Denise Levertov

“The truth / in fractions”: Levertov’s Postmodern-ish Poetics

I return, in this section, to my claims in my final plateau on Duncan, than his work was much more affected by the rise of postmodernism than Levertov’s. While I may not have treated it so at the time, this is, in fact, a contentious claim, and one that contradicts much of the scholarship surrounding Levertov’s work. In fact, owing to her relationship with Black Mountain, and to the work of many of her other contemporaries, Levertov’s work is often accepted as postmodern uncritically. Marjorie Perloff allows Levertov’s defining “agitprop” to admit her to the postmodern school, and leaves it at that. Donna Hollenberg accepts Levertov as postmodern particularly because her work is included in Alicia Ostriker’s conception of the “postmodern witness” (520). Lisa Narbeshuber offers some deliberation, arguing ultimately that while postmodern in essence, Levertov’s work fits uneasily into the school as a whole. She writes that, “Levertov’s poetry has never fallen into either the playfully anti-referential postmodern stream best represented by Jacques Derrida or the mournful postmodern stream best represented by [Jean] Baudrillard” (135). What I would like to argue in this plateau is that Levertov’s work does, indeed, fall into postmodernism in some counts, particularly in her treatment of the defamiliarization of language, her embracing of polyvocality, and her conception of organic form as rhizomatic. But, these traits are overshadowed by her opposition to the radical politics and poetics of Language poetry (which often surfaces in her correspondence with Duncan), and her ultimate belief in a divine truth innate in everything, up to and including language[i]. Ultimately, while often pulled towards a postmodern tradition, Levertov’s work, especially in The Jacob’s Ladder, necessarily falls victim to a universalizing truth that betrays her organic poetics.

To begin, I would like to touch on Levertov’s opposition to the radical poetics of Language poetry which, I have demonstrated, were actually crucial to Duncan’s progression as a poet. Levertov’s distaste for Language poetry seems to stem from their radical interest in the individualized utterance and the materiality of language, which moves poetic language too far from its function as expressive and meaningful. Hollenberg links this to Levertov’s frequent use of ekphrasis, especially in her late poetry, and considers this part of the reason why she was particularly drawn to Anselm Kiefer’s work in painting. That is, “[Kiefer’s] paintings returned compositional lines back to their narrative function. This formal position is analogous to Levertov’s rejection of the captious wit of Language poetry, notwithstanding the related political goals of its advocates” (523). So, while Levertov may have felt a political affiliation with the ultimate goals of the Language tradition, she felt there was a dramatic formal divide between her work and theirs.

Keith Norris, in “Openmouthed in the Temple of Life: Denise Levertov and the Postmodern Lyric,” characterizes this divide as one of safety rather than disturbance. That is, while Language poetry sought to defamiliarize and disturb language from its quotidian function, Levertov sought an attentive, responsible space from which her poetry speaks. Norris explains it in this way:

Language poetry is, in a sense, the extreme example of a connection with the disturbing multitude of images present in the contemporary world; Levertov asserts a poetry that not only can recognize and reproduce that miscellany with a joyous intensity, but can also achieve a safe place from which to critique such a world. (344)

It is precisely this concern that Hollenberg echoes when she writes that Levertov “deplored the prevalence of fracture and obliquity as poetic techniques in contemporary poetry” (530). The radical postmodernism of Language poetry, and the other more radical avant-garde movements at the time, provokes Levertov to distance herself from the formal poetics of the other Black Mountain poets (of Olson and Duncan, less so of Creeley), and instigates a return to what Hollenberg almost uncritically terms a return to an “ut picture poesis” where “art is prized less as an imitation of reality … than as an expression of the human spirit” (532). In a move that gestures toward her affinity for an authorial, egoic writing-self, which I will deal with next week, Levertov thus detaches herself from the high-modernists and her contemporaries who “stress the impersonality of art. Instead, she makes art an analogue of the artist it expresses, and encourages our identification with the artist’s point of view” (533). All this considered, it is important to note that despite these objections, Levertov’s organic lyric is often very concerned with the defamiliarization of language, and its (often natural) materiality.

Many critics note Levertov’s gestures towards defamiliarization, but often do so as a means to prove an activist, political end. This is the case, for example, with Narbeshuber when she observes that, “[a]s with the poetry of Robert Duncan or Charles Olson, language itself is a particularly charged object that can be re-seen and that can open up a defamiliarized (fresh) vision of the world, one not reduced to cliché, packaged images, or sound bytes” (135). While The Jacob’s Ladder is a collection that is less concerned with agitprop politics as her later work, examples of this defamiliarization abound, and most are centred on the linguistic realm itself, and on languages ability to occasion non-referential meaning, as in “A Common Ground” when she writes of “a language / excelling itself to be itself” (“Part iii” 9-10). And yet, the whole concept of agitprop, or of the organic lyric, depends on language’s referential function, and various examples of Levertov’s defamiliarization demonstrate that she is actually extremely sceptical of its effectiveness. Unsurprisingly, in light of Levertov’s ecological and environmental affinities, these examples often defer to the “language” of the natural world as inadequate to support a poetic language that requires referential meaning in order to remain valuable. For example, the first stanza of “Six Variatians: iii” reads:

Shlup, shlup, the dog
as it laps up
water
makes intelligent
music, resting
now and then to
take breath in irregular
measure. (1-8)

The dog’s sounds in the water may produce “intelligent / music,” but its “irregular / measure” is not innately meaningful as, for example, Jackson Mac Low understood animal sounds to be. Instead, it remains a nonsensical “Shlup” requiring our attention, perhaps, but not inviting the reception of expression. Instead, it is our language that must gesture towards the meaningless sounds of the natural, as evidenced by “Matins” in which Levertov writes:

The cow’s breath
not forgotten in the mist, in the
words. Yes,
verisimilitude draws up
heat in us, (“Matins: iv” 3-7)

So, cow’s breath inflects language, but it is up to the poet to generate verisimilitude. For Levertov, affect is produced through mimesis and in order for mimesis to function as affective language must return to the narrative function from which Language poetry would distance us.

