Linda Wagner-Martin: On "Olga Poems"

It is a commonplace of contemporary criticism that modern poetic techniques are inadequate to sustain a long poem. What modem epics exist--Pound's Cantos, Williams' Paterson, Hart Crane's The Bridge, Eliot's The Waste Land, Charles Olson's Maximus--have all been censured because of their "formlessness," their unevenness, or--at times--their sporadic applications of technique. The question is, then, can modern poets write long poems? In Levertov's case, there is no epic as yet to judge. There is, however, the group of "Olga Poems," some two hundred lines of a single theme sequence written in memory of her sister, Olga Tatjana Levertoff, who died in 1964, aged forty-nine. It is Levertov’s longest poem--at this time, one of her most recent--and it is interesting as an illustration of her means of sustaining a single subject.

Poem I, a succinct introductory song, is comprised of four short-line paragraphs in which the poet's older sister Olga lives in the poet's memory. Details accumulate as the poem progresses. the fire burns, the girl undresses, her skin is olive. The poet, then a child, watches from her bed, "My head/a camera." The poem concludes with a vivid contrast between the completeness of the young girl's body, and the fragmentation of that same body in death:


Sixteen. Her breasts

round, round, and



who now these two months long

is bones and tatters of flesh in earth.


Poem II, more formal in its structure of short tercets, presents Olga's character more intensely--and that of the poet as well, in contrast. Although Levertov still uses much concrete detail ("the skin around the nails/nibbled sore"), it is detail integral to the type of personality described here--Olga at nine already filled with "rage/and human shame" at all injustice, herself often dealing unjustly with others in order to correct the initial wrong. The last stanza of this poem declares the recurrent theme, while reinforcing the image of the physically dark sister and that of the light already introduced in the fire passage:


Black one, black one

there was a white

candle in your heart.


These preface poems are short and concise, the first written in paragraph format relying on visual presentation; the second, arranged in tercets and oriented toward Olga's character. Pace changes dramatically in Poem III. Itself a sequence of three longer segments, Poem III moves rapidly but gently. The long phrases are valid for two reasons: the poet is here speaking much more freely, with reminiscence woven into her direct commentary. Also, the interweaving motif of this sequence is "Everything flows," a line from the hymn, "Time/like an ever-rolling stream/bears all its sons away." The motion of this theme, of the actual words in it, demands a longer, more ostensibly accented line.

Part I of this sequence introduces the hymn concept, as the poet remembers its use in her earlier life. The second section shows Olga's dread of this concept of flow, of death. Some of her terror is reflected in the more restrained line arrangement here; although still long, lines now fall into tercets:


                                                    But dream

was in her, a bloodbeat, it was against the rolling dark

oncoming river she raised bulwarks, setting herself

to sift cinders after daily early Mass all of one winter, . . .


                                        To change,

to change the course of the river! What rage for order

disordered her pilgrimage--so that for years at a time


she would hide among strangers, waiting

to rearrange all mysteries in a new light.


The tercets continue in Part III, but lines are here short, helping to reflect a new intensity as the poet pictures her sister "riding anguish . . . over the stubble of bad years," "haggard and rouged," "her black hair/dyed blonde." The two concluding lines of this segment return somewhat ironically to the longer rhythms of earlier parts of this poem, and to the "Everything flows" theme. Now, however, it is said that Olga's life was "unfolding, not flowing." It appears, then, that the contrast between the grandeur suggested in the hymn and Olga’s actual life--and death--is central to the poet's feeling as expressed through the poem.

Poem IV is another restrained poem before the rising rhythms of the concluding poems, V and VI, The short-line quatrains describe Olga's hospital life, hours of love and hate, pain and drugs quarreling "like sisters in you." In this poem return the images of the "kind candle" and the purifying flame, "all history/ burned out, down/to the sick bone, save for/that kind candle."

Poem V, another sequence, moves again more slowly. Part 1, in couplets, is dominated by images of gliding, winding, flowing--the poem thus is tied thematically and rhythmically with Poem III. These steady images, however, describe the poet's life as it was when both girls were young. There is momentary repose in this segment with its closing refrain, "In youth/is pleasure"; but the second poem returns to the painful life of an older Olga, buffeted by coldness "the year you were most alone."

