Mark Staff Brandl,
My Metaphor(m): Meninas
Advance showing of a detail from the My Metaphor(m) Installation
oil and acrylic on canvas, acrylic on wall;
3,5 x 15 meters / 12 feet x 50 feet
Metaphor(m) in the Poetry of Denise Levertov; Line Endings are Thresholds
by Mark Staff Brandl
…and cross / the whispering threshold and walk / right into the clear sea… Denise Levertov1
It is evident that if central tropes are indeed operative in literature and art, then they must be discoverable in the careful examination of major poets and painters. The poetry of Denise Levertov serves as a fruitful example of the presence and significance of a central trope. In her productive, venerated, yet at times much-debated career, Levertov has meticulously crafted a multifaceted poetic oeuvre permeated by her strong beliefs. She has utilized a variety of genres and performed several abrupt shifts in direction. The poet has been, or has been regarded as, Romantic, Beat, political, proto-feminist and religious. Nonetheless, she did not consider herself a member of any one particular school. Levertov’s self-professed goal, as described in her essay “On the Edge of Darkness: What Is Political Poetry?” from her book Light Up the Cave, was a dynamic “osmosis of the personal and the public, of assertion and of song” one so effective “that no one would be able to divide our poems into categories” (128). In the poet’s works, individual experiences collide with a yearning for social justice, cries to political action with spiritual passion, everyday sights with figurative language, and contemporary, avant-garde form with humanistic content. These discords endow her work with a vital abundance and are not as contrary as they appear to be when cursorily considered. Her true focus is the individual human enmeshed in the web of life; the contradictions are individual strands pulling on, but also defining, every human being. Levertov’s poetry tweaks these strands, seeking to influence thinking readers and thereby transform the course of private and collective history.
She is, in her own way, remarkably personal, often using people, relationships and events in her life as the subject matter of poems. Examples include her marriage and divorce poems, her series to her sister Olga and others. Edward Zlotkowski feels that her investigation of her own past is central to her achievement of a truly individual style. As he writes in his essay “In the Garden: A Place of Creation”:
…Levertov’s turn from her own version of the short Williams lyric … to the more intense, subjective song for which she became famous was accompanied by a new reaching back into her own past for resonant scenes and figures. (313)
Despite this, Levertov is not altogether private. Her poetry is not confessional in tone and it displays a variety of interests. Harry Marten asserts in his book Understanding Denise Levertov, that “despite the directness of her response to her immediate environment, Levertov’s voice is also shaped by the narrative structures of myth, folk and fairy tale, family memories, histories, and legends…” (40). She has unequivocally criticized poetry offering the raw expression of overdramatic autobiography. When asked by Nicholas O’Connell in her last interview if she attempts to submerge herself in something larger than her individual ego, Levertov replied:
I hope I do. I’m certainly very tired of the me, me, me kind of poem, the Sharon Olds “Find the dirt and dig it up” poem, which has influenced people to find gruesome episodes in their life, whether they actually happened or not. Back when Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were the models for neophytes, you had to have spent some time in a mental hospital to qualify as a poet. Now you have to have been abused. I know perfectly well that lots of people really have been abused, but it’s unfortunate to use the fact of abuse as the passport to being a poet. I’m certainly tired of that kind of egotism. (O’Connell)
Her poetry can be very unconventional, vanguard in technique and form. In “An Interim” from the volume Relearning the Alphabet, Levertov fashioned a major, experimental work. The poem is a purposefully fragmented verbal collage. Nevertheless, even when Levertov is most heartily the technician and innovator, structure and content are indivisible. In her own words, they “are in a state of dynamic interaction” (“Some Notes on Organic Form,” New and Selected Essays 69). Levertov’s “exploratory” sense of form is admittedly indebted to Charles Olson’s notion of “composition by field,” a spontaneous, action-painting-like conception of formation wherein poets are called to eradicate subjectivity from their poems and concentrate on projecting the energy of their creative process in an immediate way to readers. However, Levertov’s formal paradigm is far less impulsive. She seeks the final structure of her poems in a dialectical fashion within a dialogue between her spurts of inspiration (usually found in direct observation of life) and careful overviews of the resultant text. She composes, fine tunes and alters her writing by attentively listening to what the text itself seems to call for as it unfolds, much like a jazz musician.
Levertov’s subject matter is far-reaching. Her concerns include poetry, the role of the poet, individualism, religion, women’s rights, peace and justice issues, race, human rights, marriage, motherhood, love and the loss of love. Indeed, Levertov is one of a small number of modern authors who have so thoroughly succeeded in compellingly communicating what it’s like to intellectually, emotionally and morally experience one’s own historical moment. In the current history of poetry she is regarded as the activist seer of humanitarian concern; the poet of embodying the socio-political, and even religious, in the personal.
The important question for the theory of central trope is, how did she realize these aspirations and wide-ranging achievements in the components of her poems themselves? How did this result from her faceted and exciting personal history, which would seem to be more discordant than harmonious? How did she unite and personally surmount her chosen precursors, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and principally William Carlos Williams, (and perhaps even English Neo-Romanticism)—a group ostensibly too varied and individualistic to encourage amalgamation or even alliance as antecedents? How did Levertov then forge her own personal space in poetry? Finally, how did she attain the wonderful comprehensiveness she achieved, with such an assortment of influences, desires, precursors and drives, activating so many of her poetic tools with corresponding tropes? The concept of central trope can be useful in exploring the formal, technical and stylistic aspects of her style, process and forms which materially embody Levertov’s themes, subject matter and desires.
