Sunday, December 04, 2005

Sunday Poem: Denise Levertov

The Depths

When the white fog burns off,
the abyss of everlasting light
is revealed. The last cobwebs
of fog in the
black firtrees are flakes
of white ash in the world's hearth.

Cold of the sea is counterpart
to this great fire. Plunging
out of the burning cold of ocean
we enter an ocean of intense
noon. Sacred salt
sparkles on our bodies.

After mist has wrapped us again
in fine wool, may the taste of salt
recall to us the great depths about us.

Denise Levertov (1923-1997) is one of the giants of modern American poetry (she was, however, born in England), often regarded as a Beat Generation poet. The innovation of her work and her affinity for mysticism certainly contribute to that perception, but she did not claim identity in any movement or school--she was uniquely herself.

Levertov lived in Massachusetts for many years before settling in Seattle in 1989, where she wrote, taught, and enjoyed life along Lake Washington, in the shadow of Mount Rainier. I lived in Seattle during the final years of her life, and despite health issues (including lymphoma, which eventually killed her), she gave many public readings that I was fortunate to attend.

Her poetry was shaped by her religious heritage (a Russian Jewish scholar father who became an Anglican priest, and a Congregationalist mother) and her association with the Black Mountain poets Robert Creeley, Charels Olson, and Robert Duncan. The result was a verse that looked for and revealed the natural form and meaning in things, upheld the things themselves as a worthy subject, and still showed the hand of its maker in its precision and craft. She also brought a powerful sense of justice to her life and poetry, actively writing and demonstrating for peace during the Vietnam War.

Levertov's best poems combine a profound attention to craft with a spiritual curiosity in the nature of things, which produces poems rooted in personal experience, allowing their meaning to dictate their form. An example is the poem above, which is, on the surface, about the lifting of fog from a coastal scene and the fog's return in the evening. The lines are short and the imagery is sparse, which serves to carry the mood of the poem.

However, the middle verse of the poem reveals much more, and we might see in these lines an almost beatific experience of swimming in the ocean (the unconscious, the womb, the emotional realm, unmanifest form--recall "Diving into the Wreck"), or quite possibly the depths of a human life. The central symbols are the ocean and the salt--an element that throughout history has been both a spice and a source of life. Without salt we die; with salt, we both savor its taste and live through its gift.

In this small, personal poem, Levertov has created a statement on the human condition that is revealed in simple images capable of carrying the weight of her insight. Few poets have the skill to work such magic, and fewer still can do it in such a way that any person can find in this poem a confirmation of faith, no matter which tradition s/he comes from.

Denise Levertov won several awards during her lifetime, including the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Lannan Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant.

Levertov remained rooted throughout her life in a mystic version of Christianity (what might be seen as a transpersonal experience of divinity), but was also interested in Eastern religions--she even translated some Hindu work into English.

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