John Felstiner: On "Life at War"

"And what old ballad singer was it," Yeats asked, "who claimed to have fought by day in the very battle he sang by night?" Himself a would-be reviver and recorder of his nation’s genius, Yeats liked to imagine a heroic ethos uniting thought and action, aesthetic and political experience. "Our Sidney and our perfect man," he calls Lady Gregory’s son Robert, a sculptor and aviator who fell in 1918 in the Great War. However appropriate such an image of virtuosity may be for earlier epochs, it was ground to bits by 1918, let’s say in the poems of Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen, both killed that year.

For poets such as Denise Levertov, who was born in 1923 and began publishing after the Second World War, it has hardly been given to see beauty in military prowess or to fill the heroic mold of Yeats’s old ballad singer. Levertov does not claim for poets and special powers of feeling and understanding, neither the archaic kind of oracular or shamanistic vision nor the ambiguous Romantic legacy of supersensitive alienation. At the same time she has insisted, and in her own persistent political activity has demonstrated, that "the poet’s total involvement in file" means involvement not only in sensations and emotions but in the world of events. The gift that poets do possess, articulateness, entails more than paying lip service to their world. It means—for writers along with teachers, critics, and readers—taking active responsibility for the words in poetry, going beyond a vicarious experience of the words, allowing their dynamic consequences.

My own vivid sense of Denise Levertov originated in late 1966 when she read at Stanford from a group of poems called Life at War. Educated as I was to the tradition of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, plus the old bards Whitman and Frost, I scarcely expected a woman, someone in a red print dress with a rose or pomegranate bursting on it, to speak with the authentic poetic voice.


Sealed inside the anemone

in the dark, I know my head

on steel petals

curving     inward around me.


The petals then open,


. . .my seafern arms

my human hands

my fingers tipped with fire

sway out into the world.


and she sings, but


the petals creak and

begin to rise.

They rise and recurl

to a bud’s form

and clamp shut.

I wait in the dark.


And there, she leaves us too. I immediately began sharing this poem "The Pulse" with students, who were astonished to learn that it had to do with the war in Vietnam—astonished to feel how intimately the political impinges on the personal.

Here one might ask, as many people have, whether this intimate registering of the external world, this quick fine sensitiveness, belongs to a woman’s rather than a man’s poetry. God forbid! Denise Levertov would say. But perhaps something of the original question still holds. How many male poets today can write with quite her intimate sense of things? Yet God help us all if we lack it, she insists, resisting any feminist stipulations about herself or her craft.

At the depth of common humanity to which Levertov would take us, her "we" must include women and men alike. In her poem called "Life at War" (what an expanding title!) She says, "burned human flesh / is smelling in Vietnam 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 filament twitch with 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.


A war poem: a subjective lyric—the two worlds touch, interpenetrate. A danger, especially with such persuasive language, might be that we let the poet do our feeling and reacting for us, when really she means to awaken, to inspirit "our own live will," as in another poem from Life at War.

To awaken—the idea occurs in Levertov’s 1959 statement for The New American Poetry. "In so far as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock." If you commit yourself to poetry, she says on another occasion, you will not "drift through your years half awake." Probably as true a source as any other for this sense of poetry is William Carlos Williams, whose 1923 Spring and All describes a late winter landscape "by the road to the contagious hospital," with its first crisp bits of plant growth: "Rooted, they / grip down and begin to awaken." Levertov has written of William’s little-known political poems and identified his quality of life-prizing resistance, defiance. At bottom I think what she values most in his lyrics, and what has most influenced her, is an "intrinsic freshness" every lover of Williams keeps on discovering. "But what?" Williams say s abruptly, halfway through the poem about birds finding food in winter, "To Waken an Old Lady." I find myself uttering that exclamation of surprise— "But what?"—at every line break in Williams.

To startle, then cleanse, clarify, and deepen our sense of things—a poem’s political task may begin this way.


To render it!—this moment,

                                            haze and halos of

                                sunbless’d particulars


(centuries furrowed in oakbole, this oak,

these dogrose pallors, that very company

                                  of rooks plodding

                                  from stile to stile of the sky.


Here she does it, startling, cleansing, clarifying, and always aware, as Williams always remained aware, that what counts for us arises from the saying, the naming. You can sense her care (and hear it in her reading aloud, through the rhythm of the opening lines, the ear’s pleasure in "haze and halos," the exactness of "furrowed" and "pallors," the metaphoric find of "stile to stile." So much depends upon our seeing and saying these things how much, we may father from Levertov’s title for the poem: "An English Field in the Nuclear Age." Where else save in the poem can we learn precisely to hold our breath and realize that this moment of oakbole and dogrose and rooks, "this minute at least was / not the last)."