Line Endings are Thresholds
Levertov can appear highly accessible due to the poet’s own prose publications on poetry, on the role of the poet, and on organic form. However, this richness itself can create difficulties. This poet is meticulous in her craft; Levertov pays close attention to capturing the appropriate vocabulary, the best combination of key words, the strongest images, the most fitting arrangements on the page, the most apt line enjambments, color, contrast, and more—in short, she seeks the most suitable forms in all aspects of her technical composition. This professional mastery, together with her ability to speak and write well about her own work, has created a flood of discussion, yet one often repeating a few key insights. One must step back and look afresh at her handiwork in order to discover her fundamental procedural use of trope.
Levertov maintains focus even while writing in contemporary, freer forms. She seeks out harmony in unruly experience, expressing her recognition of both order and disorder in unembellished, yet heartfelt poems. Her works explore a wide variety of themes, ones which appear, disappear and intertwine throughout her life. Levertov in “Some Notes on Organic Form” tells the reader that
during the writing of a poem the various elements of the poet’s being are in communion with one another and heightened. Ear and eye, intellect and passion, interrelate more subtly than at other times; and the ‘checking for accuracy,’ for precision of language, that must take place throughout the writing is not a matter of one element supervising the others but of intuitive interaction between all the elements involved. … In the same way, content and form are in a state of dynamic interaction… (New and Selected Essays 69)
As well as involving contrary aspects of the author herself, for Levertov this approach to composition was based in observation, but did not simply report, rather sought out structure. As she also writes in this essay, “A partial definition, then, of organic poetry might be that it is a method of apperception, i.e., of recognizing what we perceive, and is based on an intuition of an order…”(New and Selected Essays 67-68).
There is an extensive organic unity to her poetry, and to the technical devices she uses in them. This arises from an exceptional application of her core central trope. The aspect of organic form most essential to Levertov is linebreak, a meticulous and sophisticated use of the line ending as trope. Levertov is cognizant of her tools and has discussed the use of line and line ending. In her essay “On the Function of the Line,” she calls for “a delicate and precise comprehension of the technical means at our disposal” (New and Selected Essays 86). The potency of her linebreak as trope extends into and transforms her other compositional means and even her content. The challenge to every poet, but especially those working in freer forms, is to take that inescapable division, that fundamental feature of poetry, and have it be consequential within the work. The acumen of Levertov is that in her hands the linebreak is a finely honed instrument, in fact the decisive one. She writes that “there is at our disposal no tool of the poetic craft more important, none that yields more subtle and precise effects, than the linebreak if it is properly understood” (“On the Function of the Line,” New and Selected Essays 78). For her, it is an instrument with an effect “closer to song than to statement” (80).
So-called “free verse,” wherein poets are freed of any predetermined line length, requires in actuality the most scrupulous attention to the length of each line and where and why it breaks. The poet Ron Silliman, a friend of Levertov’s, confronted the question of the linebreak on his weblog post of October 10, 2003. He recounts an overly fervent dispute about this he and fellow poets Denise Levertov and David Bromige had around 1970:
Denise Levertov once invited David Bromige, Lynn Strongin & your humble correspondent [Silliman] to read to one of her writing classes at UC Berkeley. During the session, a student asked if a linebreak had more of a pause than a comma or period. Levertov responded with a very prescriptive “it’s one-half the pause of a comma” answer to which David & I both piped up almost simultaneously that Levertov had it exactly backwards. A relatively heated (& none too pleasant) little discussion was then held by all. The reality (in retrospect) was that all three of us were being completely stubborn.
The mistake that David, Denise & I were all making wasn’t calibrating linebreaks with “traditional” or “prose” punctuation elements, 1/2 comma vs. 2 commas, but rather the idea that, in the abstract, there could be such a thing as a correct answer at all. It is not that linebreaks are not meaningful, but rather that their meaning is not fixed. Like the use of rhyme, sound, metaphor, persona—any element you choose to pick—it depends entirely upon the context, the individual poem. Now, there may be obvious advantages for an individual poet to settle on a particular strategy so as to set expectations appropriately for her or his readers, but it’s not a requirement.
Now I do cringe when I see poets who haven’t thought through the line—including (but not limited to) the linebreak—it’s far too common, though how shocking is it really that not all poetry is the best?
Levertov may have been too dogmatic for Silliman, but as he also insinuates, necessarily stringent enough for herself. The meanings of linebreaks vary from person to person as much as the perception of how one should interpret them as pauses. More important than establishing exact rules for either is emphasizing the necessity that each poet must make clear decisions concerning linebreaks. This is a visual and verbal element of the poem’s patterning which is far more than bravura, avant-garde performance. It is inextricably entwined with the content and every other aspect of the poem. As Levertov writes, the linebreak “is a tool, not a style” (“On the Function of the Line,” New and Selected Essays 84). She continues that the “comprehension of the function of the linebreak gives to each unique creator the power to be more precise, and thereby more, not less, individuated” (“On the Function of the Line,” New and Selected Essays 85). Levertov’s first notion of the linebreak was a formal one, imitating breath in oral interpretation of poems as related in Silliman’s anecdote. Perhaps this was a reflection of the ideas of her mentor, William Carlos Williams. James E. B. Breslin has written that Levertov “learned from Williams how to play prose sense against the brief pauses signaled by the end of a line—how, in short, to space and break lines…” (67). However, she passed quickly into seeing it as a representative analogy of our thought process, one in nearly an indexical relationship to cogitation. She described the line ending as “the crucial precision tool,” continuing that “the most obvious function of the linebreak is rhythmic: it can record the slight (but meaningful) hesitations between word and word that are characteristic of the mind’s dance among perceptions but which are not noted by grammatical punctuation” (“On the Function of the Line,” New and Selected Essays 79). Furthermore, she sees it as reflecting hesitations in her own train of thought, as pauses in her process of creation (“Linebreaks, Stanza-Spaces, and the Inner Voice,” New and Selected Essays 90). Levertov achieves her individual trope of the linebreak when she pictures it reflecting the “rhythm of the inner voice” more so than the “rhythm of the outer voice” (“Linebreaks, Stanza-Spaces, and the Inner Voice,” New and Selected Essays 91-92).
