Denise Levertov was born in England and came to the United States in 1948. She became known as one of the century’s most important poets and writers. Awards for her work included the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Robert Frost Medal, and the Lannan Prize. Her last years were spent in Seattle, Washington, where she won the 1996 Governor’s Award from the State Commission for the Humanities. She also served generously on numerous editorial boards, including that of Image. Levertov was a teacher, a political activist, and writer of more than thirty books of poetry, essays, and translations. She is known for her intense, lyrical attention to the ordinary and immediate, as well as to the “terrors” of war, prejudice, and the abuse of the environment. In the early 1980s, with the publication of Candles in Babylon (1981), Levertov discovered that the process of writing certain poems was “enfaithing,” and found herself turning to matters of religious, particularly Christian, experience. Each subsequent volume, including Sands of the Well (1996), contains poems that praise and lament God’s elusive comings and goings in the manner of the Psalms.
Denise Levertov died on December 20, 1997, at the age of 74. The following interview was conducted by Emily Archer at Ms. Levertov’s home in Seattle in the summer of 1997. The power she ascribed long ago to art is likely to be recognized as a power incarnate in her own work:
to cast ethereal intensity in bronze
and give it
force to endure any number of thousand years.
Image: What do you sense is the current climate for reception of poetry with Christian language and concerns?
Denise Levertov: The climate turns out to be a lot better than I thought it would be when I started publishing that kind of poem and thought I would lose a large part of my readership. Of course, actually I think there’s a lot of questing and hunger going on, and so people, sometimes surprising people, have been quite receptive to a lot of such poetry.
Image: In the foreword to The Stream and the Sapphire (1997), you say that the poems trace your “slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith.” Elsewhere, you have described that movement as the result, in part, of the efficacy of art, of the “enfaithing” power of the process of writing poetry. Recent volumes, such as Evening Train (1992) and Sands of the Well (1996), contain an increasing number of poems concerned with faith and doubt. Can we assume that the enfaithing power of your writing is growing?
DL: Yes, that subject matter has certainly taken a larger and larger place in my work. I don’t think that that means that my faith has proportionately increased. If that is what your question means, I would say no. I wouldn’t say it’s less, nor is it more. But that subject matter has been incorporated into my work, and so there are proportionately more poems on those themes than there were several years ago.
Image: When you describe your “Agnus Dei” as being an enfaithing poem, in that same essay, you speak of language leading the way into a deeper understanding.
DL: When I’m engaged in writing a poem on a theme which one must label, for lack of a better word, “religious,” it puts me into a more intimate relationship to faith and belief and religious experience than when I’m not writing. That, however, lasts as long as my engagement with that poem. It doesn’t necessarily leave a trace or trail behind it. It’s a discrete experience. I may be writing another one and I may have such an experience again, but not have one in between the two.
Image: In your own sequencing of poems in The Stream and the Sapphire and other recent books, there’s also a fluid movement between faith and doubt. How would you describe your relationship to the Psalms?
DL: What you say about the Psalms makes me want to establish more of a relationship with them. I can’t be said to have one at this point. At Sunday Mass, the Psalm is sung by a cantor, and the people sing a response, and sometimes I look it up in the missalette. Sometimes I look it up more adequately in the King James to see what that Psalm is actually saying, because often you can’t properly hear all the words as the cantor sings them, and partly because the translations they use are sometimes banal. So my reading of the Psalms is sporadic.
I’m very conscious of the way in which the chanting of the Psalms is an important part of monastic life and becomes essential to people who experience that. During the ten days that I spent at a monastery in California, hearing the Psalms chanted twice a day was wonderful. But I have so far failed to establish a personal relationship with the Psalms and a regular reading of them. This [pulling a book from her shelves] is a very nice edition of Merton’s Bread in the Wilderness [Merton’s reflections on the Psalms].
Last night I wanted to look up what the readings were for yesterday, since we didn’t go to church, and see what they had in the monthly missal that I get. And it said, in Psalm 34, something like “the angel of the Lord will encamp near the righteous,” whatever it was. I wonder what it says in the King James—let’s take a look—here it says, “the angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him and delivereth them.” I just wanted to check it out, and I do that often. But of course, I can’t stand the banal language of most of the modern translations, and I know that there are errors in the King James.
