Sunday, 10 May 2015

Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov was born in England in 1923 and moved to the US with her American husband in 1947. Even though her early poetry in England still went under the label of the “New Romantics” she soon abandoned this formal writing style for a more experimental practice after moving to the US. Under the influence of the Black Mountain poets – in particular Robert Creeley, who was a friend of her husband – she soon established herself as one of the most successful and celebrated poets in the US. Until her death in 1997, she had published more than twenty volumes of poetry and worked extensively as a university teacher.

Levertov followed William Carlos Williams in the idea of a more “organic” poetic form. As Hoover quotes her in the anthology: “For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and reveal.”

All a poet would therefore have to do is pay sufficient attention to the world around her in order to see its inherent form. The ultimate goal for Levertov was a kind of authenticity in poetry – a concept, I have to admit, I struggle with. Maybe it is indeed my “insufficient” attention to the world which keeps me from understanding the inherent form of things. Yet as a 21st century poet living in a world of infinite pluralism, this kind of religious belief in one particular kind of “true” poetic form somehow troubles me. This vast gap between her poetics and what I understand to be a more “contemporary” kind of poetics is also revealed by her tendencies toward (as Hoover puts it) “themes of visionary Christianity” and a general tendency toward “beauty and wholeness”. It certainly sets her apart from the Language poets.

My own response to Levertov below is therefore only very loosely related to her poem “Overland to the Islands” and (at least in terms of style) bears a closer resemblance to the prose poetry of writers such as Russell Edson.


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The Lost Islander

On a walk with my dog

on a walk with loyalty

in the grassy fields

in the high chilling wind

down a steep hill

I stumbled

and I fell into the ocean

where the tide pulled me

and the waves carried me


down among the oysters

and the turtles

I grew purple seaweed

for ashen hair

my skin turned

a silver armour

I danced like the dawn

among the coral reef

in distant oceans

I travelled with

the cry of the sea gull

I am an excellent swimmer

so long I have forgotten

how to walk

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