Language, the language of poems, shaped by yet shaping what is has to say, can awaken us, though of course personal and public events may do so as well. Denise Levertov has written beautifully about her craft and about its relation to political experience in The Poet in the World and Light Up the Cave. She has also suggested where her own idiom derived its life. Born in England, educated distinctively at home and read to prolifically (along with her older sister Olga) by a highly literate and active Welsh mother and Russian-Jewish father, Levertov married the American writer Mitchell Goodman and came to the United Stated in 1948, there to absorb the freshening voices of Williams, Duncan, Creeley, and others. Her father was descended from Hasidic rabbis but converted decisively to Christianity to spread that word among Jews. Her mother’s great-grandfather was the tailor-my-stic Angell Jones of Mold. I like to think of those Welsh-Hasidic-Christian strains growing within a mid-century American idiom and the "Here and Now" of Levertov’s first book in this country, eventually to be tested by the unremitting state of emergency we have live in since the fifties.

For instance, I think her lines from "An English Field in the Nuclear Age" implicitly thank Williams and also G. M. Hopkins (trained in Wales) for the way


To render it!—this moment,

                                            haze and halos of

                         sunbless’d particulars.


In this poem, it’s not only the naming that makes for hope, the poet substantiating her world, it’s the act of transubstantiation. Her belief that holiness inheres in things, a belief her ancestor Hasidim could share with Saint Francis, leads Denise Levertov into a tenacious reverence and defense of created life. This reverence fosters a kind of saving innocence, from which emerges her commitment to communal witness—marches, sit-ins, demonstrations, rallies, mass arrests, benefits, generous friendships. Faith, hope, love—these words, these possibilities, appear more and more in her poems, though never detached from the trouble of the world around her.


                      Let’s try

if something human still

can shield you,


of remote light,


she says in a recent poem. That simple spiritual and communal urgency has become her hallmark. It makes religious, political, and poetic experience all of a piece.

"I do not believe that a violent imitation of the horrors of our times is the concern of poetry," Levertov wrote in 1959. "Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock." She had in mind a faddish incoherence in poems of the late fifties, not a desire to exclude history from poetry. Still in seems a painful measure of our own times to remember that statement while listening, as I did in a Palo Alto church in April 1983, to her oratorio El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation. Her notes ask for "an ominous harsh or cacophonous" music, joined then by a collage of voices repeating single words: "Blood. . .Rape. . .Decapitated. . .Torture. . .National Guard. . .Helicopter. . .Vomit. . .Decomposed. . .Stench." The oratorio goes on to tell of a pre-Columbian Mayan civilization dwelling at peace with its gods and its land, only to be invaded, exploited, and sown to violence:


            How did the horror begin?

Was it a thunderclap? Did men



Men from a far place,

a few, & a few, then more.

more—yet still

only a few, but powerful

with alien power—

came seeking gold,

        seeking wealth,


        the mystery of the land,

        the sacred harmony,

        breaking the rhythm

        taking the earth unto themselves

        to use it.


An American Indian rather than a cultural feminist sense of Mother Earth lies behind this passage. Yet the language of it, the verse as such, doesn’t brim and quicken in Levertov’s fashion—partly because the oratorio is not a poem but was written for music. Almost any libretto will seem flat on the printed page. Still I wonder if the horror we behold in El Salvador somewhat stymied Levertov’s own authentic voice? (One could go—she herself would go, I image—to the Canto general of Pablo Neruda for a full sense of national and personal disaster in Latin America.) Perhaps it’s as Levertov says in "Thinking About El Salvador, 1982": "Because every day they chop heads off / no force / flows into language"—although using it this way, I’m demeaning a poem that ends in powerful testimony to


the silence

of raped women,

of priest and peasants,

teachers and children,

of all whose heads every day

float down the river

and rot

and sink,

not Orpheus heads

still singing, bound for the sea,

but mute.


And I should add that the oratorio El Salvador has a compelling cumulative effect, ending as it does in prayer and hope.

Even against the ultimate disaster, against nuclear terror, Denise Levertov has somehow summoned hope. I cannot forget her reading the title poem from Candles in Babylon.


Through the midnight streets of Babylon

between the steel towers of their arsenals,

between the torture castles with no windows,

we race by barefoot, holding tight

our candles, trying to shield

the shivering flames, crying

"Sleepers Awake!"


the rhyme’s promise was true,

that we may return

from this place of terror

home to a calm dawn and

the work we had just begun.


American might tend to miss an underlying and fragile innocence here, if they don’t know the English nursery rhyme: "How many miles to Babylon? / Threescore miles and ten. / Can I get there by candle light? / Yes, and back again." The present tense of Levertov’s poem holds her, hold us, in exile, awakening us—if ever poetry can—to that exile and to a stubborn hope.


Title John Felstiner: On "Life at War" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Diane Wood Middlebrook, Marilyn Yalom Criticism Target Denise Levertov
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century
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