Image: There’s a new psalter, translated by the ICEL [International Commission for English in the Liturgy]….
DL: It’s ghastly. I was one of the poets that Kathleen Norris got to read some of this stuff, and I mean, it’s unbearably banal. I compared it with a lot of other versions. The only one that I liked really—and it’s not the complete Psalms, but a selection of them—was done by Stephen Mitchell. I only really looked at them at the end of my comparative readings that I was doing for the ICEL. But they were outstandingly better than all the others. I looked at the Grail Psalm version and the Jerusalem Bible, which is sort of up and down. They changed things for no good reason. I mean when there’s an error, okay. As for inclusive language—it should say “brothers and sisters,” not just “brothers,” or it could say “people,” not just “men.” I always understood that “men” meant “human beings,” but if people have a problem with that, okay, then we’ll change it. But then once they start changing things, they start changing things just in order to change things. I tend to use the twenty-third Psalm as my test case—why change “pasture” to “meadow? Sheep like short grass; that’s a pasture. Cows enjoy long grass; that’s a meadow. This is talking about sheep, so meadow is simply the wrong word.
Image: “Pasture” also supplies that related sense of “pastor,” one who cares.
DL: Absolutely right. And then the root of the word is all wrong if you don’t use “pasture.”
Image: And if we believe that language leads to the way we think about the world or the way we think about God, and then use a diminished kind of language, it leads to a very different understanding of God.
DL: I think that that’s a tremendously important point. It’s not just that it afflicts the aesthetically sensitive, but that it has really negative effects on society at large, at least on that part of society that’s touched at all by scripture.
Image: You mentioned your concern about virtual reality vis-à-vis the health of language.
DL: The reason I want to talk about the word “virtual” is that it struck me the other day that a generation is now growing up with all this cyber-technology, and that the whole concept of virtual experience as it has developed and is being manifested is absolutely anti-incarnational. So you have a lot of religious people gleefully adopting this technology, and you have various church groups of different denominations with websites and so forth. I understand that this development has some positive uses, in medicine for example, and probably some others. But it shouldn’t be permeating people’s daily life and their education. It shouldn’t be invading the entire culture as it is doing or threatening to do, and I think that people who do care about their idea of the sacred incarnated in the material had better pull up their socks and realize that, because they’re just going along with it. It is really a destructive force. We have this terrible attitude in twentieth-century culture which is the direct descendant of nineteenth-century optimism. And that is, first of all, if you can do something, that gives you an instant right to do it. And second, that any new development is a positive development. It just isn’t so. And I think that people who should know better don’t seem to be realizing that.
Image: It seems that in some cases virtual reality is raising the status of the figure, without the ground; it loses touch, literally, with what the senses can and should apprehend.
DL: You’re right. And something else on another sort of intellectual level that seems to fit in with it is deconstructionism, although I have to say that I am bored by most literary criticism and consequently read very little of it. I’ve read very little philosophy, so I’m not in a good position to talk about deconstructionism. But what I understand of the way in which critics in recent years have sort of demoted the artist, the writer, is that the writer’s idea of what they were saying, and their intention, all counts for nothing. It resembles a sort of exaggeration of the once very useful New Critical reading of a thing on its own merits, which helped people get away from the very sentimental reading that gave undue emphasis to intention. But the present elevation of the critic to a much higher place than the primary creator of a work of art seems to be a very pernicious attitude, and I think I say that not only because I am an artist, and it’s a threat to me, but I say it also as a reader. Where would the critics be unless the artists produced the work for them to hold forth about?
But further than that, the way in which this links up to what we’re talking about is that the sort of literary critical philosophy that denies the validity of meaning because it can always be deconstructed, or because it’s simply a temporary illusion or figment, leads to an absence of compassion, indignation, empathy for suffering. A person who makes those claims about literature is so relativistic that they could possibly deny the reality of a brutalized child. Once a person has reassured themselves about the unreality of everything, it frees them to not care about anything.
Image: Or take responsibility?
DL: Yes. So, that kind of irresponsibility—brilliant intellect but lack of ethical probity—is not accidental, and I think it’s linked to this whole idea of virtual reality. Children are going to be experiencing life on some sort of screen and missing out on everything physical.
