Audrey T. Rogers: On "Life at War"

Denise Levertov was already poised to reach the next important step of her journey—the creation of what she herself has called "engaged poetry." The seeds are already here in O Taste and See and will grow in The Sorrow Dance, where her most widely known Vietnam poem appears: "Life at War."

[. . . .]

. . . what gives a poet the right and the ability to write a political poem is that the political event is personal to him or her . . . . one is personally implicated in it in some way, not necessarily by being there . . . . It’s only out of that degree of intimacy with the political or topical—that internalization—it’s only out of that good political poetry can be created.                     — Interview with Author, 10/9/82

The Sorrow Dance, Levertov’s first volume which reflected her strong protest against the horrors of the Vietnam War, appeared in 1967—three years after America’s active engagement in the war had begun and six years before its ending. As she tells it, her "personal involvement" in the war did not necessitate her being there, and, indeed, Levertov did not go to Vietnam until 1973. But, as she asserts, she was "intimate" with the "political" events in Vietnam through her own efforts on this side of the Pacific, so that it had become "internalized."

[. . . .]

I cite this statement because it goes a long way toward our understanding of Levertov’s first explicit poem about Vietnam, "Life at War." The poem gives its title to a grouping of nine poems that center upon the Vietnam War and, more specifically, the expansion outward of Levertov’s explicit reaction to events that had long disturbed her. In a word, these are poems of "engagement" as the facts are revealed with graphic vividness and coupled with the poet’s inner response. Crucial to Levertov’s view is her oft-stated insistence on the indivisibility of her subject (things and people and those passing moments filled to the brim with past, present and future) and language and form. This is her model for successful poetry—the inseparable quality of the "subject"—that which is "important to the aware adult"—and form and language.

[. . . .]

The poem, "Life at War," immediately following "The Pulse" is, perhaps, Levertov’s best-known Vietnam poem and addresses itself to the ominousness hinted in "The Pulse":


The disasters numb within us

caught in the chest, rolling

in the brain like pebbles. The feeling

resembles lumps of raw dough


weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day.

Or Rilke said it, ‘My heart . . .

Could I say of it, it overflows

with bitterness . . . but no, as though


its contents were simply balled into

formless lumps, thus

so I carry it about.’

The same war



We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,

our lungs are pocked with it,

the mucous membrane of our dreams

coated with it, the imagination

filmed over with the gray filth of it:


the knowledge that humankind,


delicate Man, whose flesh

responds to a caress, whose eyes

are flowers that perceive the stars,


whose music excels the music of birds,

whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,

whose understanding manifests designs

fairer than the spider’s most intricate web,


still turns without surprise, with mere regret

to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk

runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,

transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,

implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.


We are the humans, men who can make;

whose language imagines mercy,

lovingkindness; we have believed one another

mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—


who do these acts, who convince ourselves

it is necessary; these acts are done

to our own flesh; burned human flesh

is smelling in Viet Nam as I write.


Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space

in our bodies along with all we

go on knowing of joy, of love;

our nerve filaments twitch in its presence

day and night,

nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,

nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,

the deep intelligence living at peace would have.


The poem turns on Rilke’s metaphor of the "overflowing heart." The theme: the anger, the anguish, the experience of "life at war" speaks for itself in this poem in which the visual images shock and finally numb our senses. We need make no further comment on Denise Levertov’s strong emotional commitment for peace and against war. I should like to point out, instead, those formal qualities that enhance the poem’s theme. The basic tension in the poem rests upon the duality of mankind: all he can "make" and all the inhuman acts he can perpetrate. The images are balanced precisely on this duality. Against the images of violence, destruction, and unimaginable cruelty, there are images of the heights of human potential. It is the imagery that orders the poem’s structure, dictates the tone that vibrates between despair and hope, and is responsible for the great emotional impact of the poem. The title itself is an oxymoron, and prefigures the "impossible" juxtapositions perceived by the speaker.

Levertov has chosen a form that reflects the objects before her eyes: fragments, broken lines, enjambed lines, arrhythmic patterns to reinforce the chaos of war and its casualties; and, in contrast, structured, often end-stopped lines, patterned meters to mirror the order and significance of human life in time of peace and sanity. The poem plays on irony, reinforced by frequent repetition. Images evoking strong emotion are juxtaposed to "statement": "We are he humans, men who can make"; and the control in the poem depends upon the double vision of the speaker and the alternation of tone from horror to speculation to—in the end—the quietness of a desired peace.

No less important is the effect upon us as readers: the effect of seeing and knowing all that is engendered by war, the effect of knowing ourselves as we seek to attain our potential, the effect of trying to reconcile a dual image of man that defies reconciliation, reminding us of Shakespeare’s great portrait: "What a piece of work is a man . . ." But at the moment that Hamlet declares man’s potential, he despairs: "yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights me not . . ."

