Denise Levertov

“I multitude:” The Self in Levertov’s Poetry

As I noted in my previous plateau, Denise Levertov’s conception of a poetic writing-self behind her poetry is integral to both the aesthetic and political dimensions of her work. In terms of a postanarchist reading practice, Levertov’s reliance on a seemingly monadic idea of the authorial self is one that, in many ways, runs counter to the politics of fragmented and illusory selves that we saw enacted in the poetries of John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and Robert Duncan. In the process of reading and writing through The Jacob’s Ladder, I often struggled with Levertov’s reliance on this distinctly not postanarchist or poststructuralist notion of selfhood, and found myself siding occasionally with Duncan’s critiques of her idea of a closed self. In a letter dated June 1968, Duncan writes to her that he sees in her political poetry a giving over to a “righteous Conscience — what Freudians call the Super Ego, that does not caution but sweeps outside all reservations.”  And yet, as many critics of her work have noted, there is still something redeemable about Levertov’s intensely personal, self-driven poetics insofar as her conception of the authorial self is one of many in a pseudo-rhizomatic web of communal responsibility. It is from this jumping-off-point that a postanarchist reading can look beyond the apparently monadic representation of an authorial point of view in Levertov’s work. That very communal responsibility, especially through its reliance on attentiveness, breaks down the monadic self even as it relies on it for its politics. Of course, this is a move that runs counter to the minimally egoic poetics of writers like Cage, Mac Low, and Duncan. In addition to this communal responsibility, this plateau will argue that Levertov’s reliance on the personal is also clearly gendered.  It implies that the minimally egoic poetic text is made more easily available in a masculinist framework that already has a strong tradition of poetic voice from which it can depart.

While by no means a radical feminist writer (and I will look to a more radical conception of feminist poetics in the plateaus following the Levertov section), Levertov nonetheless relies on the personal for her organic, political lyrics in a highly gendered manner, insisting on the presence of a feminine or feminist voice in poetic tradition. Of course, by the 1960s, especially in America, where Levertov was writing, there was already a plethora of contemporaneous and predecessing feminine literary voices from which even (or perhaps especially) her male peers were working. And, what’s more, these feminine voices often provided for these male writers a point of departure for their minimally or anti-egoic poetics, as in Mac Low’s use of Stein, which I have already discussed thoroughly. Duncan’s work is also particularly indebted to a series of feminine literary predecessors including Stein, and more famously H.D. As Anne Day Dewey notes in her article on the Duncan/Levertov correspondence, Levertov was actually quite drawn to the ways that Duncan appealed to H.D.’s work as part of a literary common in his The H.D. Book. Dewey writes:

While not changing her belief that poetry is grounded in the personal, she admits increasingly the influence of forces beyond deliberate craft in poetic composition and praises Duncan’s formulation of H.D.’s gift as a transcendence of the personal, ‘no longer her art’ but ‘The Art.’ (113)

But, what Levertov envisions in her communal responsibility is not quite an Art from which we all borrow, but rather an identity which we all share. And, in this manner, her approach to the common is less linguistic than Duncan’s (or Cage’s or Mac Low’s for that matter). Instead, her holistic approach to the self gestures towards an identity which is always already problematized, picking up on a major thread of feminine and feminist poetics before her.

It is this facet of Levertovian identity that Lisa Narbeshuber focuses on in her analysis of Relearning the Alphabet, one of Levertov’s most famous and most overtly political works. Narbeshuber writes that Levertov’s work here follows a long tradition of women poets in that she “writes passionately about the problems of identity, placing the self within the public sphere” (132). For Narbeshuber, Levertov’s problematizing of identity or selfhood in her political work comes in the form of embodiment, a term that frequently comes up in recent analyses of Levertov’s work. That is, Levertov’s political and poetic common in collections such as Relearning the Alphabet confront sthe disconnect between the linguistic and material realm, and use the materiality of language (which my last plateau already identifies as a point of skepticism in her work) as a means to approach the necessary interconnectedness of human and ecological existence in the real (which is to say, non-poetic) world. In Narbeshuber’s words, Levertov “presents a self very personally considering its relation to the world” (143). While focusing on the material, and particularly on flesh and the physical connection between beings, one might expect that Levertov would privilege separation. But, actually, this stressing of materiality in turn stresses the materiality of connection, making all too real the communal responsibility Levertov advocates throughout.

While Narbeshuber is referring throughout her article to Relearning the Alphabet, this move is also clearly evident in The Jacob’s Ladder, wherein the clearly present authorial or writing self is also clearly multiple, fragmented and attempting to see from many viewpoints, many “I”s/eyes. This occurs most obviously in the second of the “Three Meditations,” when Levertov grammatically dismantles the speaker, and, by proxy, the viewpoints expressed by the author. She writes:

I, I, I, I.
I multitude, I tyrant,
I angel. I you, you
world, battlefield (16-19)

Importantly, the segmentation of the self occurs as a part of interconnection, where the second-person “you” of the reader is enjambed and enmeshed with the speaking subject. Here the common of the “world” is a clash, a cleaving of subjectivity on a battlefield that provokes the reader to recognize his or her subjectivity alongside his or her place in the “public sphere,” to recall Narbeshuber. It is precisely this interconnection that Keith Norris gestures toward, but fails to note outright, when he discusses the politics of Levertov’s “shifting, changing nature of the subject/poet/speaker,” which attempts to maintain a point of view while necessarily moving with perception (346).  Additionally, it is interesting to note that the four “I”s back-to-back recall Sylvia Plath’s “Ich ich ich ich” in “Daddy,” reminding us again of the feminine poetic interest in linguistic subjectivity and its complications.