Image: So what do you believe will happen to language, particularly the language of poetry, in the next few decades?
DL: I think the poet’s task more than ever is to try to preserve language like the monks in the Dark Ages, who preserved a lot of knowledge, because language is going to be more and more under attack—people’s vocabulary is already shrinking—I mean, it may be increasing in jargon, but it is shrinking in real, very definitely negative ways. I’ve always acknowledged that, as a living thing, language continually changes, but I consider that there are healthy changes and unhealthy changes. And an unhealthy change is exemplified by the loss of any precision or nuance, as our grammar is getting so eroded. One of the things that annoys me on a nearly daily basis is that people say “may have” when they mean “might have;” the sense of contingency that demands “might” has been lost. There’s no substitute for that understanding. So that’s a morbid change. Grammar reflects a lot of such nuance. Tenses get condensed—instead of saying “If I had known,” they say, “If I knew, I wouldn’t have done it.” It’s not just a matter of being picky when one deplores those changes, because the correct use in such instances reflects a precise understanding of something.
Image: Tenses, in part, reflect and constitute our understanding of time. Perhaps we’re so rushed that we don’t experience the nuances of time anymore.
DL: Well, there’s also something that I’ve been noticing for a long time now—the lack of the sense of the past. I’m not quite sure how specifically American this is—I tend to think that it is. Because in Europe people are surrounded by so many objects and architectural examples of the past, that it must seep into their consciousness, and people until very recently in most of Europe have, for generations, stayed in one place, and that increases a sense of the past. So what happens with many people in this country is that they lack a sense of what the past was like but also a sense of sequence, so that insofar as they know anything of the events of the past, they have a very vague sense at best of which came first. If you don’t have a sense of how one thing led to another thing, you don’t have a sense of the future, and then you’re lacking a sense of how your actions in the present have consequences.
Image: So, the poet’s task is to preserve language, in part because it has the power of truth-telling. That could be one answer to Dana Gioia’s question “Can Poetry Matter?” In an essay many years ago, you talk about the “alchemical” effect of poetry on its readers, that the poet’s words have efficacy and power, that they certainly matter.
DL: Of course poetry matters. It always has mattered, and it continues to matter in uncountable lives. If Gioia is asking how it affects the body politic, then that takes one to Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators” idea. Shelley’s claim is certainly not readily apparent to most people, though it can be argued that poets constitute a kind of invisible counterforce to the powers that be. He did, after all, say “unacknowledged,” didn’t he?
Image: In recent years, you have attended a Catholic church in Seattle. How would you describe your turning to Catholicism?
DL: I had enjoyed being a member of Emmanuel [Episcopal| Church in Boston and had recognized that it was unique in the quality of its music. It had a beautiful, traditional liturgy, and the church itself was beautiful in its nineteenth-century Gothic style. The rector at the time, Al Kershaw, was a very lovable and charismatic person who preached very good sermons. But too much depended on that one person, so that when he left it was bound to change. His leaving and my moving to the West Coast occurred around the same time, and before I had even moved, I had gone quite often, also, to a Catholic church in Boston, the Paulist Center, which I liked because of its commitment to peace and justice, although I didn’t find the liturgy as satisfying there as I did at Emmanuel.
When I moved, if I had come upon something equivalent to Emmanuel—and possible to get to, with my transportation problems—I might not have left the Anglican church and “moved over” as they used to say, to the Roman Catholic church. But in fact when I got here, I found that the other church I could walk to was a Catholic church, and I started going there. In the past I had attended Catholic churches and had so many Catholic friends whom I respected and admired. And of course, I felt that the Catholic church in the world at large (despite its other side, what I call in shorthand its Vatican side), in its manifestations in the world, was the most notably committed to the issues of peace and justice that I had always cared about.
