Denise Levertov

“While We Sleep” / “I hear”: Communal Readership and Expressive Authorship in Denise Levertov’s The Jacob’s Ladder

“One of the political things poetry, whether or not overtly political in its content, can do is to reveal that unity, that trembling web of being.”
– Denise Levertov, “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival” 153

In light of Duncan’s approaches to active readership, we must then read Denise Levertov’s work as engaging an active readership, surely, but one that does this in a radically different way. For the most part, scholarship surrounding the Duncan/Levertov correspondence has set the two authors in opposing schools of political poetry: Duncan’s enacts an individual freedom, whereas Levertov’s prescribes a revolutionary mode of activism. Here I would like to reposition Levertov’s poetry as one that necessarily enacts a communal politics that complements, rather than contradicts, Duncan’s push for individual freedom. In order to do so, I would like to focus on the collection that truly marks Levertov’s shift from the organic lyric poet of her earlier collections, to the stark realist politics of her Vietnam War era poems: The Jacob’s Ladder, published in 1961. At this time, American troops stationed in Vietnam were increasing dramatically, but the war had not captured the attention of the American public in the way that it would in the mid- to late-sixties[i]. For this reason, Levertov’s political poems deal less with politics directly[ii] and instead enact a poetry of the communal that encourages her readers to be active in their engagement, and specific in their perception, of the world around them; this communality recalls, rather than rebukes, Duncan’s own advocations. Moreover, Levertov envisions this common as one in the material, political world, but also and perhaps more importantly, one in the linguistic realm, and thus advocates the commonality of the poetic and literary imagination.

Before I discuss the role of the common in Levertov’s work, I would like to take a moment to discuss Levertov’s active engagement of her readers. Lisa Narbeshuber, in “Relearning Denise Levertov’s Alphabet: War, Flesh, and the Intimacy of Otherness,” argues that Levertov’s theories of authorship are “[t]ypical of the Black Mountain orientation” in that “her poetry wants to engage in a direct dialogue with the outside world rather than withdraw from such a worldly world into a removed aesthetic sphere” (138). But, her poetry does not converse with its reader in the same manner as Duncan’s palimpsestic Passages, or as Charles Olson’s sweeping invitations in The Maximus Poems. Instead, while promoting conceptions of a political and a poetic common, the form of the organic lyrics that Levertov constructs throughout her career, but especially in The Jacob’s Ladder, functions more as a Romantic lyric than a direct engagement with the reader. Marjorie Perloff notes this much in her article on the Duncan/Levertov correspondence when she writes that Levertov’s wildly popular anti-war poem, “Tenebrae” (1972), does not adequately engage with her readership: “The poem leaves the reader no freedom to interpret.” What Levertov hoped, instead of a “freedom to interpret,” was that her poetry would affect her readers into more direct and specific attentiveness and engagement with the world around them.

Narbeshuber attributes this desire, in part at least, to the popularization of television, which Levertov viewed, contrary to many popular understandings of its role in the Vietnam war, as something that “severs a difficult reality from the senses” (133). While the media frenzy surrounding the American occupation of Vietnam had not yet begun at the time of The Jacob’s Ladder’s publication, we nonetheless see this call for worldly attentiveness in action in the collection right away. That is, the collection begins with an epigraphic poem, “To The Reader,” in which Levertov encourages attention to the world surrounding the reader, outside the text. The last stanza of the short poem reads:

and as you read
the sea is turning its dark pages
turning
its dark pages. (7-10)

Here, Levertov aligns her poem (and by its epigraphic nature, the whole collection as well) with the external world, reminding the reader of his or her position in the common, even in the secluding act of reading a book of poems.

In fact, it is precisely this turn to the common or the collective on the political level that Levertov suggests Duncan’s politics of individual freedom sorely lacks. According to Perloff, Levertov says that Duncan’s anarchic upbringing caused him to rely too much on individual freedom, and thus to “mistrust group action.” Perloff goes on to quote Levertov as arguing that because of the radical and anarchic politics of his parents, Duncan “did not experience the comradeship, the recognition of apparent strangers as brothers and sisters” (SM 111-12 qtd in “Poetry, Politics”). Conversely, Levertov’s Anglican upbringing has apparently prepared her for such collective political and poetic thinking. Anne Day Dewey, in her article about the Duncan/Levertov correspondence, notes that this Christian approach to communality allows “[h]er poetry of the early 1960s [to] use[] the language of literature and tradition to frame epiphanic experience of the everyday, shifting inspiration from concrete objects to a community of literary kindred spirits” (“Poetic Authority” 114). In a turn that, in this sense, recalls Duncan’s poetic common, “Levertov roots her imagination in a spirit world nourished by poetic tradition” (ibid). In this manner, Levertov employs the quotidian, and especially the colloquial, to embrace this linguistic conception of the common. Dewey goes on to write that

While levelling the hierarchy (although not abolishing the distinction) between poetic and colloquial diction, Levertov admits both as essential elements of her expression. As one in a continuum of individual utterances that establish consensual public meaning, poetry can engage colloquial idiom directly and transform it. (117)

In contrast to Duncan’s critiques, then, Dewey argues that Levertov’s determined “embrace of group language represents not loss of [individual] freedom but a positive, mutual transformation of self and community” (117). This, too, is represented in the language of The Jacob’s Ladder as early as the first poem following the epigraphic “To The Reader;” a poem appropriately titled “A Common Ground.” In this poem, Levertov begins by immediately foregrounding the unity implied. The first line reads: “To stand on common ground.”  This thematic conceit is carried throughout, as in lines seventeen through twenty which read:

to eat and sweet
to be given, to be eaten
in common, by labourer
and hungry wanderer…

Throughout the collection, then, this political, populist common is extended to the artistic imagination, albeit less explicitly, as in the direct address to a fictional “Homer da Vinci” (“The Part” 1). In The Jacob’s Ladder, commonality abounds.

