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On Denise Levertov's Vietnam Poetry

James F. Mersmann

Levertov's attitude towards art and experience is of primary importance in understanding her first reactions to the Vietnam War. Whereas Ginsberg sees war as the ultimate reification of artificial control and imposed order, the natural activity of a judgmental Moloch, she sees it as ultimate unreason and disorder, as the clouding of claritas and the violation of the innate order at the heart of things.

[. . . .]

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. Her concern is not a coldly aesthetic one: she cares not so much about the loss of the possibilities of art as an end in itself, but about the loss of the clarity that strikes to depths where the highest art and fullest life are inseparable. When vision reaches to that level, love and compassion are natural concomitants. The sight at that point is "caressive" by its nature, since at their core all things are orderly and lovely (love-worthy and love-eliciting).

[. . . .]

"Advent 1966" (published in The Nation as the Sorrow Dance poems were going to press) is a . . . concentrated and powerful statement of the ravages of war on Levertov's poetic powers. A series of contrasts are built around Robert Southwell's mystical vision of the Burning Babe and Levertov's haunting imagination of the physically burning infants of Vietnam. Whereas the one vision prefigures redemption and purification, and increases the poet's spiritual powers and insight, the latter damns and destroys the imaginative powers. The one is "unreal" and speaks of the highest reality; the other is physically real and born of chaotic irreality. Southwell's burning babe is singular, unique; the babes of Vietnam are multiple "as off a beltline" and appear to the poet as the blurred and overlapping images of faulty vision:

because of this my strong sight,
my clear caressive sight, my poet's sight I was given
that it might stir me to song,
is blurred.
                There is a cataract filming over
my inner eyes. Or else a monstrous insect
has entered my head, and looks out
from my sockets with multiple vision,

At what point and from what cause does the blurring of vision occur? Is it in the seeing, or in that which is seen? Is the insect in the head or is it an emanation and reflection of the chaotic facts of the war? The poem’s realization seems to be, in fact, that the disordering of the sight and the disordering of reality are the same. Such is in keeping with Levertov's poetics. Claritas is possible only in the synapse of orderly mind and orderly object: the imagination does not add or change but discovers clarity, penetrates the order of its objects. The war, however, is without spirit or order, and the imagination cannot find the precisely focused image of the Burning Babe that is not there. The vision that is there

will not permit me to look elsewhere,

or if I look, to see except dulled and unfocused
the delicate, firm, whole flesh of the still unburned.

Thus the poet’s imagination, which before could see clearly through the surface chaos, now finds even the orderly surfaces (the "whole flesh of the still unburned") blurred by the impenetrable experience of the war. If the imagination is repeatedly defeated in its attempt to pierce through disorder, it becomes dulled and blunted, and loses its powers to do so.

The war casts a disabling shadow for Levertov because hers is a poetics of order and of the presumption of order: "my notion of organic form is really based on the idea that there is form in all things--that the artist doesn't impose form upon chaos, but discovers hidden form by means of the poet's attentive listening, not only his listening but also his feeling, his meditating upon his experience, and by means of his accurate transcription of that experience into words."

[. . . .]

Levertov's pre-Vietnam poetry shows us a capable and confident woman and poet avidly "reading" the world as she moves through experience. That world could be coped with and understood, and beauty lay along the path. She found it all, you may say, satisfactory. But war will not lie down to the imagination. It casts a shadow on all the other goings:

... The feeling
resembles lumps of raw dough
weighing down a child's stomach on baking day.
                                                ("Life at War")

One carries the war about as a burden, as if his heart were "balled into formless lumps." "War" here seems to have a slightly wider extension than Vietnam (and applies, as in Ginsberg, to all that is warlike):

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:

But Vietnam is obviously the real sore: our "nerve filaments twitch with its presence" and "nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying." It is perhaps not without significance that the choice of images directly or indirectly relates to the making of poetry: lungs, dreams, imagination, breath, saying.

A similar sense of blight finds expression in the work of other poets. Robert Bly, for example, compresses it beautifully in a single image: "we all feel like tires being run down the road under heavy cars." But the theme is unusually pervasive in Levertov's own work and in work she selected for Out of the War Shadow: The 1968 Peace Calendar.

[ . . . .]