Anyway, I had thought about the possibility of joining the Catholic church for those kinds of reasons. And also I felt that if I were going to continue taking the sacraments at Catholic churches without being a Catholic, I was in a false position. Because if I were traveling and visiting a church where the priest did not feel that a non-Catholic should receive the sacraments, if I were to ask him first, I would be in the humiliating position of being refused the sacrament, or I could just go ahead, even though I think it’s wrong. It should be restricted to people who understand what it’s about and who believe in transubstantiation and to whom it’s not just a symbolic thing. But I don’t think it should be withheld from other communities who do share the same beliefs about the nature of the sacraments. Despite that, I would be in a false position if I were receiving it from a priest who didn’t agree with me, so I thought it would be more honorable to become a Catholic. And also, since I was receiving, insofar as I was going to Catholic churches, if I were getting something from that experience, I shouldn’t be sort of taking without giving some loyalty. If I had not become a Catholic or a sort of fairly high Anglican, the other church faith community [that] always attracted me was the Quakers, but I really feel a need for ritual and liturgical rhythm.
Image: And what is the relationship of your Catholic worship and practice to your poetry?
DL: What do I want, what do I receive, what do I not receive, what is the relationship of all that to my poetry? Although I have by habit, education, and temperament a taste for the unstructured and unroutine sort of life, I nevertheless feel a need for some kind of structure in my religious life, which is another reason I haven’t become a Quaker, although on the rare occasions that I go to a Quaker meeting, that’s an experience I find valuable. If I lived really near, a walk away, from a monastery where I could go to daily hours, mass, and vespers, I would love to do that. I say that I would love to do that, but I don’t know that I would maintain it. I intended to walk in this park every day of my life when I moved here, and I don’t. But I would go often, I think, just as I do walk in the park with fair frequency, and always with great rewards. So there is a longing for some kind of rhythm in that aspect of my life.
I now go not to the church I originally started going to here, but to another church, which I feel more at home in for various reasons. I really only go on Sundays except on very rare occasions for some special things, but I do value that very much. The two priests there, one young, one old, are very impressive human beings who preach very good sermons, and they have a really good political outlook, in my judgment. On the other hand, I don’t think it gives me what I received during that ten days that I spent at the monastery in California, either in quantity or in quality.
And left entirely to myself, I think that I would so easily forget to pray. I would just move into a sort of sloppy secularity, very easily, because I have loads of distractions. What about the sense of communion with others? Well yes, I agree that that is an important part of the Christian life; I know it should be. I know a few people at my church and like them very much, but I don’t see them on a regular basis and don’t feel as close to them as I feel to my many scattered friends. I feel a special kind of communion with those friends who share my faith. So I don’t really have a strong sense of that communal element, and temperamentally, I don’t have a hunger for it. I recognize that it’s a flaw rather than a virtue, not in relation to everything, but in relation to the church.
As far as how it affects my poetry, I think that each time I go to Mass, I have some sense of the way that, as it says in the Mass, “this bread and this wine become our spiritual food” and I feel that one lives on that from week to week. And when a Mass is inspiring—the readings, the sermon, and occasionally the music too—and I’ve participated in it, that nourishes my imaginative life and therefore feeds into my poetry.
Image: Your work defies stereotypes in its reimaginations of biblical stories and language. You have reimagined, for instance, the suffering of Christ in poems like “Ascension.” You have spoken about Ignatian meditation and the composition of place and that helps me understand how you have arrived at those reimaginations or that empathic way into the Gospels that you achieve in many of those poems.
DL: Of course in something like the one called “A Tree Telling of Orpheus,” I was doing the same thing and that was why I was so sort of delightedly astonished to find that this was such a feature of Ignatian practice. It’s exactly what a poet does, or needs to do.
Image: So Ignatius is natural for you as a blending of spiritual practice and image work.
DL: I didn’t do the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises until I’d written some of those poems, so it wasn’t as a result of doing them that the poems that you refer to were written; but there are such close parallels between the Ignatian concept and the practice of poets.
Image: Because it’s incarnational.
DL: Yes! I mean, I’ve always told students if there’s a weak place in a poem, weak because it’s sort of vague, don’t try to rewrite that passage from the realization that it needs rewriting. Go back to the experience itself and look around and see what you see—Oh, look! There’s a little weed growing between those two stones on this road that I’m walking on. It’s got a little yellow flower. I didn’t notice that before. Or, what a peculiar stain on that wall. It looks like a goat! You can see all manner of details if you put yourself back in the place where you were, literally, or at the time of conceiving the poem. It takes attention to concrete, visual detail—not visual alone, of course—sensory detail, that releases so many understandings and releases language that you hadn’t planned for, but which is demanded by the need to precisely articulate what you are experiencing or have experienced. Abstractions just won’t do.