For Levertov, the personal value of her central trope doubtlessly stems from a sense that all endings in life are junctures where new decisions must be made which dramatically affect ones passage. Her poetry evidences her awareness that each enjambment could take a reader in numerous new directions. For a split second, readers hover on a brink, while several, sometimes countless, possibilities for the completion of the thought seem possible—or where one feels certain what the next word on the following line will be, yet is delightfully surprised—or where the mere separation of the two lines adds a rich hesitancy to the completion of the thought. The author employs all these metaphorically-laden possibilities. Line endings become commencements, doorways, forks in the road, dawnings, brinks, portals and more. Furthermore, she extends this into stanza endings and even poem endings, but the creative weight resides in linebreaks most of all. This is why so many critics and scholars note that her line endings work so well, as discussed. Levertov’s endings have coherence, structure integrity through formal and evocative meaningfulness. Most of her poems, and all of the great ones, could not be re-lineated without undermining their quality.
Levertov’s poem “A Solitude,” which describes her observation of and interaction with a blind man on the subway, is about the reciprocation between human solitude and social connection, seen in and as a journey, a subway trip (Levertov, Poems 1960-1967 70-72). These human conditions are opposites lurching forward, bumping into one another, like passengers on a subway train. The poem also moves onward, in generally smooth lines (seen in the repeated “s” sound in line 10, “of some sort trembles into a smile”), yet lightly tottering from time to time from the end of one line to the beginning of another. As Harry Martin describes it in Understanding Denise Levertov, the poem moves “forward and backward from ambiguous key words and line-breaks, Levertov reveals a situation filled with surprising correspondences and contraries” (72). Martin also suggests that “the first line ending ‘him’ without any punctuation, and the second beginning ‘ashamed, shameless,’ give the reader a moment’s pause to consider that the shame or lack of it is the blind man’s, not the speaker’s” (72). While he is correct about the “moment’s pause,” more accurately described, the mind of the reader flickers between possibilities: who is ashamed, who shameless? The poet, the blind man, perhaps even the reader? And the sentence “Or does he know it?” which ends the second line after “ashamed, shameless” also exploits inventive oscillation while continuing to advance. What is the speaker asking, exactly? Does he know that she is watching, of course, but also does he know who is ashamed, who shameless?
The poem continues on in ostensibly austere lines, exploring the mingling of motion, sociality and solitariness, repeatedly exploiting redirection at line breaks to embody these concerns. In lines 19 and 20, Levertov travels from “that quiet his” to “different quiet.” A long, palpable period of rumination can be felt—considerably longer than half a comma—as if the poet is lingering on a threshold of deliberation, contemplating where to go with the sentence, pondering what kind of quiet the blind man possesses, finally, with a note of resignation, to arrive simply at a “different quiet.” Moving from line 49 to line 50, we find “he is not with me, he continues / his thoughts.” Due to the spatiality suggested by “not with me” the word continues implies a physical form of moving ahead, but it is not his body that keeps going, we discover, rather his deliberation. Our thoughts take a quick fork in the road. Grippingly, Levertov ends the poem with the ultimate immobile yet incessant state of being, “I am.” Their discrete solitudes, their short communion, the subway trip, the line and the poem have reached a terminus, which is however also a terminal from which life continues (60-67, 70-72).
The threshold is a particularly rich image. It can call up thoughts of a doorway of some kind: an opening, brink, doorstep, entrance, gate, or vestibule. Alternately, it can more abstractly suggest a beginning: birth, commencement, creation, outset, or spring. It may be viewed more negatively as a stopping point: a border, boundary, limit, line, periphery, or terminus. Principally, in Levertov’s work it appears as a circumstance and occasion for a deliberation: a brink, condition, edge, juncture, limit, moment, time, verge. However, the poet uses a lion’s share of these throughout her oeuvre, most frequently linking the line ending to hesitation, whatever the precise trope involved is. In the essay “On the Function of Line,” she mentions that readers will notice when describing their thoughts, that they will “frequently hesitate—albeit very briefly—as if with an unspoken question…“ (New and Selected Essays 80). As Levertov’s central trope, thresholds are locations requiring critical decisions or at least moments of decisive speculation. Her line endings are brinks over which both she and the readers make a leap of logic. In part vi, lines 29 and 30 of her poem to her sister Olga titled “A Lamentation,” Levertov writes, “I cross / so many brooks in the world.” Line 29 consists only of the words “I cross,” with an empty space of 12 letters before it, dramatically emphasizing the metaphorical fording of a stream, the lines are the creek’s flow, the linebreak the traversal(Levertov, Selected Poems 61).
In a review in 1958 of the book Overland to the Islands, Hayden Carruth refers to the “great skill with which [Levertov] manages rhythmic pause and stress and I should say that she pays as close attention to the small—and of course the large—motions of her verse as any poet writing in the classical tradition” (Review, Critical Essays on Denise Levertov 20). The merit of this concentration on detail is that every technical element in a poem is able to justify itself in meaning through the central trope. One of the foremost delights supplied by Levertov’s poems comes from the flair with which she ties together the themes of the poems themselves and her open, organic forms with their unpredictable line-lengths. As a rule, this is a consequence of the remarkable strength of the line endings, which retroactively figuratively effect the line just read. For example, through the abrupt shortening of a line, one comes to a threshold all that more quickly. The enjambment manifests the import of the expression.
