For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Thursday, 19 June 2008

The Enabling Voice

Recently Loren Webster has been writing about the poetry of Denise Levertov. I like the reflective, searching poems of Levertov very much, and am familiar with her Selected Poems which takes one up to 1982, and the collections Oblique Prayers (1984), A Door In The Hive/Evening Train (published both together in the one book by Bloodaxe in 1993), Sands Of The Well (1996) and her final posthumous collection This Great Unknowing (1999). I hesitate to call this last collection 'mystical' (though mystical it undoubtedly is) because as ever she flits restlessly from God to politics, and from landscape to social comment - with even a bit of humour thrown in.

Levertov is not a poet of anthology pieces, stand-out, stand-alone poems or killer one-liners. As Loren hints, it would be hard to recall a single poem of hers which memorably burns itself into the mind with scorching imagery or verbal pyrotechnics - like some of Sylvia Plath's poems, for instance. In a sense her work is rather more interesting than that. I think you've got to consider her total oeuvre, read a lot of it and let it gradually seep into your consciousness. It seems to me her poems are very much works in progress or works on a continuum. We travel with her from poem to poem, collection to collection, as she observes this, reflects on that, is light-hearted about this, deadly serious about that, feels anger and despair about war and the suffering of innocent people, and is always acutely tuned in to the world of the spirit. She does not set herself up as any kind of poetic seer or sage; instead she sincerely shares with us her own doubts and questions and reflections (which are often our own doubts and questions and reflections) and attempts to make sense of and clarify them. Some of her poems are quite clear and plain; others are mysterious and more 'difficult'. Just as life itself can be both simple and complicated. Sometimes both at the same time.

Since I've been talking myself about Rilke lately, here's Levertov's poem To Rilke from A Door In The Hive (the beehive was an important image for Rilke). I suppose this is one of her more mysterious and elusive poems. I think it's quite beautiful in its opaque clarity. It is dream-like, parable-like, and contains the paradox of voiceless speech or eloquent silence at its centre. (It helps to know a little about Rilke to understand the poem.)

To Rilke

Once, in dream,
the boat
pushed off from the shore.
You at the prow were the man -
all voice, though silent - who bound
rowers and voyagers to the needful journey,
the veiled distance, imperative mystery.

All the crouched effort,
creak of oarlocks, odor of sweat,
sound of waters
running against us
was transcended: your gaze
held as we crossed. Its dragonfly blue
restored to us
a shimmering destination.

I had not read yet of your Nile journey,
the enabling voice
drawing that boat upstream in your parable.
Strange that I knew
your silence was just such a song.

1 comment:

Singing Bear said...

Interesting. I spent some time with her poems recently and found many of them powerful but it's certainly true that they didn't seem to be particularly memorable. Many of them also just seemed out of my reach, like there was something I was failing to grasp. It's probably down to my mediocre intellect!

Nice playlist!