Image: Your poems concerning Julian of Norwich, the “Showings” poems, reveal her groundedness, which you evoke in the scenes of her childhood
DL: You know she doesn’t talk about her childhood…
Image: But you do…
DL: Yes. I felt that one had to imagine this English fourteenth-century child. And one of the things that fed into that was the memory of visiting a fourteenth-century farm in Wales that belonged to a school friend of my mother. It was a beautiful old Elizabethan stone farmhouse, and it was sunny, mid-summer weather, and going into the dairy there with its big flagstone floors, big slabs of slate, it was so cool in there, and the contrast of running in and out… It’s derived from an actual memory of my own, and there are other things that were imagined, like the child Julian’s wonder at the stained-glass windows, because you know windows were very rare then. Most people didn’t have them.
Image: That reminds me of your poem “On a Theme by Thomas Merton” and its image of humans being at a “barbarous fairground,” distracted by all the whirling lights and noise. And God is calling, “Adam, where are you?” but we’re not able to hear God’s voice, in part because we are so distracted, I would say, by information.
I’m very interested in this reciprocal need that several of your poems seem to be working with. You put it as a question in “Flickering Mind”: “How can I focus my flickering, perceive / at the fountain’s heart / the sapphire I know is there?” The sapphire is an image of God’s “unchanging presence.” But then other poems articulate God as having a need of us, calling for us. “Agnus Dei” asks, must we hold to ourselves an “icy, shivering God”? and God, in Christ, is likened in that passage to a “wisp of damp wool.” That’s pretty radical theology if we’ve been singing “Immortal, Invisible, God only Wise” and all those very big, powerful, muscular hymns all of our lives, and then suddenly we’re confronted in this poem with a “wisp of damp wool.” It puts us in a very interesting relationship to God, and also calls up all sorts of questions about salvation. Perhaps salvation is some sort of dialogue between God and us, not just God saying “you need me,” but maybe God saying, “I need you.”
DL: The idea of something like this, that God is artist, God is giver, and in making this particular part of creation, that of human beings, God clearly wanted more than a mere boring puppet—this is, for me, a new way of putting it. I think God wanted something that even goes beyond the kind of love that a child has for dolls and stuffed animals—the kind of love that is embodied in the story of the Velveteen Rabbit, where the child’s love for the rabbit gives it a sort of autonomous life. Nevertheless, we long to actually have a conversation, or to have one’s doll actually walking around. It’s everybody’s dream, and true of animals, too—that my dogs or cats might actually talk to me in words I could understand, not just barks or meows.
A puppet that you have to manipulate all the time is finally a little boring and unsatisfying, and that’s the reason for creating creatures with free will. Yes, God wants love, but if he just makes it be there, then it doesn’t have reality to God any more than it would to us. So therefore, free will; therefore the non-intervention of God. That’s why another poem says, “God will not renege.” So, that need of God for us that you speak of, I think is implicit in my idea of God. God could wipe us out of existence and God would still exist, but God would not be satisfied. I suppose he’d have to try again.
Image: Would you say, then, that God has need of conversation with us?
Image: So this comes right back to the primary issue, to language.
DL: There’s a wonderful quote which I included in an essay years ago, which is either in Poet in the World, or in Light Up the Cave; it’s from Heidegger (and I know about Heidegger and his behavior, but there’s also some wonderful stuff in Heidegger). It’s a quote which says “man is a conversation.”
Image: And this essential conversation leads back to the question of salvation.
It’s a question that is raised for me especially in your “Agnus Dei” and then again in a newer poem, “Salvation,” which describes the release of a previously sewer-tunneled river back to “sun, rain, pebbles, mud.” The stream’s “salvation” is in being returned to its natural element, and therefore to itself, but also in its restored ability to offer itself to something larger which accepts it, the “pure lake” which will take the stream “unto itself.” How important is this “daylighting” to your own understanding of human salvation?