Others have noticed the specific use of the trope of threshold in Levertov. Rudolph L. Nelson writes in his article “Edge of the Transcendent,” that “the metaphor of the threshold or border or boundary dividing realms of experience is common in the writings of both poets [Levertov and Robert Duncan]. In fact, one could call it a dominating metaphor of their poetic imaginations” (Selected Criticism 98). Furthermore, he asserts that “one might say, borrowing the Tillichian notion of depth, that Denise Levertov probes beneath the threshold of the here and now and finds the transcendent within the stuff of immediate experience” (Selected Criticism 235). The second quotation shows that Nelson also notices that Levertov radically expands the image of the threshold into levels of profundity.
Speaking of her approach to poetry, Levertov says that “a religious devotion to the truth … brings us to undreamed abysses and we find ourselves sailing slowly over them and landing on the other side—that’s ecstasy” (“Some Notes on Organic Form,” New and Selected Essays 73). She has micro-embodied this discernment in her linebreaks, for in journeying, strolling, stumbling or sailing from one line to the next we surprisingly discover the embodied veracity of the poem. Levertov is quite aware of the quality of uncertainty before resolution in her poems and linebreaks. In an interview with Terrell Crouch in 1986, she describes her creative process:
You know that you’re ready to begin. You have a dim conception. And then you come to a point where you have … a phrase, a line, a cadence, a point of entry. That is my experience. It’s from that point of entry that you can go, but the place where you think you might be going doesn’t always turn out to be where you are going. (Conversations with Denise Levertov 161)
This is evident in the realized structure of her poetry, in her lines and linebreaks, as they manifest her central trope: the ending as threshold. Levertov has appropriated the phrase “Every step an arrival” from Rainer Maria Rilke, according to Marten (Understanding Denise Levertov 37), with which she ends her poem “Overland to the Islands,” the title poem of the book of the same name. This assertion must be amended, however, as it seems evident that for Levertov every step is a path, and every path leads to a threshold. This may be inspired by the idea from Rilke, yet she virtually contradicts it: in her poetry, rather than an arrival, every path leads to an opportunity for a new journey.
The Lakoffian Chain of Tropes
Having established that threshold best describes Levertov’s central trope, as this word seems most fraught with the both tangible and figurative associations appearing in her linebreaks, let us now trace the train of analogical reasoning underlying this. Theorists of cognitive metaphor often call such a progression of tropes the “metaphor chain,” “chain of inference,” or the like. Lakoff himself often charts them in forms reminiscent of symbolic logic, as seen in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things and elsewhere (e.g. WFDT 19-20). In this dissertation, these sequences of connections are referred to as trope progressions or trope chains. This is due, on the one hand, to the important tightening of the term metaphor as discussed earlier in the paper, thus its substitution with the term trope. On the other hand, progression and chain are used interchangeably in order to stress the manner in which such connections of figurative language and images follow one another in succession, convincingly, albeit innovatively, connected—much like a music progression or a chain of events in a play. Standard names for the tropes discussed are from the books on cognitive metaphor by Lakoff, Johnson and Turner, as well as their metaphor site.
The goal here is to show in a step-by-step analysis how Levertov has
linked a variety of figurative phrases and images, ranging from
novel to foundation ones, into a tropaically logical complex to form
the realm of her central trope. Of course, in all probability, she
did this intuitively, not systematically and dryly as presented
here, but this is nevertheless a schematic of the achieved structure
of metaphoric thought which is so fruitful and creative in her
hands. As articulated, Levertov sees “every step” in life and in
poetry as a path and paths lead, for her, to hesitancy at a
threshold, upon which one contemplates and then moves onward, often
in a surprising direction. Metaphorically, “life is a journey
containing many forks in the road,” the forks being bifurcations
originating in divergent thoughts and perceptions. A poem is thus a
journey of decisions. Overall, the dominant operative metaphor here
FORM IS MOTION, in which the source domain is
and the target domain is form. A generic example would be
“The road twists toward the lake.” The line moves forward, or
alternatively, the viewer or poet moves along the line, coming to
Levertov uses the metaphor formula
GENERIC IS SPECIFIC to
make the identification
LIFE = TIME. A comparison is
frequently drawn in art between time and life by using the
TIME IS FLUID and
LIFE IS FLUID
as the point of merger. This enables her to blend
LIFE IS A JOURNEY with
TIME IS A CHANGER, allowing the rich
subordinate instance, “The means of change is a path.”
Continuing, in Levertov’s conception
LIFE(/TIME) IS SOMETHING
MOVING. An additional metaphor comes into the mix,
IS MOTION, for not only is the poet’s life one of thought, but
also the foundation and limit of thought is perception. Concretely,
that which advances is the mind and perception, producing a
corollary metaphor “Life is changes (of perception).”
Not unusual for authors and artists, Levertov homologizes her craft,
the writing of poetry, with general life experience, framing both in
terms of the metaphor “Long-term purposeful activity is a
journey.” She also unites perception and observation, an
inheritance from her mentor William Carlos Williams perhaps,
expressed in Lakoffian terms in the foundational trope
TOUCHING. The use of sight as a metaphor for thinking is a
dominant metaphor of Western culture and echoes throughout our
history. Related metaphors to which Levertov has access through the
cluster of tropes in her chain, and which she uses from time to
time, are the further foundation tropes:
THINKING IS MOVING,
THINKING IS PERCEIVING,
TIME IS A LANDSCAPE THROUGH WHICH WE
EMOTIONS ARE LOCATIONS and
OPPORTUNITIES ARE OPEN PATHS.