Levertov achieves a vivid picture of Olga's desolation through images of frost and cold, loneliness, neglect, but perhaps even more effectively through the rhythms of this poem. Lines still are long, but they move more slowly because of monosyllabic words and word combinations difficult to articulate. The alliterative opening sets the pace for the poem:


Under autumn clouds, under white

wideness of winter skies you went walking

the year you were most alone


Such lines as "frowning as you ground out your thoughts," "the stage lights had gone out," "How many books you read" lead to the closing tercet, which again depicts Olga as walking, but more than that: "trudging after your anguish/over the bare fields, soberly, soberly."

With a reference to "tearless Niobe," Levertov introduces the theme for the strongest poem in the group, the sixth. Light in various contexts (firelight, the light of memory, the candle) has been a central image throughout the poem--especially in contrast with the "black" elements, Olga herself and death. Levertov has used much visual detail, so that seeing has been important to the reader in the course of the poem, Now the eye itself is added to the accumulative image--and Olga's golden, fearful, mystery-filled eyes dominate Poem VI. Her eyes are the color of pebbles under shallow water, the water that flows throughout the poem. And in a very real sense her eyes are--for the fear of the moving water (representative, I assume, of the inherent flow from life to death) has colored Olga's life. Perhaps her eyes have always looked through this distorting mist. The remarkable thing about Olga's eyes, however, as the image pattern makes clear, is that they did remain alive, lit by "compassion's candle," even through their fear.

Levertov turns to the rhythms of blank verse in this most majestic part of the total poem. Poem VI is a continuation of the tone and movement established in the fifth, particularly in the second part, but the structure of the sixth poem is marked with an important difference--it is tightly connected through an interplay of the sounds which have been used at intervals throughout the poem--l's, s's, o's--sounds which in themselves create a slow full nostalgia. The final stanza of Poem VI incorporates these sounds, as well as the images and themes which have pervaded the earlier poems. The viewpoint reverts to that of the poet, but the tribute to Olga is clear:


                                                I cross

so many brooks in the world, there is so much

light dancing on so many stones, so many questions my eyes

smart to ask of your eyes, gold brown eyes,

the lashes short but the lids

arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision

of festive goodness in back of their hard, or veiled, or shining,

unknowable gaze . . .


It is interesting that Levertov has included in this poem what recently appears to be one of her major poetic themes--the acceptance of change (even the last great change) as necessary to life. Olga's tragedy was an inability to accept that change. Her "rage for order" made her inflexible, even though "compassion's candle" burned through that inflexibility. This central theme was well expressed affirmatively five years earlier in "A Ring of Changes," the longest poem Levertov had written at that time. This poem is interesting technically as well as thematically. She uses a six-part arrangement, the first four short poems serving as prefaces. All four are in free paragraph form. The fifth poem is much longer; still in free form, it has longer lines. This central poem contains many symbols--the treevine of life, Casals' cello, a writer's worktable, light. It is a good poem, despite more didactic statement than in most of Levertov's poetry.

Yet "A Ring of Changes" as a whole is comparatively weak, I think, because it has no technical rationale. All the poems are separate, with few interrelating images or--perhaps more important to the poet--rhythms. Each poem is written in the same form; consequently, there seems to be little reason to divide the parts. The technical contrast between this poem and the Olga sequence is great.

The most critical reader cannot question the unity, the single effect, of the "Olga Poems"; yet Levertov's patterns of organization and rhythms differ widely within the poem. It is from her masterful use of contrast and balance that the harmony of the sequence comes--Poem IV, for example, slowing the movement, bringing the "everything flows" theme back to rest before it sets off again with new impetus.

It should be of interest to those critics who question the modern poets' technical proficiency that the techniques used throughout this long poem are the same devices Levertov uses in her short poems--the single-theme lyric, the sequence, the madrigal--each with its own appropriate line length and stanza arrangement. One fruit of her poetic experience is surely the unity of the "Olga Poems."

[. . . .]

Worksheets as Illustration of Practices, "Olga Poems"

Criticism by its very nature tends to establish arbitrary standards for judging poetry. Sometimes in speaking of organization, of prosody, of theme, the reader forgets that these segments are not separate from the poem as a whole--except as a convenience in the process of analysis. The poet does not think first of structure, then of words; he conceives of the poem as an entity. Perhaps in revision he considers separate elements in that, for example, he may change a word to strengthen rhythm. But writing poetry is seldom the orderly application of theories to practice that most critical discussions unfortunately suggest.