DL: In calling the poem “Salvation,” I had no agenda beyond the obvious one that this stream is going to be saved from its humiliating condition of having to be forced underground. Civil engineers and urban planners are the ones who call it “daylighting.” So I was not making a broader reference, but of course one has to take responsibility for the implicit references of any word one uses. A word like “salvation” is a loaded word, but I can only assure you that I wasn’t using it metaphorically. I’m glad that you pointed out the implicit metaphorical dimension of the poem, that “in being returned to its natural element, and therefore to itself, the stream is offering itself to something larger which accepts it—the lake which takes the stream into itself.” You are positing something other than stream and lake here, and I like that; I’m glad if the poem turns out to have that resonance for you, or for any other reader. Though I didn’t put it there on purpose, I don’t find it to be in conflict with the simple meaning which I was aware of. And there is always the possibility, of course, that I had some lurking, unacknowledged recognition of that other level, but it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. I think there are wrong interpretations which are based on a misreading, a failure to notice that something is put in the negative and an assumption that it’s put in the positive. That is careless reading. Another common kind of misreading happens when the reader has an agenda which he or she insists on imposing. But I also think what determines whether a reading can be considered correct or incorrect is whether the writer can accept it with no sense of having been twisted around, and can say, “Oh yeah, I didn’t realize I was saying that, but I see that, and I’m glad it’s there!”
Now the other part of your question is, how important is this “daylighting” to my understanding of human salvation? This is something I really have to think about. I have had a problem with the significance of salvation as the promise of death not being the end, the promise of resurrection, because I may some day have a terror of death, but I’ve really never had it. I’ve always had a terror of pain, particularly of blindness, and of difficulty and misfortune, but not of death, because I’ve always felt that there is a sort of afterlife. Or else there is nothing, in which case we won’t feel anything anyway. So, what is this promise of resurrection about? Well, I have come around to understand the fact that in promising us an afterlife, we are being given a chance to take care of unfinished business. Because who, except the greatest of saints and the most innocent of persons, doesn’t have unfinished business? But there’s another understanding that I have of it that I obtained from a really wonderful sermon that our priest preached just before this Easter. It was very, very significant to me and I have something about it in my notebook which I would like to quote from.
This sermon had to do with the raising of Lazarus. The priest quoted Eugene O’Neill’s Lazarus Laughed, and in his sermon he talked about the significance of the resurrection not just being a matter of the assurance of the afterlife, but about its being salvation in the here and now, “radiant in this life, not relegated over to the hereafter: ‘this is that joy that shines from people’s deep faith, this is the good news, not the mere assurance of survival after death.’” I’m not appalled at the idea of my life ending, never have been.
But in answer to your question about what my understanding of human salvation is, I think that at this point in my life it’s double—it’s partly that sense that the assurance of an afterlife gives one a chance at continuing one’s development, or as I put it before, of taking care of unfinished business. Of course in religions which believe in transmigration or reincarnation that same thing is often there, that we go on and on in different lives, but it’s not quite the same thing. And the other part is in the here and now, actually accepting the Good News.
Image: And in a much earlier poem called “O Taste and See,” where you see the subway poster and you say that that’s like “tangerine, mercy, weather”—in a way you’ve returned to that here, but with the Gospel now more firmly in mind, it seems.
DL: The Gospel wasn’t in my outlook then, except insofar as I grew up in a Christian environment and wasn’t ever actually an atheist; it certainly wasn’t in my conscious outlook at that agnostic time. In those earlier poems, I was using religious allusions in a literary way—I mean they were part of my culture, but I was not using them from a faith point of view.
Image: Presence and absence are important motifs in your poems: God’s seeming absence and God’s unchanging presence, the profound absence of human attention and the steady presence of the mountain. More than one poem suggests that, although sometimes hidden, God is nevertheless an “unchanging presence, in whom all / moves and changes.” The human voice confesses “it is I who am absent” and “I elude your presence.” And a more recent poem speaks of the “revolutionary ‘Presente!’ of lake, tree, and moss.” That is a powerful image for presence, both political and ecological.
DL: Well, I presume that you know that it is customary in Latin America to include in roll call those who have been killed in resistance, and so one includes Archbishop Romero, and everyone will shout, “Presente!” Just as those who have died as martyrs in Latin America are considered to be present when roll call is taken, so the disappeared things in nature, killed off by us, still answer “Presente!”