Accordingly, Levertov’s paramount insight is that in her field of
open form poetry, the line ending is tropaically essential. The
poet’s formal mapping is the superimposition of the image of the
threshold on the compositional element of the linebreak. An extended
reading of her tropaic progression would be: linebreaks are
thresholds, that is, decision locations in a journey, journeys which
are lines of poetry, that is, poems, which are life. True to
Levertov’s preference for specific, tangible detail as seen in her
subject matter she also manifests this in her technique. Two
synecdoches of form are significant—the linebreak is the line,
the line is the poem. Levertov’s act of equating metaphors of
TIME and LIFE is also vital. This adroit act
empowers her to blend the foundational perception of life as fluid
with more agency-oriented metaphors of time, in particular
IS A CHANGER and
TIME IS A LANDSCAPE WE MOVE THROUGH. The latter metaphor is spatialized in a related trope, “the means
of change is a path over which motion occurs,” which is plainly
crucial to Levertov’s vision of poetry. For this author, a line of
poetry is a path over which we move, at the end of which we reach a
fork in the road, the linebreak, where we change in some fashion.
This leads us, then, to one of the ultimate foundational metaphors
according to cognitive theory,
LIFE IS A JOURNEY.
Now that an outline of the general structure of Levertov’s central trope has been sketched, it is time to examine a range of instances of this in specific poems or lines of poetry. Her metaphors can appear in highly expressive passages, yet also in purportedly descriptive ones. As Frederick Garber has written, “Levertov has always looked for a kind of essentialism in which seeing and saying are alike …” (“Geographies and Languages,” Selected Criticism 41).
Levertov has a poem from the volume O Taste and See titled “Threshold.” At a mere four stanzas and a total of 16 lines, this dense, captivating poem is conceivably Levertov’s open intuition of her central trope.
A form upon the quilted
overcast, gleam, Sacré
to the mind’s
how shall the pulseto wonder–
hands turn(Poems 1960 -1967 138)
what stone to uncover
feather of broken
Appropriate to the title, every linebreak is itself unmistakably a threshold. Each is charged with significance in a variety of ways: indecision (“hands turn/what stone”), swerves of meaning (“devious/moon”), tacit questions (“mind’s/desire”), changes of direction (“quilted/overcast”), lulls in the poem’s progression (“desire–”). The crucial motif is expressed in the 11th and 12th lines, “wander swerving/to wonder.” This is a strikingly unambiguous and concise delineation of the intention of this poem, yet also of Levertov’s poetic worldview as a whole. This thought is spotlighted by the emphatically soundless white space the one line, two word stanza articulating the transformation. As Nelson has written of this poem:
In Levertov’s work too we confront the image of the threshold or boundary. In his headnote to Overland to the Islands, Duncan placed Levertov’s work in a sort of borderland: “that crossing of the inner and outer reality, where we have our wholeness of feeling in the universe.” That borderland becomes more readily identifiable as the same territory Duncan is exploring when we look at some of the relevant images in Levertov’s poems. In the poem entitled “Threshold,” a particular visual impression of form from the natural world excites the mind and raises the question of how that form can be captured in the pulsebeat of poetry. When she asks what stone hands turn “to uncover / feather of broken / oracle–” we become aware that the threshold leads to some sort of transcendental insight, a state which she labels “wonder.” (98)
The title poem to the book Overland to the Islands highlights Levertov’s varied yet masterful use of linebreak. This is due to the poet’s purposeful mimicking of the subject matter of the piece in the line structure. Often referred to as “the dog poem,” in it Levertov describes and imitates the seemingly random fashion with which a dog explores its environment.
Let’s go—much as that dog goes,
intently haphazard. The
Mexican light on a day that
smells like autumn in Connecticut
makes iris ripples on his
black gleaming fur—and that too
is as one would desire—a radiance
consorting with the dance.
Under his feet
rocks and mud, his imagination, sniffing,
engaged in its perceptions—dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
keeps moving, changing
pace and approach but
not direction—‘every step an arrival.’ (Selected Poems 7)
Once again, in Understanding Denise Levertov, Marten provides an excellent formal analysis of how the form works.
… Levertov’s creative use of irregular rhythmic pause and line-break energizes imagery to engage the reader fully in the experience of discovery. Surrounding short lines … with long ones above and below …, Levertov gives presence and weight to white space on the page where no words are, but where the eye and mind seem to hover, hesitating briefly to find direction. But even as the reader pauses, the frequent lack of punctuation at line’s end together with an assemblage of inconclusive end-words, often articles or pronouns, pulls him forward, inviting him down to the next line for completion…
The tension of stop and start is palpable. Each pause seems to bring the reader to an edge solid enough to hold him for a moment, but which he is compelled to feel his way past cautiously before moving onward, like the “sniffing” dog, “engaged in its perceptions.” Levertov is not only informing her readers about the nature of journeying, but making them feel the motion, awkward though steady, various and satisfying. (37)
Here we sense the poet resolutely examining and questioning at every end-break, dancing and sniffing in her own fashion. As we see in this poem, Levertov’s central trope of the threshold is instrumental in elucidating her reconciliation of opposites, while expressing the contemplation of contraries and reciprocities, sometimes through conflict, sometimes playfully. The implicit pauses in perception caused by the lines suggest unspoken questions, making the word at the beginning of the next line seem all that more important, as it might be the answer. This systematically dislocates and relocates the reader. These endings, as well as the occasional empty spaces surrounding lines, frequently seem to represent the poet or reader contemplating a moment before continuing on through the poem. This contributes to the fact that for this poet, as Breslin points out, “poems are therefore at least as much linguistic acts of discovery as they are discoveries of objects and forces in the ‘real’ world”(66). Moreover, Levertov’s acts of discovery are events occurring on a journey. As she has written, in the essay “Some Affinities,” “a sense of quest, of life as a pilgrimage, was, I believe, a part of me from the start” (New and Selected Essays 3).