At issue here, I think, is the definition of the poetic process itself, a process which has been explored and described for centuries. That its mysteries have never been unraveled is, perhaps, a tribute to the innate power of the human spirit. For it seems to be agreed by nearly all poets, Levertov among them, that the poem begins somewhere in a non-intellectual response and is brought to perfection, finally, through a surveillance which is at least partly intellectual. As Levertov writes of Wallace Stevens' mot: "’Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully.' Almost."

Lest the poem sound entirely like a gift from a willfully evanescent muse, let me quote from her description of finding the impetus for poetry:

    I have always disliked the idea of any kind of deliberate stimulation of creativity (from parlor games to drugs)--believing that if you have nothing you really feel, really must say, then keep your mouth shut; and I still believe that--but with a difference: Namely, that since I also believe that whatever in our experience we truly give our attention to will yield something of value, I have come to see that the apparently arbitrary focussing of that attention may also be a way in to our underground rivers of feeling and understanding, to revelations of truth.     Supervielle: "How often we think we have nothing to say when a poem is waiting in us, behind a thin curtain of mist, and it is enough to silence the noise around us for that poem to be unveiled."     Rilke: "If a thing is to speak to you, you must for a certain time regard it as the only thing that exists, the unique phenomenon that your diligent and exclusive love has placed at the center of the universe, something the angels serve that very day on that matchless spot."     I think what validates a practice or device, which may otherwise only stimulate worthless, superficial, cynical work, is the writer's attitude when he uses it. If he works with "Kavonah" (care, awe, reverence, love--the "diligent love" Rilke speaks of) he can release the spark hidden in the dust."

Levertov emphasizes that the poet must attend the poem, must "stay with the prima materia of a poem patiently but with intense alertness. As a result the language becomes active where in earlier stages it was sluggish. However, let me add that there are times when it is as important to know enough to keep one's hands off a poem--off a first draft that is right just the way it came--as to revise. Some 'given' poems arrive without any previous work (of course, unconscious psychic work has undoubtedly preceded them )." The writer "has to look at the poem after he's written the first draft and consider with his knowledge, with his experience and craftsmanship, what needs doing to this poem. . . . It's a matter of a synthesis of instincts and intelligence."

Since one of the paradoxes of art is the fact that some poems are "given" entire while others require more or less revision, this chapter consists largely of comparative excerpts from Levertov's worksheets. Through the example of the poet's own practice, I hope to identify her more common patterns in revision and, consequently, to add to knowledge of the craft of poetry.

Worksheets from the "Olga Poems" are interesting for various reasons. This particular group of poems poses the problem of controlling sentiment so that the poem is not obscured by too personal detail. In Poem IV, for example, the account of Olga's hospital life originally contained a reference to her fear of swimming, a biographical comment which seems irrelevant in this particular poem.

Early Version

. . . how you always loved that cadence, 'Underneath are the everlasting arms’— You dreaded the ocean--Father in ignorance who could not swim, thought to teach you by pushing you in

all history burned out, down to the sick bone, save for

that kind candle.

Final Poem

... how you always loved that cadence, 'Underneath are the everlasting arms'— all history burned out, down to the sick bone, save for

that kind candle.




In early versions of Poem VI, the line "It was there I tried to teach you to ride a bicycle" has become, more appropriately, "I would . . . go out to ride my bike, return." The point to be made is that Olga is persistent, "savagely" so, in her playing; not that she needed instruction in bicycling.


Early Version:


you turned savagely to the piano and sight-read

straight through all the Beethoven sonatas, day after day—

weeks, it seemed to one. I would turn the pages, some of the time.

It was there I tried to teach you to ride a bicycle.




you turned savagely to the piano and sight-read

straight through all the Beethoven sonatas, day after day—

weeks, it seemed to me. I would turn the pages some of the time,

go out to ride my bike, return--you were enduring in the

falls and rapids of the music.


In the final draft of the sixth poem again, personal emotion assumes what might be considered a more subtle expression.


Early Version:


though when we were estranged,

my own eyes smarted in the pain

                            of remembering you

as they do now, remembering

                            I shall never see you again




                    Even when we were estranged

and my own eyes smarted in pain and anger at the thought of



Toward the end of the poem, the original line "gold brown eyes I shall never see again" becomes "gold brown eyes." To emphasize the finality of death, as in these early versions, is to mislead the reader at this point; for Levertov has further to go in her poetic re-creation. The central image of the late poems is of eyes, Olga's golden, mystic eyes--the candle image modified through implication. The closing impression of the poem sequence is not the poet's bereavement; it is rather Olga's unbroken character.