Image: There’s much evidence in your poetry of an I-Thou relationship with the people, places, things that you’re writing about; perhaps it would be wrong to appropriate Mount Rainier, for example, so important in many of your recent poems, to other uses. Certainly it would be wrong to evaporate the mountain into a God-image.
DL: When that kind of appropriation takes place, one is denying that there’s an actual mountain there!
Image: It’s becoming used for some other purpose.
Image: And the mountain, or the heron or tree, no longer stands as something that can be revolutionarily “Presente!” but it’s always in the service of something else.
DL: Exactly, exactly.
Image: And then there’s nothing incarnational there.
DL: I think you said it so well a few moments ago, when you talked about the appropriation of things in nature by the abstract symbolic mind. A symbol doesn’t have to abstract, but the outlook that appropriates the mountain, let’s say, as a symbol, denies the mountain-ness of the mountain. A true symbol enlarges, but that denial reduces.
Image: Our culture also appropriates natural things, animals, other people, for the sake of experience. I recall that when I was here before we had a discussion about your revolutionary plan for saying “No more hiking on Rainier; take out the rest areas,” because your point, as I recall, was that if we’re really thinking about the beauty of the mountain, we don’t need to be climbing it or driving on it to appreciate it. Americans tend to exalt experience itself, as though we’re acquiring these happenings—“been there, done that, got the T-shirt”—“taking it in,” consuming, rather than keeping a distance that allows that mountain or animal or person to keep its integrity. There’s a wonderful letter from Rilke to Clara that talks about maintaining the “Near and the Far” and about the consequences of satisfying longing for the beautiful or grand by appropriating or consuming it. It’s the practice of a certain kind of distance, never to be confused with indifference, that allows us to respect the autonomy or integrity of any given person, place, or thing.
DL: This fits in very well with something I need to be thinking about, because in the fall, I have to give a talk and a reading at a Mennonite college in Indiana, and they asked me if I’d talk about the “Ethnic Muse,” and I said I didn’t know anything about the “Ethnic Muse,” so I turned it around and call it the “Migrant Muse.” That’s not the best title, either, actually, but my intention is to talk a bit about how a person who has deep roots in a place, say Wendell Berry, as a poet has a great advantage, but if you don’t have them, you have to do without them. And so, a person like myself is very responsive to place, but I don’t really have a place of my own. There’s a difference between that and writing what I call “tourist poetry”—I have a dread of writing tourist poetry, because if one travels and is responsive to place, one is liable to write some poem or poems which describe, or evoke, or reflect that place in which one doesn’t have deep roots, which one is just passing through, actually. What validates poems that emerge from travel or from sojourns in places where one doesn’t have deep roots? I have to try to grapple with that idea. It’s a sort of sense I have of why some poems of place are valid and some aren’t. I think the determining factor is probably the intention with which somebody travels. Are they traveling in search of well, like if a journalist is traveling in search of interesting material for travel articles, that’s a different enterprise, but if a poet is traveling in search of interesting material, it immediately puts the authenticity of the work at risk.
Image: I’d like to ask who you’re reading, who’s nourishing you right now. I know that’s a big question, since you’re constantly reading.
DL: I’ve just read Les Miserables for the first time in my life; and I just read this short novel by Robert Morgan called The Truest Pleasure. I’m reading C.K. Williams, whom I’ve always enjoyed very much. I’ve been reading Walton’s Lives, particularly the life of Donne, and of course, the life of George Herbert, but also the lives of some of the less well-known ones, too. I’ve recently read some Alice Munro stories; I always like her. I’m about to reread some Henry James, either The Ambassadors or Portrait of a Lady—I haven’t decided which. I also have, waiting to be read, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Sometimes what I’ve just read I lend to close friends, so it’s no longer lying around the house, so it’s temporarily out of my head too, because there’s nothing to remind me of what it was. I’m about to read Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane, an Irish writer who won the Booker Prize, and I just finished reading a book called In Rajastan, a travel book, by an Indian woman about that part of India. And I’m about to read a novel by Vikram Chandra called Love and Longing in Bombay. Oh, Charles Wright—I always feel very stimulated by his work; I have a new book of his called Black Zodiac which I haven’t read yet. And I have never really read Robert Pinsky, but I have his new and collected poems. There’s a new book by Bob Hass which I haven’t read, but I’ve read his next to last book [Human Wishes] recently.