Additionally, Norris notes that Levertov’s organic lyric functions as postmodern “in its ability to move quickly from one perception, or anecdotal narrative we might say, to another, all the while crossing great gaps of meaning, and coming to understanding in how we cross those gaps” (346). The hallmark of postmodernism, polyvocality is present in Levertov insofar as various voices are represented (including the cow’s), but what is inarguable is that her poetry reifies one viewpoint, the author’s, as powerful and integral to the affective meaning-making of the poem. And, what’s more, these variant viewpoints are necessarily linked in Levertov’s work to a divine truth, even if, as Norris attempts to argue, the “truth isn’t stated here, but is the process itself” (346). To be sure, the truth is unapproachable and fragmented, but as with her oppositions to Language poetry, this fragmentation of the truth is regrettable. The postmodern turn to material language, its preference for image, has carried this fragmentation out. In The Jacob’s Ladder, Levertov laments:

Alright.
It’s true.
Nothing.

is ever enough. Images
split the truth
in fractions. (“A Sequence: iii” 11-16)

As such, Levertov attempts to return language to this divine function, where the materiality of language gives way to a more meaningful embodiment: “Cold, fresh, deep, I feel the word ‘water’ / spelled in my left palm” (“The Well” 38-9).

Nevertheless, the critics that I have mentioned maintain that Levertov’s gestures towards postmodern thinking solidify her position as a postmodern poet. At the risk of sounding exclusionary, I cannot help but disagree. I cannot help but wonder if, as Norris maintains, Levertov’s “organicism isn’t a form, but a constantly evolving formation” (346), a move that recalls the rhizome of deleuzoguattarian thought, then what are we to make of lines such as “The poem ascends” (20), from the collection’s titular poem? Norris concludes that “[i]n Levertov’s theory we are individually responsible for pursuing the universal, not particularly responsible for the individuation of accepted universal truths” (351-2). And yet, where scholars have tended to see saving grace in this somewhat individualized realization of the universal, Levertov’s representations of it are no less universalizing than the Romantic tradition she prizes. That is, when she writes “I saw / not what the almost abstract / / tiles held” but instead “a shadow of what / might be seen there if mind and heart / gave themselves to meditation” (“A Letter to William Kinter of Muhlenberg” 3-5, 7-9), she implies not an individuated truth, but a Platonic one. Sure, it is external and perhaps even in flux, but it remains a divine and divined truth that the poet has prime access to, and one that art cannot capture, but should, at least, strive to. And, while this may recall Duncan’s conception of a Book beyond the text, Levertov’s characterization of this externality as a truth, and a moral one at that, runs counter to the radical, anarchic poetics that Duncan held dear.


[i] I also argue that Levertov’s rather closed conception of the egoic self runs counter to postmodernist thinking, but this issue is so complex in Levertov’s work that I have devoted my entire next section to it.

3 thoughts on ““The truth / in fractions”: Levertov’s Postmodern-ish Poetics

  1. The distinction you draw at the end between Levertov’s and Duncan’s stances towards externality is very perceptive and helpful, and the entire plateau works well.

    As for particulars–when you state “Norris notes that Levertov’s organic lyric functions as postmodern “in its ability to move quickly from one perception, or anecdotal narrative we might say, to another, all the while crossing great gaps of meaning, and coming to understanding in how we cross those gaps” (346). The hallmark of postmodernism, polyvocality is present in Levertov insofar as various voices are represented (including the cow’s), but what is inarguable is that her poetry reifies one viewpoint, the author’s, as powerful and integral to the affective meaning-making of the poem,”
    I wonder about your discussion of polyvocality here–it seems to me that Norris is talking about parataxis, rather than polyvocality. Those two concepts are not antithetical at all, but I do think it’s important to be clear. In this case, if it is polyvocality, could you expand the point to explain how/why?

    I think the plateau might be more convincing if you offer a direct critique of Langpo by Levertov (if, as I suspect, one exists).

    I also think you’re describing Duncan’s relationship with Langpo as much less fraught than it actually was. Acknowledging Duncan’s reservations/critiques of Language Poetry would be helpful along these lines.

    • So, in Norris he’s talking about a paratactical relationship between perspectives, which is what appeals to me about his analysis, and also part of what frustrates me about Levertov’s work. Polyvocality is not necessarily paratactical, but in Levertov it really is. I think that making this clear by bringing in the term “parataxis” will help to clarify that point.

      On Levertov’s direct critique of Langpo, she tends to be so… how shall I say it… cordial. It’s hard to find a nice quip to throw in there, and I didn’t want to devote too much time to her own critiques, which often come up in _Light up the Cave_.

      And yes, I will add a footnote about the important distinction Duncan draws between Language poet and linguistic poet (he, of course, felt a relationship to the latter).

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