In other poems, Levertov uses line-endings in a variety of manners. In the poems about her mother dying in Mexico, tension is expressed in irregular lines containing many syntactic interruptions and pauses. In her poem “The Servant Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velazquez),” repetitions express anxiety and intensity (Selected Poems 146). Even the threshold trope itself may be interrogated. In her title poem from With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, this is accomplished through line-endings which, while uncharacteristically smooth, emphasize a vocabulary of artifice and construction (e.g. facade, knit, echoing, shadows) , yet also in the chief image: the building pictured in the poem is only a threshold, a merger of Hollywood facade-prop with doorsill.
The doors before us in a facade
that perhaps has no house in back of it
are too narrow, and one is set high
with no doorsill. … (Leverov, Selected Poems 12)
Levertov sees activity, even when contemplative or the ceasing of action as a psychological journey of crossing thresholds. This can be observed in her poem “Action.”
I can lay down that history
I can lay down my glasses
I can lay down the imaginary lists
of what to forget and what must be
done. I can shake the sun
out of my eyes and lay everything down
on the hot sand, and cross
the whispering threshold and walk
right into the clear sea, and float there,
my long hair floating, and fishes
vanishing all around me. Deep water.
Little by little one comes to know
the limits and depths of power. (Selected Poems 9)
Standing on a threshold, we can look either forward or back. We can look on one side of us, or the other. We can set eyes on either the promise or the threat. And yet we must continue.
As mentioned in my articles here, one measure of ability, even genius, in an author or artist is the extent to which they have succeeded in pervading their entire style with the essence of their central trope, the fullness with which it permeates every level of their work: their subject matter, allusions, content, technical tool box, and all. Here, this means probing to see if there is an instillation of the notion of linebreak as threshold into Levertov’s entire process.
Levertov possesses a great faculty for the expansion and combination of tropes and influences. Yet, she is indeed successful in suffusing her poetry in other formal and content areas with her trope of the threshold. She is quite aware of the necessity for pervasiveness of concept in a creator’s work. Levertov even offered an anecdote concerning this. Once, after awaking from a dream, she says that she was “reminded forcibly of just what it is we love in the greatest writers … that following through, that permeation of detail—relevant, illuminating detail—which marks the total imagination at work…” (qtd. in Beck, “Poetics,” Selected Criticism 269).
The poet has a variety of technical devices in addition to her chief tool of the line ending. These include varied line-lengths, line-placement on the page, isolated single words, white spaces, sound patterns, alliteration, mixing colloquial with formal language, painterly descriptions, haunting images, powerful stanza and poem endings. Several of her devices result directly from her distinctive linebreaks. For instance, single words can become very significant following an abrupt line ending and the white spaces around oddly-placed lines with unexpected endings become charged with what is not said. Her descriptions carry tensions of traversal much like her continuation of line ending to line beginning; Levertov often leaps from a natural image to a fanciful one, from public information to private, from exactness to generality.
The entire composition or visual placement of her poems on the page can heighten the brink-like stations of indecision in them. As an example, she uses a surprisingly situated white space in “A Tree Telling of Orpheus” in the middle of the first line. “White dawn. Stillness” is followed on the page by a long white space the size of word or two, and then the line is completed with “When the rippling began/.” Whiteness, dawn and stillness are mirrored in the form, while the poet and reader pause on the threshold and then advance (Selected Poems 86). It would be expected that one of the chief expansions of her central trope would be from the line ending to the endings of stanzas and even entire poems, and Levertov does not fail in this. In “Libation,” from her series of marriage of poems, there is an almost complete dearth of punctuation until the final stanza, where there are two periods, one at the end of the entire poem. This is a superb metaphorical use of a full stop (Selected Poems 105). Throughout Levertov’s poetry, form and content grow out of her hesitations and conflicts, expressing a sense of charged hiatuses and necessary moments of contemplation, mirroring her central trope of the linebreak as threshold, through which she strives for comprehensiveness and the dynamic fullness of her guiding vision.
Denise Levertov was quick to name—and praise—her precursors, those from whom she had learned, consequently rich direct evidence exists concerning her development as an author. This does not mean that one need always believe Levertov, or any other creators when they name their principal influences. They may be attempting to mislead us or even be deceiving themselves. This has already appeared in the discussion of Hemingway in this paper. He insisted that Steven Crane was his model, where more likely Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein fill these shoes. His contention, though, that the painter Cézanne was an important influence seems ever more certain, especially in the light of research by Thomas Hermann. Levertov is a wholly different case, though, for as Breslin declares, she was “trying to emulate her ‘illustrious ancestor’ [William Carlos Williams] by becoming him” (Selected Criticism 68). Moreover, Levertov openly displayed her admiration for Williams and his impact on her work, laying this bare in poetry clearly based on his work and in essays and discussions. She openly paid homage, at certain times was even eclectic, yet she succeeded ultimately in creating a unique, sincere style with its own values. Indeed, her mature style evolved largely through the forthright acknowledgment and conjoining of contradictory influences and concerns.
Feasibly, Levertov’s aptitude for harmonizing disparate aspects of inspiration in her poetry springs from her family background. She explicitly called attention to her feelings of connection to two of her forefathers, as well as to her father and mother as nurturing sources. Her memorable ancestors were Rabbi Shneour Zalman and Angell Jones, two men from widely divergent backgrounds, who, however, were both religious mystics having sound footing in daily life, work and society. The approach her ancestors had to religion carries through in her work. In her poem “Illustrious Ancestors,” Levertov wrote that of Zalman “it is said, ‘prayed / with the bench and the floor.’ He used / what was at hand - as did / Angel Jones of Mold whose meditations / were sewn into coats and britches. / Well, I would like to make, / thinking some line still taut between me and them, / poems direct as what the birds said, / hard as a floor, sound as a bench” (Selected Poems 8).
