‘…..intently listening’: Silence and Word as Eucharistic Feast in the Poetry of Denise Levertov
A paper delivered at the Carmelite Centre, Middlepark on Tuesday 21 June 2016, for the Spiritual Reading Group.
If there’s an Ur-language still among us,
hiding out like a pygmy pterodactyl
in the woods, sighted at daybreak sometimes,
perched on a telephone wire, or like
prehistoric fish discovered in ocean’s
deepest grottoes, then it’s the exclamation,
universal whatever the sound, the triumphant,
wondering, infant utterance, ‘This! This!’,
showing and proffering the thing, anything,
the affirmation before the naming.
Robert Creely, American poet and close friend of Denise Levertov, has written: ‘The exceptional grace - a dancer’s I liked to think - of (Denise Levertov’s) work, the movement so particular to a complex of thought and feeling accomplished a rare unity. That unique quality is present in all she does…’ Each time I have felt myself getting stuck, or more frequently lost in writing this piece on Denise Levertov, I have returned to spend time with her poetry. There she continues to give me something fresh, wakes me up to the world a little more. And there too it’s as if, gently admonishing, she has sent me back into my floating thoughts, back to my blank screen, and pressed me forward on a track; wondering, enticed. It’s a good creaturely way to move with such a graceful poet dancer.
Denise Levertov believed that her poetry was ‘testimonies of life lived.’ She called language ‘her Jerusalem.’ Her poetry was born out of her life. In all, she wrote 24 volumes of poetry, 4 volumes of essays and 8 translations. There is also a substantial body of correspondence and personal letters, diaries and notebooks. Her writing continued to be throughout her life piercing with insight, alive to her imagination and attentively wrought. As in her own lived life, her poetry and poetics evolved. Memories and apprehensions of life, like layers of soil being built up over time, became mixed with new understanding and insight. In this presentation I shall be looking at her later poetry for this very reason - in them can still be detected the early strata of her early work.
Denise Levertov was born in England in 1923 and died in America in 1997. Her father, Paul Levertoff, was a Russian born Jew. He descended from Shneour Zalman, a Russian founding father of the Habad branch of Hasidism. When Paul converted to Christianity he was ostracised by his family, and chose to leave Russia after finishing University to make his own way in the world as a teacher and academic. Denise’s mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones, was Welsh born. She was orphaned at a young age and brought up by relatives who were strict Congregationalists. As an adult she travelled and then studied under Paul Levertoff’s supervision in Constantinople. They married in 1911 and moved to London. There, as Anglican priest, Paul Levertoff worked in a London Church of England Parish, but he was also the Director of the East London Centre for Jews and a member of the Hebrew Christian Church. Later, Levertov described them as ‘exotic birds in the plain English coppice of Ilford, Essex.’ She called her mother, who was a naturalist and artist, a ‘pointer outer’. Beatrice planted the seed for Levertov’s own call to ‘pay attention’ to all things, to movements and changes in the natural world. For Denise, this also translated to attentiveness to fine tunings within the self. And it’s a call she extends to us, as reader or listener of her poetry. The final poem in the last book of her poetry, (Sands of the Well 1996) published in her lifetime:
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes, caps and bells.
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still
hour by hour sustain it
Although from a very young age Denise Levertov declared herself to be an agnostic, she nonetheless, celebrated ‘mystery’ and later attributed her keen sense of ‘wonder’ and ‘marvels’ to her own childhood education in Hasidism. Dana Greene in her comprehensive biography of Levertov writes: from a young age we see that Levertov ‘ discovered mystery in the divine sparks of the Hasidism and in her search for “inscape.”’ But it wasn’t only her Jewish heritage which had a lifelong influence on her writing about wonder. Greene goes on to say: ‘” The ‘negative capability” of Keats, the “disinterested intensity” of Rilke, the “dialogical relationships” of Buber, each brought her closer to its revelation……(the) search for mystery is everywhere in her poetry, but she claimed not to have belief. She considered herself a “syncretist or a dilettante of religions”.’There was a spirit in Denise Levertov from a very young age which sought expression through writing poetry, but refused to be contained. Words became Levertov’s primary and lifelong interest. At the end of her life she lamented that the English working vocabulary in America was shrinking. She herself wrote her first poem at the age of 5, dictating it to her older sister Olga. At the age of 11 she sent a poem to TS Eliot who was then Editor of The Criterion. Though he did not publish the poem, he took the time to write back to her and advised to keep writing poetry and translate of other poets. Rilke, was one of a number of poets she translated and went back to again and again for inspiration throughout her life. Levertov was mainly home schooled by her mother. Their house was filled with books. As she grew up increasingly she enjoyed solitary visits to London galleries and museums; places that become repositories to feed her awakening imagination. For a time as a young adult she pursued ballet, but then at 19 became a nurse. However, it was when she left England in 1948, aged 25, having married an American, Mitchell Goodman, that writing became her primary focus.