One fact is apparent in the changing moods: evil has been encountered by Levertov in a way it had not been encountered before, and the effect has been profound. "Life at War" shows it in the images of raw dough and husky phlegm, but even more dramatically in the descriptions of carnage:

... 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.

One thinks immediately of Siegfried Sassoon's "Counter-Attack":

The place was rotten with dead. Green clumsy legs,
High-booted, sprawled and groveled along the saps,
And trunks, face downward in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sandbags loosely filled,
And naked, sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began, the jolly old rain.

But though Sassoon's experienced vision is more horrible than Levertov's imagined one, its expression nevertheless possesses a detachment and a distance that her lines do not. The last line of Sassoon's, of course, helps this impression, but it would be apparent without it. His images are reported, observed, seen in all their grotesqueness, but the poet’s psychic integrity is not threatened. That characterizes all of Sassoon's poetry and the bulk of the poetry of the First World War. It is a poetry of the eye, the outer eye. Levertov's images are here seen with a visceral eye different from the inner eye of her earlier poems. These images are not seen into or through, but experienced with the "mucous membranes" mentioned earlier in the same poem. Duncan says of these images that, though the poet believes she is writing anti-war sentiments, the war is really only an irritant that knocks the scabs from already present psychological sores. He feels her choice of images here and elsewhere suggests a repressed obsession with sexual violence. Whether this is more than can be safely seen in the lines, they do certainly reveal that the poet’s agitation is more than superficial.

From Out of the Vietnam Vortex: a study of poets and poetry against the war. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1974. Copyright © 1974 by The University Press of Kansas.

Harry Marten

In "Life at War," the final grouping of her poems in The Sorrow Dance, Levertov presents a profoundly disturbing vision of violence that brings together unflinching directness of imagery with what seems in the context to be restrained, at times almost delicate, abstract language. The matter-of-fact picture of slaughter and mutilation is shocking, as is the contrast between presentation and meaning. But the very mix of gritty detail and controlled, often elegant, diction permits unusual recognitions. Levertov offers a language that confronts terrible human acts honestly, while still demonstrating the human potential for grace and imaginative reclamation. While indicting humankind for its savagery, she reminds herself and her readers, with irony but also with hopefulness, that human beings possess qualities of responsiveness that make a promise of peace thinkable.

"Man," Levertov explains, speaking with an almost metaphysical diction, is an animal "whose flesh / responds to a caress, whose eyes / are flowers that perceive the stars" and "whose understanding manifests designs / fairer than the spider's most intricate web." But metaphysics disconcertingly collides with the immediate as the poet continues, suggesting with language that mixes abstractions and direct images, that this same human animal

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.

Levertov affirms that writer and readers alike are "the humans, men who can make; / whose language imagines mercy, lovingkindness," and have "believed one another / mirrored forms of a God we felt as good." But she suggests we must not refuse recognition that it is we "who do these acts, who convince ourselves / it is necessary," and that "these acts are done / to our own flesh; burned human flesh." We must not use our ability with words to transform the truths of our deeds. Yet, too, because we are "men who can make," who can imagine a "God" that is "good," and a language that "imagines ... / lovingkindness," our acts are recoverable.

"Knowledge" of hideous crimes of war, Levertov writes, "jostles for space / in our bodies along with all we / go on knowing of joy, of love":

our nerve filaments 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.

Even as readers are compelled to know their guilt of action or of complacency, the poet has succeeded in reminding them with her visible joy of making, her love of language and clarity of vision, that they have the capacity for creation and for creative perception. Her readers have seen the ugliness of human affairs, but the surprising and disarming mix of formal beauty, strength and elegance of language, and horrific images, has made it possible for them to grasp the horror not just turn away in fear and loathing. Levertov, distancing herself from the nightmare even as she has looked into the heart of it, has offered readers a compassion that has made possible their seeing. She has begun to point toward a way of comprehending the violence of war that modern men "have breathed the grits of ... all [their] lives, / the mucous membrane of [their] dreams / coated with it, the imagination / filmed over with the gray filth of it."