The poet’s father, Paul Levertoff, was a descendant of Rabbi Shneour Zalman (1745-1812), “The Rav of Northern White Russia,” who founded the Chabad branch of Hasidism. According to the website of this sect, Zalman was renowned for his mystical works such as the Tanya and was a great Talmudic scholar. His school of Hasidic thought is known as Chabad, which is the Hebrew acronym the three intellectual faculties of: chachmah-wisdom, binah-comprehension and da’at-knowledge. A fundamental belief of Hasidism is that God is everywhere, that divinity exists in everything. The Chabad religious group is currently the largest sect of Hassidism, and is now headquartered in Brooklyn, New York (Chabad.org). Levertov’s mother was descendant of Angell (sometimes spelled “Angel”) Jones of Mold, a 19th-century tailor, preacher and influential mystical thinker. He is most well-known for having had an apprentice named Daniel Owens, who later became an author considered to be Wales’ first great novelist and often referred to as the “Welsh Dickens” (Levertov, Poet in the World 70).
While Zalman and Jones served as emblematic spiritual predecessors, Levertov’s parents were the decisive influence on her attitudes. Levertov’s father Paul was a Russian Jewish scholar who converted and became an Anglican priest. He was concerned with advancing the dialogue and links between Judaism and Christianity and worked in support of Jewish refugees in World War II. Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, the poet’s mother, was active in political, human rights projects. Furthermore, her mother’s attentive devotion to nature through gardening, animal observation and the like surfaces in the poet’s work. She absorbed humanitarian politics, spirituality and joy in the close scrutiny of nature early in her life. Whereas some critics regard these realms of thought as conflicting domains, Levertov plainly deemed them to be intrinsically intertwined (Hallisey, “Illustrious Ancestors,” Selected Criticism 260-261).
In view of the fact that Levertov was educated at home and, while still young, was encouraged in her artistic and literary pursuits, makes her early childhood experiences even more formative than that of others. The Levertoff’s familial merger of spirituality, social concern, individuality, historical awareness and appreciation of nature unquestionably molded the poet Levertov’s thought in a highly distinctive fashion. It resulted in the sense she had of living life fully while embracing notions others might view as conflicting, of being both a deep-rooted part of the world and somehow standing slightly outside it. As Levertov wrote in the introduction to her section of the Bloodaxe Anthology of Women Poets (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Press, 1985) and later recalled in her 1986 interview for Sojourners:
[P]art of me knew I was an outsider. Among Jews a Goy, among Gentiles (secular or Christian) a Jew or at least half Jew, (which was good or bad according to their degree of anti-Semitism), among Anglo-Saxons a Celt, in Wales a Londoner who not only did not speak Welsh, but was not imbued with Welsh attitudes; among school children a strange exception whom they did not know whether to envy or mistrust—all of these anomalies predicted my later experience: I so often feel English, or perhaps European, in the United States, while in England I sometimes feel American…
But these feelings of not-belonging were positive for me, not negative… I was given such a sense of confidence by my family, in my family, that though I was often shy (and have remained so in certain respects) I nevertheless experienced the sense of difference as an honor, as part of knowing from an early age —perhaps by 7, certainly before I was 10—that I was an artist-person and had a destiny. (Hallisey, “Invocations of Humanity,” Conversations 144)
While her family and sense of inherited legacy laid the foundation, understanding Denise Levertov as an artist lies in acknowledging her desire to construct herself as an American, Black Mountain poet and even more so as a new William Carlos Williams, while retaining the insights gained from her progressive, European, multicultural background. At the start, Levertov found incitement to some extent in the great German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s “object poem” or “thing poem” (das Ding-Gedicht). In these works Rilke used clear descriptions of physical objects as poetic material. In addition Rilke was highly interested in visual art, working for and being a close friend of the sculpture Auguste Rodin. Rilke appears to have been her bridge to America and a new style, because his poetry suited her Romantic inclinations and attraction to art, while more importantly integrating subjectivity and sensuality with direct observation, an idea preparing her for her later tutelage under William Carlos Williams.
Levertov’s first volume of poems, The Double Image, was in a thoroughly British, neo‑Romantic manner then popular, yet it can be considered to be juvenilia, however talented she showed herself to be as an author therein. These early poems substitute “elaborate literary conceit for direct observation,” as Marten writes (Understanding Denise Levertov 28).
In Here and Now, her first book of mature poems, she has become an American poet with a personal style. The first and most important element of her individual individuality appears: the line lengths and unexpected endings, which are clearly influenced by Black Mountain experiments. Not all of the poems in this volume have linebreaks in line with her central trope of the threshold, as she was in all likelihood then in the process of discovering it. Nevertheless, some of the poems are masterworks, such as The Earthwoman and the Waterwoman. In this work, while the linebreaks do not yet yield a sense of decision or discovery, —there is little of the threshold yet—the brusque ends of the ragged lines are used to emphasize significant vocabulary, such as earthwoman, children, milk, shouting, or sleep (Levertov, Selected Poems 4). It appears that Levertov came to trust her formal instincts then taking shape concerning organic form by interacting with the Black Mountain poets. She claimed that in particular she learned from Robert Duncan that “there must be a place in the poem for rifts too… Great gaps between perception and perception which must be leapt across if they are to be crossed at all” (Levertov, “Some Notes,” New and Selected Essays 73). Levertov most often speaks of Duncan, however she was early on regularly associated with several poets of that group, like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson himself, the ideological godfather of the group and the man responsible for his (sometimes unclear) “theory of ‘Projective Verse’ with its emphasis on possibilities of new forms—what Olson called ‘COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line, stanza’” (capitalization in the original, Harry Marten, Understanding Denise Levertov 23). It can be said that she shared literary affinities with these poets, more than actually learning from them. Olson’s emphasis on personally-charged and unique structure, especially as expressed in line length, gave here the freedom to find her principal technique and thereby form her central trope.