Levertov’s poem ends with the need, in the fact of the desecration of war, to remember the joy and the love intrinsic to the human condition. This is the faint hope for a dark moment in human history, but the final lines look toward living in peace. Levertov’s statement on the rhythm of the "inner voice" that controls the rhythm of the poem is particularly relevant in "Life at War."

. . . a poet, a verbal kind of person, is constantly talking to himself, inside of himself, constantly approximating and evaluating and trying to grasp his experience in words. And the ‘sound’ inside his head, of that voice, is not necessarily identical with his literal speaking voice, nor is her inner vocabulary identical with that which he uses in conversation. At their very best, sound and words are song, not speech. The written poem is then a record of that inner song.

The response to "Life at War" has been varied. Clearly, it is one of Levertov’s most anthologized poems, and while a minority of critics have felt the language too strong or the subject taboo, the majority have cited the poem’s immediate effect of war on our psychology, philosophy, and language. James F. Mersmann has made the point, "It is the loss and contradiction of vision that makes the war horrible to Levertov, and this may be said without any denigration of her compassion or humanity." Mersmann bases this evaluation on the lines in the poem that the "imagination / filmed over with the gray filth of it," represent the poet’s loss of vision; indeed, Levertov herself has admitted in the poem that the "awareness" of war’s horrors—threatening the imagination—precludes the poet’s certainty that all that lies within man’s power for goodness will reappear. Nor is the poem’s dual vision an unfortunate (if understandable) impairment of her aesthetic power. The Vietnam War staggered the imagination of all but the totally insensitive, but ultimately it was Levertov’s very strong belief in the unity that lies beneath the world of visible things that supported her "vision" and her form, demonstrated earlier. Levertov’s poetry was a "poetics of order" as Mersmann asserts, but the form should not be confused with the chaos she has chosen to depict. As to Mersmann’s reference to Levertov’s own "admission" that she had lost her vision and poetic form, we need to hear the poet’s response: "those who turn away from concern for the commonweal to cultivate their own gardens are found to have lost touch with a nourishing energy. Better a bitter spring than no irrigation at all. Ivory towers look over deserted landscapes." Levertov had never looked over "deserted landscapes" but here, for the first time, her eyes turned toward matters that demanded response, and her poetic powers were in no way impaired by her apprehension of the grim realities of Vietnam.

Another critic, Marjorie Perloff, does not see a split between subject and metaphoric mode in Levertov’s war poetry, though she does observe it in a large majority of American verse. As Susan Hoerchner has said, succinctly, "As a poet Levertov feels that she must act in the world. As a maker and instrument of poems she also struggles to bring forth her unique celebration of life." These twin impulses remain the hallmark of Levertov’s poetry to the present. She believed the poet had an obligation to society, and in 1960 she wrote that "they [the poets] are ... makers, craftsmen: It is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are ‘members one of another,’" Later, in this same essay, she wrote, "I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock." Thus it is well to distinguish between the disorder of modern life and the "supposed" disorder in the aesthetics of Denise Levertov.

"Didactic Poem," also written in the sixties, appears in The Sorrow Dance immediately after "Life at War." Later, in 1975, Levertov wrote, "The poetry of political anguish is at its best both didactic and lyrical." We need to remember that the word "didactic" means "morally instructive," and, although today it has an unfavorable connotation, we should also recall that poets have always been didactic. Nonetheless, the word has an unpleasant evocation, and the poem reveals indirectly what Levertov might have omitted in her title. The successful artist need not preach if the subsumed message of the poem is communicated through the structure and language—"the dynamic of sensuous forms." We have only to hear the poet-prophet Ezekiel in Eliot’s The Waste-Land to remind us of the role of moral instructor frequently played by modern poets: "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images," and it is the richness of Eliot’s imagery here—borrowed from Scriptures—that saves these lines from didacticism.

Thus Levertov’s poem is better than that which is promised in the title. The poem rests upon the duality of death and life. Death must be conquered, refused. The many images of giving, inventing, dancing, and creating are life images, juxtaposed to what we must refuse: feeding our dead spirits, our infamous deeds, heeding the deathknell of past atrocities. The alliteration of the opening lines—the resounding effect of "dead, drink, deeds, and dead spirits—suggesting a tolling deathknell is contrasted with the language of creativity in the poem: [positive] deeds, imagination, speech, invent, and dance. The speaker enjoins us all to heed our own "will to live," to give expression to our "imagination of speech," to create our lives. The alternative is too horrifying to contemplate should we fail: "we shall thirst in Hades, / in the blood of our children." "Didactic Poem" is strong, positive, alive with our potential to refuse the dead and elevating as we are invited to "dance / a tune with our own feet." The poem testifies to Levertov’s commitment—despite past experience—to respond to life’s challenge, a theme that will remain with her through her most despairing moments.