And yet, her work is also persistently interested in an authorial writing-self that navigates this rhizomatic common space, and this is something that many critics of her work have noted. Narbeshuber, for example, argues that Levertov’s work functions to “carefully rethink the nature of self and community, ambitiously attempting to mend the classic subject/object dualism, while simultaneously constructing a vision of a self able to think and act in the world” (133). This reliance on the self is perhaps most evident in Levertov’s later poetics pieces, in which she often defers to a personal, and even subjective, relationship between the writing self and poetic form. Her 1979 “On the Function of the Line,” for example, contains the following passage:

Then the student poet can decide, or feel out, whether he or she wrote it down  but read it right, or vice versa. That decision is a very personal one and has quite as much to do with the individual sensibility of the writer and the unique character of the experience embodied in the words of the poem, as with universally recognizable rationality – though that may play a part, too. (85, italics added)

And, later in the same piece, she argues that open or free poetic forms “build unique contexts” (86, italics in original). In 1984’s “A Poet’s View,” she even goes as far as to say that the construction of a clearly defined writing self is integral to an “honest artist,” writing that “an honest artist is, and needs to be, conscious of having a point of view, a philosophy or a constellation of opinions and beliefs which inform his or her work in some degree” (239). While this conception of an authorial presence might seem to run counter to a postanarchist reading and writing practice, it is valuable here insofar as it allows Levertov to put emphasis on affective reading strategies, “in order to make readers understand what is happening, really understand it, not just know about it but feel it” (“Poetry, Prophecy, Survival” 146, italics in original). Nonetheless, this “self” immediately lends itself to a speaking for or on behalf of the other, functioning as the “mouthpiece” Perloff describes in my previous entry on Duncan. While uncritical of this, Levertov herself notes it when she writes that this affective relationship with the reader “has the obvious functions of raising consciousness and articulating emotions for people who have not the gift of expression” (“Poetry, Prophecy, Survival” 144). Thus, it is unsurprising that the second person singular pronoun of “To The Reader” shifts later in the collection to the collective “we” in “The Tide” when Levertov writes “While we sleep” (1). But, we are also not shocked when, only a few lines later, the prescriptive poetic voice, with her clearly defined point of view, emerges in separation from the “we” when Levertov writes “I hear” (14). In the end, despite Levertov’s gestures toward the political and poetic common, the poet still envisions herself as hearing, and in turn speaking, for those who do not have these “gifts.”


[i] America was preoccupied, instead, as Levertov’s poetry often critiques, with the Camelot of the newly inaugurated Kennedy administration, and, by the time of The Jacob’s Ladder’s publication, the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

[ii] Save the important exception of “During the Eichmann Trial,” which discusses the war crimes trial of former SS officer Adolf Eichmann.

3 thoughts on ““While We Sleep” / “I hear”: Communal Readership and Expressive Authorship in Denise Levertov’s The Jacob’s Ladder

  1. So Perloff writes that “Tenebrae” “leaves the reader no freedom to interpret.” This claim has interesting political implications I think: namely, what is the difference between poetry and propaganda? When “freedom to interpret” is removed, then the poem becomes propagandist because it has a direct message that becomes forced onto the reader. Part of what makes poetry such an effective postanarchist or anarchist medium is that it is open – poetry lives in a very broad commons (I think you imply this somewhere). The danger of delimiting interpretation is that poetry becomes a “sell,” “message,” or “slogan.” I guess this has always been part of my problem with Levertov’s Vietnam War poems: they lose the anarchism of poetry and become political archaisms.

  2. Sean’s comment would certainly go well with Duncan’s criticisms of Levertov’s poetry, as Duncan voiced much the same concerns.

    Dani, this is an interesting entry point into discussing Levertov, and I think the broad distinctions you make between Levertov’s and Duncan’s sensibilities is solid. I do wonder a bit, given the frame of the Duncan-Levertov controversy that you use as a hinge to move from Duncan into Levertov, that you chose _The Jacob’s Ladder_ as a crucial text. I remember Duncan being more or less fine with that book (and perhaps the next?), and not really criticizing Levertov until her late ’60s books. My memory is always dodgy–am I wrong on that point? If so, then all is well–but if I’m right that Duncan and Levertov didn’t really part poetic company until later, I think it might be problematic to suggest a split that isn’t there at the time of _The Jacob’s Ladder_. This is a concern that might be rendered moot merely by acknowledging and contextualizing your points more specifically (is it because the obvious split isn’t there yet that makes focusing on _The Jacob’s Ladder_ so important to your argument? Perhaps clarifying your stance in the first paragraph or two would help?

    • Yeah, I guess I figured that choosing TJL would speak for itself, but I see that I have to justify that decision.

      My interest in TJL is that it really sets up the paradox of self/perspective and dissolution in her work, and while it does predate the vast majority of Duncan’s criticisms, I see it as, really, the foundation text for her mid-career work that angered Duncan so much.

      I will better contextualize my claims so that much is clear in my work. Thanks.

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