Friday, November 14, 2014

Denise Levertov: Poet, Poem, Memory

Denise Levertov with lilies 
I saw Denise Levertov read at Brandeis University when I was a senior in high school. She was only the second poet I ever heard read, the first was Linda Pastan. Levertov wore a simple shirt, blue jeans, and read to us from the brown classroom desk --- cross-legged. Cross-legged!

No adult had ever dressed or draped herself across a desk like this before. At least not in my presence. More than that, Levertov was having fun with us. She laughed and chatted in her New York-British accent. There were perhaps 30 people in the room. 

Hearing Denise Levertov while still in my teens left a lifelong impression. Her essays The Poet in the World were the first critical essays I ever read on poetry and I still refer to them today. Most of all, her pleasure in the word and in conveying that pleasure to her audience is a constant model for me. 

The complexity of her religious background --- her German father was born into a highly honored rabbinical family but converted to the Anglican Church when he moved to England.  Levertov took up her own Christianity as subject midway through her life --- and it did not speak to me -- but her earlier and her later poetry did.

Here is a remembrance of Levertov found on the Image Journal blog by Murray Bodo -- this is a small part of the article but the one that I loved.

"One wonders how Levertov’s Welsh/Jewish heritage influenced her ear for language. Celtic traditions believe that the original harmony of the world is still to be found in the sounds of nature. The language imitates the sounds of the river, the waves, the seabirds, the wind. Kabalistic mysticism which influenced her father, is a repetitive re-weaving of primordial sounds in an attempt to heal a broken cadence. The Kabalists believed that every letter and sound of the Torah reveals God, and one of their mantric practices consisted of repeating the sound of a sacred word, much like the Buddhist sounding of “Om.” The Jewish mystics also believe that there are sacred tones, sounds and rhythms that are part of fundamental harmony. They seek to attain harmony with these sounds and rhythms as a way of re-establishing the disharmony or broken cadence between the human and the Divine."

Denise Levertov lived her last years in Seattle. I've learned from local musicians that she was "demanding" to work with as no instrument could be made to match the music in her head. And yet she continually allowed her poems to be set to music. The sense of sound and harmony was paramount to her. The Jewish traditions still alive.


Here is an early villanelle:


Obsessions


Maybe it is true we have to return

to the black air of ashcan city

because it is there the most life was burned,


as ghosts or criminals return?

But no, the city has no monopoly

of intense life. The dust burned


golden or violet in the wide land

to which we ran away, images

of passion sprang out of the land


as whirlwinds or red flowers, your hands

opened in anguish or clenched in violence

under that sun, and clasped my hands


in that place to which we will not return

where so much happened that no one else noticed,

where the city's ashes that we brought with us

flew into the intense sky still burning.


Denise Levertov, 1958 from "Collected Earlier Poems:1940-1960" New Directions Publishing Company

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