Returning to The Jacob’s Ladder, the most striking, and most political, example of this cleaving of the monadic self appears in what is perhaps the collection’s most famous and most frequently anthologized poem, “During the Eichmann Trial,” where Levertov meditates on the war crimes trial of former SS officer Adolf Eichmann. In light of Duncan’s eventual criticisms of Levertov’s overtly political work, one might expect this piece to reek of dogmatism, but it is actually a striking example of the ways that Levertov’s position as gendered Other in a vastly male-dominated school of poetry afforded her the opportunity to engage the personal politically, and to do so in a manner that brings to light the radical potentials of selfhood and its possible permutations. “During the Eichmann Trial” begins with an epigraph from Duncan which reads “When we look up / each from his being,” and suddenly the masculine pronoun offends. I do not mean to suggest that the poem is purposefully or overtly feminist, but rather that Levertov’s position as one of the few women at Black Mountain, or one of the two brought in to speak at the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, afforded her a position as outsider, and one for him the minimally egoic was less available, and even less alluring. Instead, the poem speaks from an “I” that is forced to confront her inherent connection with Eichmann by virtue of the humanity of both. The first page of the poem contains the strikingly bolded lines:

Here is a mystery,

a person, an
other, an I?
(“i  When We Looked Up” 16-8)

Linked by humanity, and by an apparently natural desire to ignore and to obey, Levertov’s speaker faces a connection with Eichmann, a man she finds abhorrent, but with whom her subjectivity eventually becomes enmeshed, first through pronouns (“he, you, I, which shall I say?”), then through identification (“we are members // of one another.”) So, when the “windows of history” are smashed near the poem’s end, Levertov takes subjectivity with it. “During the Eichmann Trial” still preaches in some form; it teaches its readers the importance of conviction rather than blind obedience, and it reminds us all of our communal responsibility to each other. And, with its reliance on images of “looking up” and watching the trial (watching other humans, looking into their eyes), it also relies quite heavily on a predetermined speaking/writing point-of-view. But, it also works in some small way to dismantle subjectivity, to smash it like a window until it stutters again with its “I, I, I, I.” A self, to be sure, but always in fragments, and thus not minimally egoic, but multiply so; a rhizomatic public sphere in which we as selves collide into responsibility like the molecules we are.

5 thoughts on ““I multitude:” The Self in Levertov’s Poetry

  1. Catching up, Dani. This is looking great. I seem to need to be registered to officially “like” this, but I certainly do.

    • Thanks, Art. Yes, you need a wordpress account to “like” a post, I think. Although, perhaps you could do it through Facebook or a related social media profile. Not sure.

      Glad you’re liking it!

  2. Yeah, this is very successful plateau. I wonder if you could clarify where you see Duncan on the “minimally egoic / multiply egoic” continuum? It seems to me that he would fall more into the latter, through his use of allusion/quotation–but quotation also downplays one’s own ego (so would he fall somewhere more in the middle)?

    I also wonder if, in slightly later poems (like “Staying Alive”) where Levertov quotes fellow protesters quite a lot, if her use of quotation also works to muliply and/or minimize her ego? (I suppose these questions are slightly outside the area of your discussion, but maybe you could drop in a few thoughts on these points?)

    • I would say that Duncan’s relationship to this continuum I’ve set up is a bit more complicated. I would suggest, actually that while he’s a little closer to the middle than the other author’s I’ve discussed, I think he leans more towards the minimal.

      While I take your point that quotation downplays the ego (of course, that’s part of what I argue in the Duncan plateaus), I would also not say that the use of quotation makes Duncan multiply egoic either. That is, unlike Levertov’s attempts to represent the self as multiple, always viewing through various perspectives, Duncan’s “collage”-like work (just read an article on Jess, been using that term to apply to everything lately…) uses a multitude of voices to dismantle perspective almost entirely. For that reason, while there are quite clearly mutiple voices in _Passages_ poems, they rarely consistute perspective. For example, the reader is not encouraged to momentarily see the world from the point-of-view of Boehme, or Gascoyne, or Pound, or Olson.

      To rely on a cheesy metaphor I just made up: in the common, Levertov passes around binoculars, Duncan the microphone. In my head it’s the coolest protest/sit-in ever.

  3. Ha! Yes, that sounds like my kind of protest.

    I think that clarification helps quite a bit. Thinking more about it, I would agree with your description of Duncan as more in the middle/leaning towards the minimal. That would go along with your discussion of the dispersion of ego/subjectivity that you discussed somewhere earlier. (That was you, right? My memory….)

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