The sound pattern is particularly compelling in this last poem of the sequence. Yet in the early version, for all its contextual similarity, the pattern does not exist.


Early Version:


Crossing the wooden bridge over the Roding

where its course divided the open

field of the present

from the mysteries of the past,

the old forest,

I never forgot to think of your eyes

which were the golden brown of

                    pebbles under the water,

water under the sun.

And crossing

other streams in the world

where the same light

danced among stones

I never forgot ...




Your eyes were the gold brown of pebbles under water.

I never crossed the bridge over the Roding, dividing

the open field of the present from the mysteries,

the wraiths and shifts of time-sense Wanstead Park held


without remembering your eyes. Even when we were estranged

and my own eyes smarted in pain and anger at the thought of


And by other streams in other countries; anywhere where the


reached down through shallows to gold gravel. Olga's brown



"where the same light/danced among stones/I never forgot . . ." is very far, in sound, from "anywhere where the light/reached down through shallows to gold gravel. Olga's/brown eyes." It is interesting that Levertov has opened this final version with a thought expressed almost as an aside in the earlier poem.

Similar modifications are evident in the ending of the poem. The final impression is to be of Olga's calm yet unappeased eyes. One early version of the poem ends,


... the lashes short but the lids

arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision

of abundant and joyful life in back of them.


Rather than relying on the somewhat set adjectives, abundant and joyful, the final version suggests the wealth, the ambiguity of those very human eyes:


... the lids

arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision

of festive goodness in back of their hard, or veiled, or shining,

unknowable gaze.


Often in revision the change is small--perhaps only a word or two--but the effect is striking. I cite the closing lines of Poem V, for example:


Early Version:


--Oh, in your torn stockings

                and unwaved hair

you were riding your anguish down

over the bare fields, soberly, soberly.




Oh, in your torn stockings, with unwaved hair,

you were trudging after your anguish

over the bare fields, soberly, soberly.


For the passive, tearless Niobe, trudging is a better expression than riding. The same can be said of the changes made within Poem I. "The red waistband ring" of the final version was originally written as "itchy skin released from elastic reddened . . ."; objective detail must be not only accurate but consistent with the tone and movement of the poem. Tone may also have caused Levertov to delete the reference to "her kid sister's room" which appears in the original draft.

Many changes are made for the sake of emphasis. "I never forgot to think of your eyes" becomes "without remembering your eyes," a phrase much more positive in a grammatical sense. The movement of the latter phrase is also more suitable to the poem in which it appears, and rhythm in Levertov's poems is consistently an important consideration. For example, there are these lines from Poem V:


Early Version:


                                    ... seeing again

the signposts pointing to Theydon Garnon

or Stapleford Abbots or Greensted


crossing the ploughlands whose color I named 'murple'

a shade between brown and lavender


            that we loved


How cold it was in your thin coat,

            your down-at-heel shoes—




                        ... seeing again

the signposts pointing to Theydon Garnon

or Stapleford Abbots or Greensted,


crossing the ploughlands (whose color I named murple,

a shade between brown and mauve that we loved

when I was a child and you


not much more than a child) finding new lanes

near White Roding and Abbess Roding, or lost in Romford's

new streets where there were footpaths then—


[. . . .]

Beginning with trampled grass, Levertov in the final draft suggests the struggle present in Olga's relationships with others, intensified later by stung and lash. Alien helps to revivify the somewhat overused puppet metaphor, as does the figure "rehearsed fates." An intermediate version of this passage is closer to the final, but the phrasing is awkward:


Pacing across the trampled lawn you were,

where your actors, older than you but assembled and driven

to intense semblances alien to them by your will’s fury

had rehearsed their parts.


So far as arrangement of the total poem is concerned, Poem IV (the slow hospital sequence) and Poem V were reversed, earlier. The present arrangement is more effective rhythmically: the hospital passage provides needed contrast before the last two poems build to the high pitch of the ending. As Levertov's comments about the sequence form indicate, a poet working with several elements may well have no preconception of total form. Once the parts are written, he must then find the most telling arrangement for the whole.


Title Linda Wagner-Martin: On "Olga Poems" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Linda Wagner-Martin Criticism Target Denise Levertov
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Denise Levertov
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