In poems that are at times openly didactic yet lyrical, invariably questioning, The Sorrow Dance reveals the nature of human brutalities enacted on behalf of the political state, imagining the thoughts and lives of victims and victimizers alike ("What Were They Like," "The Altars in the Street," "Didactic Poem"). For all its shock, the impact is oddly that of relief, for at last the unspeakable is given voice. As Levertov suggests, "To speak of sorrow / works upon it"

                        moves it from its
crouched place barring
the way to and from the soul's hall ....

from Understanding Denise Levertov. Copyright © 1988 by the University of South Carolina Press.

Cary Nelson

The poem sequence "Staying Alive " is decisively thwarted by the same historical imperative that brings it into existence. Levertov's whole career speaks to a mysticism whose verbal interest is continually risked by comparison to a real world more resistant to ecstatic ascent. All that justifies her personal expansiveness is the traditional American poetic myth--that what is experienced as our national madness is in essence the misdirected primal energy of the continent itself, and that the poet can symbolically redirect that force toward affirmation and growth. Until Vietnam, Levertov managed to handle her inheritance at a distance, overcoming discrete incidents of violence through integration into larger verbal rhythms, subjecting personal grief to purgation. She avoided encountering the larger myths of our history and kept her poetic territory elsewhere and self-enclosed. Her earlier poetry nurtures a vision exceedingly fragile, almost evanescent. The poems declare their own articulation to be a substantive human action, though the assertion is continually vulnerable. Yet with To Stay Alive a moral commitment to practical action outside poetry enters the poetry itself. Moreover, she demands that her vision prove equal to direct confrontation.

In several introductory poems reproduced from earlier volumes, she establishes, rather poignantly, the crisis that led her to a new and more provisional poetic form in "Staying Alive." The "Olga Poems" give witness to her entire career to that point; they are evidence that intimate, personal death can be made fruitful through verbal transformation. "A Note to Olga (1966)" hesitantly extends this claim to a social setting; at a political demonstration, her sister's death surprisingly proves a resource. The next four poems pit this vision of poetry "whose language imagines mercy, lovingkindness" against her experience of the war:

the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it

In our own bodies, this knowledge "numb within us / caught in the chest" contends with a Whitmanesque faith that our "understanding manifests designs / fairer than the spider's most intricate web."

Levertov's sense of the war's human cost for us is precise and telling, though her litany of its distant violence lies heavily on her tongue: "the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk / runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies." Brutal and accurate as these lines may be, they are essentially clichés of violent war. We can hear in them a history of violence verbalized at a distance, perhaps even specific rhetoric like that of the English reaction when Germany invaded Belgium in the First World War. Moreover, our own physical security makes the language flat and unconvincing. We have no historical ground for sympathetic identification; such words will not come to us. Williams argues that our poetry must seek the Indian in our hearts, but he never truly finds that voice. To give voice to the land, to give voice to Vietnamese pain--these passionate quests are generated by internal needs, they are motivated by self-interest; at worst, they are ironically a kind of poetic colonialism, pathetic evidence that our history shapes and uses our poetry whatever our intentions. Levertov tries to remember "when peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies" and of the Vietnamese says "it was reported their singing resembled / the flight of moths in moonlight." The first image is weak because of its postcard conventionality; the second is almost patronizing; it suffers from the same untraversable difference she tries to indict with "it was reported."

These poems are made of personal defeat. Levertov admits she cannot "see except dulled and unfocused / the delicate, firm, whole flesh of the still unburned." She fears an insect has come to see through her eyes. The wellspring of her own humanism fails her; the lines opposing poetry and love to the war ring flat. We believe her despair and her revulsion, but her mystical language is hollowed out by the events which drive her to use her vision as an opposing force. "Nothing we do," she confesses, "has the quickness, the sureness, / the deep intelligence living at peace would have." The admission dismantles the poetry, for she does not pursue her own depression far enough. If she were truly to drop "off the limb of / desperation"--not, as she writes, "plumb into peace for a day," but into a poetry of numb self-extinction--she might then find a voice which could survive its times intact. Such a voice for Levertov might have an indestructible lightness that even Merwin (who rarely deceives himself about historical realities) cannot find.