The litany with which the poem opens is in sharp contrast to the lines which follow, "Refuse them!" The opening lines are a kind of dirge; the lines in the second part of the poem a kind of dance as the poet urges us to "create our lives, / invent our deeds, do them, dance / a tune with our own feet." The verbs emphasize a "way to be," for in the midst of despair, Levertov keeps faith with possibility—no matter how impossible the dream.

The rest of the poems that comprise section VI of The Sorrow Dance: "Life at War," are various perspectives on the war in Vietnam, but reflect as well Levertov’s inner response to the events outside. The last poems in this series were written during the late sixties. As we might expect there are recurrent motifs and the repetition of the horrors that are engendered by war, but otherwise they differ greatly one from the other—in tone, image, metaphor, form, and perspective. It is almost as though we see the war through different eyes, but one central theme prevails: the ironic contrast, already dramatically presented in the poem "Life at War," between the chaos, destruction, and death and the "possibilities" that are the gifts of peace. Levertov never lets us forget the waste—not only of human life—but the wasting of nature in the destruction of a once-beautiful land.

[. . . .]

The poems that remain in Relearning the Alphabet, as one would expect, cover a wide spectrum of experiences as the poet responds to events in the outside world. The themes that run through them are "elegiac": for the suffering in Biafra; for the moment that "the heart / breaks for nothing" as the disasters weigh upon it; for "Life yet unlived"; for love recollected and lost; for the mourning of a stranger—added pain—while visiting the grave of a friend’s child; and always for the suffering in Vietnam. These are "deathsongs," yet at the close the poet renews her love for life, her joy in the cold spring.

"Biafra" recalls Vietnam. Again, Levertov dwells upon the sacrifice of innocence, massacre, and violence, but we have become inured after Vietnam. The poem leaves the world with no hope, sluggish, dull, ‘getting used to’ the horrors of those distant tragedies. In many ways, "Biafra" is a frightening poem as it testifies to our own loss of compassion, our inability to take action, and our indifference. Yet I do not feel this is one of Levertov’s more successful poems. Although the reality is played out in the poem, "we are / the deads" because we "do nothing," there is an unconvincing joining of the dying babies in Biafra and the dying children on Vietnam. The massacre of the Ibos seems distant from the expending of life in the Vietnam War, but perhaps even more significant, there is a tendency for the poet here to state, to chastise (because we do nothing), and the emotional impact is lessened. The poem, for all the compassion of the speaker, does not move us as countless others do when the images, the rhythms, and the irony of opposed visions (as in "Advent 1966") create a successful poem.

I also would question Levertov’s departure—"no room / for love in us ..." —from the vast number of her poems in which she always returns to what man is capable of and, into the present, maintains her faith in humanity. Although she does "waiver" in some instances, more often, as in "The Wings of a God," she writes the following"


    I am felled,

            rise up

        with changed vision,

    a singing in my ears.


In "A Cloak" she tells us, "I walked naked / from the beginning / breathing in / my life, / breathing out / poems." The metaphor of "breathing" is important in Levertov’s lexicon. "Breathing is life": breathing in experience and breathing out poems. One of her latest volumes is titled Breathing the Water.

The journey in relearning the alphabet will be an arduous one, but Denise Levertov knows the path and has the means. Her poetic as well as her personal journey continues in this volume.

In "A Marigold from North Vietnam," we find poignant images of life and death. The form of the poem is unusual—a single stanza with long breath pauses within the line. The marigold is a resurrection flower, and the movement of the poem is from death to life, through love. Nature’s seasonal cycle is reflected in the life, death, and resurrection of the earth. Notably life is resilient—even there in Vietnam—a promise perhaps for the future. For the poet, the marigold she nourishes is a symbol for nourishing new life in that tragic land. For the first time, a poem on Vietnam closes with a thread of hope: "to the root-threads cling still / some crumbs of Vietnam." The poem is delicate, lyrical, imaging the beauty that one day must return to that stricken country. The repetitions accrue in meaning, and the entire tone of the poem suggests the tentative but promising peace that lies ahead. In a 1966 essay, "Writers Take Sides on Vietnam," she wrote the following:

It is hard to be an artist in this time because it is hard to be human: in the dull ever-accumulating horror of the war news, it is more difficult each day to keep remembering the creative and joyful potential of human beings, and to fulfill that potential in one’s own life, as testimony.