Image: You are known as a poet, but also as a great teacher of poetry. What do you hope you have imparted in your teaching?
DL: I don’t think I should be known as a great teacher of poetry. I think that I am sometimes a good teacher of poetry, but not a great one, because I don’t have an adequate sensitivity to student’s feelings, which great teachers have. One thing that I hope to have imparted is the sense that poetry must be undertaken as vocation, not as a piece of careerism, and that there are certain technical things about line breaks and the relation of the written poem on the page to the sound of the poem, that the poem is a score, not a picture, not a design on the page. The other thing that I have a gift for in teaching is pointing out the strengths and weaknesses in a poem: how sometimes by reversing the order of stanzas or at least shifting them around a lot, a form begins to emerge much better. I can show a person where to cut and where a poem is unclear, and things like that. So I’m good at those technical kinds of things, and if a student is receptive, then that is very helpful. If they’re not receptive, if they’ve got a lot of barriers up against hearing what I’m saying, then of course it doesn’t help.
Image: What advice would you give to teachers of poetry today?
DL: Pound said you should only go to people whose own productions are first rate, and there’s something in that. But there are also people who are good at conveying things, good at teaching something which they themselves are not good at doing, so I think I would to some extent disagree with Pound’s advice. I don’t know that I have general advice to teachers of poetry. I would really need to encounter the individual teacher, and I might say to one, I think you’re letting people use poetry as a psychological prop, and you should be teaching them that works of art are not for that purpose; they are supposed to be autonomous things that can live without the author. Or to another, you seem to be teaching facility without reference to whether the students have anything to say yet.
Image: What do you see your relationship with contemporary poetry to be? Your contribution?
DL: I hope that I’m not going to reach the point in my life where I see myself relegated to essential irrelevance because I’m too old-fashioned to be of present interest. That doesn’t appear to have happened yet. That fear of repeating oneself that I wrote about in that poem [“For Those Whom the Gods Love Less”] is a recurrent one. I’ve seen how, when I wasn’t thinking about myself but of the work of poets I love, like William Carlos Williams, for example, there are recurrent themes; and for everybody with a large output over a lifetime—it’s appropriate that they have recurrent themes. The sort of Protean artists, as represented by Picasso, are not really what I admire. I’m not really very keen on Picasso. I’ll see a Picasso and go, “Oh, my god!” The man was fantastic; he could draw so well; whatever he did, he did with a lot of panache. But I never felt that he was there. Who was Picasso? So I don’t really like that.
My model of the great artist is Cezanne or Bach. Cezanne paints Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over again, and so recurrent themes do have to occur. And there are little poems by William Carlos Williams that seem almost trivial throwaways but that have this cumulative resonance. You see how they mean more than they say, more than they appear to say. If you know his work, they reflect light on one another. That is the rationale that defends elements of repetition. On the other hand, one does see people imitating themselves, and I would hate to think that I fell into the trap of imitating myself. I don’t think that I have. But poets do fall into such a formal habit that they no longer write very freshly. So, I would like to think that my relationship to contemporary poetry goes on being contemporary as long as I live. But who knows?
My contribution? A person is never the best one to evaluate that. Only time will tell. My own experience of—excuse the word—“feedback” has been sort of extraordinary, I must say. When I get mail from people I don’t know, and they tell me what you have told me, that my work has been meaningful, I feel very fortunate. I don’t know how I avoid having a terribly swelled head. The only reason is I have always felt it to be out of my control. I am still the person I was when I was four years old. And I do have this gift, and I have had a very interesting life. But I can’t make things happen. I do have craft. I have acquired it over a lifetime. That’s why I can teach, too. But all the craft in the world will not supply what only good old-fashioned inspiration will supply. I can’t control that. It could leave me forever, at any moment. So, I don’t feel personally responsible (in that sense) for what I have done. That keeps me from being the most conceited person in the world.
Emily Hester Archer interviewed Denise Levertov in Seattle in the summer of 1997. Archer is an independent scholar,teacher and poet whose work has appeared in Cross Currents, The Merton Annual, and Studies in the Literary Imagination.
image credit: Caleb Riston, from unsplash (2023-10-20)