The alternative she chooses in "Staying Alive" does not entirely succeed. The poem's title is deliberately a more process-oriented version of the book's title, as if to warn us that no conclusive poetic victory can follow. Yet such a victory is precisely the poem's goal; she would create a poetic world in which love is the greater power, but she cannot. The poem's openness to historical circumstances, its broad Whitmanesque inclusiveness, is essentially a challenge to do battle. She borrows the patchwork form suggested to her by Williams's Paterson, including journals, letters, conversations, newspaper reports. Williams, however, managed with a delicate humor to lead us into believing that even the most thwarted political rhetoric could be maneuvered toward a communal poetic speech. Yet when Williams in 1924 wrote that we build "battleships for peace" he had a somewhat different historical situation to contend with; it had its own very bitter ironies, to be sure, once the idealism of the First World War was undone by the realities of trench warfare, but irony itself is no longer available as an uncompromised response. There is little workable irony, little nostalgia to be recovered, from the legacy of children disemboweled and villages napalmed for peace. In the very complacency of its venality, the rhetoric of this war (whose language for many poets seemed the core of our self-knowledge) is an impossible adversary.

If conventional irony will not function effectively, neither will anger. The poetry always falls short of the rage we bring to it. Levertov herself knows that well enough. Indeed all her comments about the war's effect on language testify to her sense of the futility of the poetic enterprise. "I'm / alive to / tell the tale," she wrote in her second book, "but, not honestly: / the words / change it." That recognition has to be confronted in these poems where the words are so much more necessary and yet so inadequate. As she suggests in The Poet in The World, poetry will not serve well simply to verbalize a prior conviction. Thus her anguish at Vietnamese suffering finds only conventions of violence as its outlet. The hidden subject of "Staying Alive" is this blocked and subverted expressiveness, the poet's despair that appropriate images of pain--so specific and telling as to be unforgettable--are unachievable. Anger in contemporary poetry is thus perhaps best rendered as an emotion no longer possible. The Vietnam poems most likely to survive may be those that emphasize not moral outrage at the private suffering so easily visible in televised images but the very translucence and inaccessibility of those images.

Levertov herself moves toward that kind of treatment in The Freeing of the Dust, which includes her first fully successful Vietnam poems. "The Pilots," based on direct experiences in North Vietnam of the sort very few established American poets have had, records her touching reticence in questioning captured American pilots. Since her hostility cannot survive their actual presence, she is reticent about asking them if they knew "precisely / what they were doing, and did it anyway, and would do it again," if "they understood what these bombs / are designed to do / to human flesh." In no way does this reticence lessen the horror at what the bombs do, yet it does complicate the poet's ability to act and speak; it complicates them with a poignancy exactly right for Levertov's poetry. If "these men understood these acts," she writes, "then I must learn to distrust / my own preference for trusting people." In "Modes of Being," another poem in the same volume, Levertov uses a form that emphasizes the disjunction between her own consciousness and the history taking place in Vietnam. Four sections dealing with her own reactions are separated from but interspersed with three italicized passages about the prisons in South Vietnam:

Near Saigon,
In a tiger-cage, a woman
tries to straighten her
            cramped spine
and cannot.

The flat narration establishes Levertov's respect for suffering that is, finally, not her own. Free herself to take pleasure in nature, she can neither forget nor fully maintain the connection with the unspeakable mutilations of the tiger cages:

is real, torture
is real, we strain to hold
a bridge between them open,
and fail,
or all but fail.

Levertov ends the poem with a passage that recalls the imagery of the conclusion to Wright's "A Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter, 1966." Here, however, the almost hieratic description of an impossible bird testifies to an apotheosis we desire that cannot be:

What wings, what mighty arch
of feathered hollow bones, beyond
span of albatross or eagle,
mind and heart must grow
                                to touch, trembling,
with outermost pinion tips,
not in alternation but both at once,
in one
violent eternal instant
that which is and
that which is ...

The connective tissue to bind together the various forms of eventfulness into one body will not be fleshed out in the body of the poem. Its verbal reach fails, a victim, however indirectly, of the same reality in which a man in a tiger-cage "tries to stretch out his hand / and cannot." The poem gestures toward a language of radical fusion it cannot find; it is unable to name the wingspread with which it would take flight. Then the poem testifies to the rude irony language can intrude, for it can at least be said that Levertov's history and that of the Vietnamese prisoners are each "that which is and / that which is... "; they are linked by language that certifies only what experience cannot absorb. The poem trails off in ellipses, irresolute in the presence of its own metaphors.

From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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