* * *

Heart breaks but mends like good bone.                                                             —"Staying Alive"

The long poem, "Relearning the Alphabet," is preceded by Levertov’s poem on "revolution or death" and its crucial message: "Life that / wants to live. / (Unlived life / of which one can die.)"—this last the words of Rilke. She "chooses" revolution in "From A Notebook: October ‘68-May ‘69" but importantly, she writes, " I want the world to go on / unfolding." In this way, the poet heralds the journey of recovery, the recapture of "seeing," the voyage that will ultimately lead to the house that "yawns like a bear. / Guards its profound dream for us, / that it return to us when we return."

"Relearning the Alphabet" is a very beautiful poem of the journey from "anguish" to "ardor," the search for renewal by means of a return to beginnings. The central image that binds up the movements from part to part is fire, and, as we might expect, fire becomes the symbol for life, cleansing, illumination, the cycle of life and death, love, the imagination, "transformation and continuance," and the mysterious voice of God.

The tone is at times tentative, delicate, lyrical, guardedly hopeful, and often joyous. The form ingeniously hides a numinous word in each stanza of the "Alphabet." We know that learning the alphabet is a child’s earliest experience with words, and the ritual—for it is a ritual—is a kind of incantation, as the poet moves painstakingly from letter to letter as though each were a signpost on her journey and her own return to language.

Most original in this long poem are Levertov’s tonal effects as each "letter" encompasses a poem made up of alliteration, assonance, and consonance. Thus, "A" contains not only "anguish" and "ardor" but "ah!", "as," and "ashes." This continues throughout the poem, and a few examples are notable here. "C" echoes with "clear," "cool," "comes," and "core." "E" contains repetitions of "endless," "ember," "returning," and "revolution," "dream," and "delight." "I, J" is replete as well with evocative sounds: "I" is repeated throughout, as well as "imagination’s," "jester," "joy," "Jerusalem," and "jealous." "M" again echoes and re-echoes not only "moon," but "man," "moving," "moonwater," "half-moon," "luminous," "come," "humbled," "warm," "myself," "mouth," and "home." The entire "alphabet" becomes a lesson in language.

The poem is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s respect for the magic of language. To "make a start" in Williams’s poetry is of necessity to name. "The only means the artist has to give value to life is to recognize it with the imagination and name it." So it is that "Relearning the Alphabet" is a poet’s need to return to the imagination, the words. The opening lines of the poem set forth the purpose and set the tone in the final lovely image.


Joy—a beginning. Anguish, ardor.

To relearn the ah! of knowing in unthinking

joy: the beloved stranger lives.

Sweep up anguish as with a wing-tip,

brushing the ashes back to the fire’s core.


The poem moves from its "beginning" to the "magical" stages of the journey of illumination: "To be," to delight and dream, to the fire of the mind. Again I hear an echo from Eliot’s Four Quartets: "Not fare well, / But fare forward, voyagers," as Levertov intones, "Not farewell, but faring / forth into the grace of transformed / continuance." The voyage continues with its images of harvesting, "Imagination’s holy forest," and though the speaker stumbles she makes her way toward her origins, joy, Jerusalem. She recalls the "time of isolation" and wakens to the luminousness of nature: "I am / come back, / humbled, to warm myself, / . . . . I’m home." There she is loved, enfolded, trusted, and transformed. Toward the end of the poem, the voice strengthens in its resolve as the way becomes clear:


Relearn the alphabet,

relearn the world, the world

understood anew only in doing, under-

stood only as

looked-up-into out of earth,

the heart an eye looking,

the heart a root

planted in earth.


The poem is replete with original and memorable images and metaphors: to "sweep up anguish as with a wing-tip"; the cycle of "revolution of dream to ember, ember to anguish, / anguish to flame, flame to delight, / delight to dark and dream, dream to ember / that the mind’s fire may not fail"; the "vowels of affliction"; the "somnolence grotto"; the "clicking of squirrel-teeth in the attic." It is words—language—that give the poem its new life, a reinforcement of Levertov’s own conviction that to relearn the alphabet is to relearn the world.

The end of the journey will be rediscovered vision, praise, and the waiting dream. As for the rest of the world, "Vision will not be used. / Yearning will not be used. / Wisdom will not be used. / Only the vain will / strive to use and be used, / comes not to fire’s core / but cinder." Yet the poet, calling upon the household gods, Lares, entreats them to "guard its profound dreams for us, / that it return to us when we return." Clearly the voyage had not ended, but there is a destination in sight and in To Stay Alive Denise Levertov will "step by hesitant step" move toward "continuance into / that life beyond the dead-end" where she was lost, so that once again she can affirm: "Every step [is] an arrival" (Overland to the Islands).


Title Audrey T. Rogers: On "Life at War" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Audrey T. Rodgers Criticism Target Denise Levertov
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement
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