lovely quote I found this morning:
You have come to the shore. There are no instructions.” - last lines of her poem, "The Book without Words', from her book of poems, 'A Door in the Hive'

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