‘…..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.
The contemporary French phenomenologist, theologian and poet, Jean Louis Chretien, has written about interplay between the gaze, the speech and the silence. I have found the idea of this inter-movement, like a dance, a helpful way of working with Levertov’s poetry. It’s as if Levertov herself is performing a listening-gaze into silence. This act is with her whole self, her body, mind and spirit, and the action gives voice in words born from this. And once uttered, the words themselves seem to fall back into the unheard. According to Chretien, listening is prior to speaking, and ‘speaking does not dominate listening’, thus it provides a common space for community. So this act of listening-gaze into silence, is relational. Throughout her life a great deal of Levertov’s poetry celebrates the natural world. On one level you can read these poems as a celebration of nature and all its attendant nuances - exteriorily witnessed and inwardly apprehended. But when looked closer, what starts happening particularly in her later work, is even more delicately layered, more exceptionally nuanced. In her search to make meaning, there is a delicate balance and understanding between the poet as self-conscious perceiver perceiving, and that which is perceived being both perceived and also perceiving. The silence that rests in all of this, in the perceived and the perceiver, and the silence which enables the listening, precedes all. And this then is all then further mirrored in the world of the listener or reader - their interplay with the words, their gaze, their own listening. Last poem, published posthumously in This Great Unknowing:
When I opened the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning up their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop
For Chretien, silence, the unknown, is the ground of speech. And the first dimension of this silence is listening. ‘I opened the door / I found the vineleaves / speaking among themselves in abundant / whispers.’ Secondly, there is silence as response. Chretien says: ‘here the suspension of speech is still itself speech, an eloquent silence, a place of encounter and mutual presence.’ ‘My presence made them / hush their green breath.’ What do the plants do? They ‘button up their jackets, act as if they were leaving anyway’. Mutual encounter and response in silence. And thirdly, according to Chretien, speech as excess. Excess means ‘a surplus of content that defies our attempt at grasping it through our understanding.’ Speech becomes religious. It encounters the Divine. It becomes the Incarnate Word which redeems human silence and helps us listen for a Eucharistic excess in the cosmic silence. It leaves its traces in the ordinary, traces many of us have lost sight of, but still remain for those who are willing to ‘relearn the world.’ Here, for the poet: ‘Next time / I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open / the door by fractions, eavesdrop / peacefully.’ What is the poet wanting to hear? What does she think she will overhear in her eavesdropping? Is it such ‘excess’? We are left wondering too, what is it that we hear and do not hear in the world around us? This is a poem about the privileged articulated view of a listening-gaze into nature: ‘I liked the glimpse I had’, ‘I liked the sound’. And the poem itself becomes the explanation for its title, Aware. To be aware in the world is to be attuned to this interplay of gaze, silence and word. Attuned, and listening deeply.
From their outset in New York, Denise Levertov and Mitch Goodman moved in cultured circles - bohemian, literary, academic and activist. A year after their marriage their only child, Nikolai, was born. Over the next 15 years Levertov formed close ties with older poets in particular William Carlos Williams and H.D., and also The Black Mountain Poets, those of her own generation, Robert Creely and Robert Duncan. In 1955 she became an American citizen. But these were also very difficult years. There were marital and financial problems, frustrations with her own irrepressible passions. She felt trapped and was not only concerned about the health of her parents and sister, but also experienced difficulties with her son. Mitch suffered depression and setbacks with his own writing. They moved around and lived in Mexico for a period. Nonetheless by the end of 1955 Levertov had really begun to make inroads into the American poetry scene. Very quickly, and uniquely for a woman at this time, she was establishing a name for herself. And a decade later she had 5 more published books of poetry and was now benefitting from public readings, fellowships and teaching positions.
For her 31st birthday Mitch gave Denise a two volume set of Buber’s Tales of Hasidism. In it they were delighted to read about her ancestor, Shneour Zalman. The work itself resonated with her mystic heritage. Buber’s writing was influential in other ways. From early on Levertov apprehended in life a ‘double image’ : joy and wonder, fear and promise. Buber helped further her imagination understand the self’s engagement with the interior terrain and exterior world. Also, the self’s connection with another self, with God, with the Other. Later, Thomas Didymus, or doubting Thomas, became one New Testament figure which helped in terms of exploring her own awakening Christian faith alongside doubt. She was discovering a place where faith and doubt could co-exist in art, as in the self.
Central to the work of Chretien is the notion that the relationship between God, human and the world, is a calling forth, and a need for response. For Chretien, silence ‘opens us, wounds us spiritually and bodily, and summons us.’ During the 1960s and 1970s Levertov became actively involved in working for values of human justice; with protest groups she struggled for peace and care of the earth. She worked tirelessly, with Mitch, on anti-Vietnam War campaigns, and they were leading speakers for nuclear disarmanent groups and the environmental movement. She was arrested several times. Her poetry during this period reflects her social and political activism. Such public activism was not new to her. As a child her family had sheltered refugees. With her parents Levertov had publicly demonstrated against fascism. She had wanted to join the British communist party but was too young, resigning herself instead to simply selling The Daily Worker.