Levertov’s professional pilgrimage as an “artist-person” and her discovery of her distinctive voice was most powerfully prompted by her friendship with, and the poetry and theories of, William Carlos Williams. Her creative debt to Williams outweighs the impact of the Black Mountain school on her writing. Many writers, including Levertov, learned a good deal from Williams, according to Ralph J. Mills, Jr., including “the rejection of conventional for organic form; the repudiation of established metrical patterns in favor of what Williams called ‘the variable foot’; the return to the spoken language, the American spoken language…” and more (Mills, “Poetry of the Immediate,” Critical Essays 103). Above all, Williams gave Levertov insight into poetry wherein the observation of daily life carries surprise and awe. She learned from Williams how to make direct description be both subjectively evocative and seemingly objective, to combine suggestiveness and suggestiveness with the verbal delineation objects or scenes. Her very concreteness serves to undermine what sees as false, dispassionate codification. “In fact, in presenting us with particularities, Miss Levertov is constantly trying to break down categories and dismiss them from our minds…”, as Thom Gunn affirms in his essay “Things, Voices, Minds” (“From ‘Things,’” Selected Criticism 24).
There is a distinctive and vital transformation of the described imagery in Levertov’s work from that of Williams. His poetic depictions are predominately still-lifes, portrayals of objects, close-ups of life. Levertov uses a similar mode of writing, but with the remarkable transformation of the primary motifs into landscapes. She as well as Williams can be said to have a painterly eye, yet in her work this becomes almost cinematic, poems become an artistic travelogue. As was discussed in the section above on chains of tropes, this ostensibly minor revision allowed her an immeasurably significant access to a remarkable range of metaphors and encouraged Levertov to achieve her central trope. The poem and each line of poetry becomes a path walked to a threshold, whether in the woods, a field, a city or elsewhere. The vast choices of vocabulary for journeying, scenery and threshold become important tools in her hands. The lines advance in a creative variety of ways to their charged linebreaks, becoming self-knowing but also self-questioning, as she extends and elaborates on her images and figurative possibilities. Levertov was undeniably Williams’s apprentice, as can be observed throughout the book collecting their correspondence, The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams. Thereby, she unmistakably became a Williams-influenced, American poet, however she is more than that. As she herself writes in a letter to Williams:
Certainly I am an American poet, if anything—I know I am not an English one—nevertheless I feel the great European poets ‘belong to me’ as an inheritance too. It may perhaps not be a good thing to be without deep local roots, to be at home everywhere & nowhere, but if one’s life has made one be such a person, & one is a poet by natural aptitude & constitution, one surely must accept it… (100)
Levertov reconciled Williams’s vernacular Americanism with the Romanticism “inherited from her father’s interest in traditions of mystical thought,” according to Charles Altieri (“Limits,” Selected Criticism 128). It is likely she did this with the vision of Rilke before her eyes. This is why, at times, she seems so much in the American visionary tradition, with content and attitude evoking Emerson and Whitman, even though her formal devices are rooted in the Black Mountain poets and Williams. She learned from her literary influences, but did not stop there, instead she availed herself of these lessons in “the development of a distinctive, personal poetics of immediacy and connection,” as Virginia M. Kouidis states (“Her Illustrious Ancestry,” Critical Essays 258).
Denise Levertov’s struggle for self-discovery under these influences reveals a process noticeably in line with the Harold Bloom’s conception of revisionist agon, the formidable process of grappling with one’s forerunners by which a person becomes a poet. The initial love for each of her predecessor’s poetry was transformed swiftly into revisionary reconsideration and dissension, and thereby overcome. Her zealous method was to take these passions and play them off, one against the other, in her own practice, thereby creating her own individualistic turn on them. These influences were, as mentioned, Romanticism, Rilke, the Black Mountain poets, and William Carlos Williams. As Bloom has asserted, an author’s chief influence is not always one single person, but rather “may well (by now) be an imaginary or composite figure, yet who remains formed by actual poems…” (Anxiety of Influence 121).
Many creators avoid or deny apprenticeship. Levertov was strong enough to become one several times and to openly admit this. Her relationship to her past, both familial and literary, was an important element in her personal being. She epitomizes the “poet-in-a-poet” as described by Bloom, who “is as desperately obsessed with poetic origins, generally as the person-in-a-person at last becomes obsessed with personal origins” (A Map of Misreading 17-18). Levertov’s misprision of her composite of predecessors is accomplished in her work, fulfilling itself in her central trope of the linebreak as threshold. She conserves her Romantic concerns by relegating them to the level of content; she heretically gives metaphoric, mystical weight to the formalist play of the Black Mountain poets; and she surmounts Williams by expanding his still-lifes into journeys through landscapes—ones with important forks in the road. Levertov boasts “an attitude toward literary predecessors … that is more complex than Olson’s rivalry,” says Breslin (Selected Criticism 57). Her open stewardship, rather than revolt, is united with a robust ability to question and contradict her chosen sources. Together, these traits make her relationship to her predecessors so Lakoffian, Bloomian, individualistic, multifaceted and fertile, and they created the conditions necessary for her to craft her central trope.
A careful examination of the poetry of Denise Levertov, one of the most exacting and skilled modern American poets, confirms the presence and significance of a central trope. Crucial to Levertov is her discovery that in open form poetry, the line ending is tropaically central. The poet’s formal breakthrough is the figurative re-envisioning and redaction of the linebreak into the likeness of the threshold, which she then uses to build her entire poetic world. The author employs all the meaning-laden possibilities of this central trope, as well as extensions and elaborations of them, composing them into complex poems. Where Levertov may have considered Rilke’s assertion to be her motto, “Every step an arrival,” her true maxim is that every line is a journey to a threshold.