Denise Levertov

“It doesn’t cohere”: Read-ing Levertov as Anarchist

Of course, my very inclusion of Denise Levertov in this project, especially in this section alongside the self-professed anarchists John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and Robert Duncan, is both contentious and strange, and requires, I should think, some explanation. It is probably inarguable that Levertov was never an anarchist, although she was certainly an ardent pacifist, which is where her politics most obviously overlaps with the three aforementioned poets. And yet, I maintain that she lends herself to a postanarchist reading just as well as the first three poets did. I know that including Levertov in this list aligns her with a radical avant-garde in a way that, historically and critically, is unprecedented. When I first proposed her inclusion to my supervisor, he was appropriately surprised; he eventually conceded, and I continued to work on her, imagining her originally as the straw-man to my Duncan plateaus. After sufficient time spent reading and writing about Levertov, however, I have come to the conclusion that Levertov’s communal approach to identity and poetic voice is an important contribution to my postanarchist project in its own right. I was elated to find, then, as I read more about Levertov as a woman, that she actually has some important anarchist ties. That is, alongside a brief working relationship with George Woodcock (one of the most famous names in contemporary anarchism), Levertov had a rather long and fortuitous friendship with Herbert Read, who she credits as being a major influence on her early career, both in terms of her poetry (which he graciously read and critiqued) and making useful contacts in the literary and activist fields. Read, whose Poetry and Anarchism is a foundational text in anarchist literary theory, wrote extensively about both poetry and anarchism to general acclaim throughout his career.

While Levertov admits that she was very clearly and heavily influenced by Read in her youth and into the early parts of her career, their friendship is rarely discussed in criticism of her poetry. That said, it is clearly present in the biographical work on her, as in Donna Hollenberg’s A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov or Dana Greene’s Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life. Part of the reason behind this critical neglect is that Levertov herself often characterizes her relationship with Read as a deeply personal friendship, and one based on her early and celebrity-like reverence on him. Hollenberg, however, suggests that Read’s role in Levertov’s life (as poet/critic and as anarchist) shapes Levertov’s poetics and politics from very early on. In fact, in an article on Levertov, Hollenberg goes as far as to characterize their relationship as a mentoring: “[a]s a novice she was mentored by the art critic and poet Herbert Read, to whom she dedicated her first book, The Double Image” in 1946 (519). And, indeed, when Levertov first encounters Read in her young life, his status as well-established poet and critic would make him a candidate for a mentor-like role.

In 1939 or 1940, when a sixteen-year-old Levertov worked up the courage to approach Read, he was already one of the biggest names in the convergence of anarchism and poetry in the twentieth century. Like Levertov, however, Read’s position in political and activist poetry was (and remains) fraught with contradiction and controversy, culminating most directly in Read’s acceptance of a knighthood in 1953, which effectively alienated him from the vast majority of anarchist political philosophers at the time. In a contemporary framework, Read’s views on anarchism and poetry have largely fallen out of favour, and he is typically characterized as archaic and outmoded. It is interesting to note that, as the poetics of the Black Mountain school gains contemporary critical attention, Levertov’s own politics and poetics have garnered similar critical attention. As a testament to this, I recently attended a conference at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, on the poetry and poetics of the Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963, and wherein (with Michael Palmer as the keynote speaker) the writings of poets such as Duncan, Charles Olson, Robin Blaser, and Jack Spicer were the topic of numerous papers and discussions. My own paper, an analysis of Duncan and Levertov’s correspondence, was the only one to deal with Levertov’s work at all, and in the discussion period, her side of the debate was almost entirely ignored in favour of Duncan’s more radical (and thus apparently more appealing) work. As I supposed she would function in my own work, Levertov’s spectral presence at the conference seemed a straw-man, meant to provide the outmoded politics of resistance that would, through opposition, support Duncan’s anarchist claims. In this way, Levertov and read serve as well-suited bedfellows.

Returning then to Read’s influence on Levertov, as I have already suggested, Levertov treated Read’s influence on her life and work as hero worship. She writes about Read’s influence most directly in a short essay entitled “Herbert Read Remembered,” which is included in the poetics collection Light Up The Cave, but was originally published in Herbert Read: A Memorial Symposium (which was itself originally a special issue of the Canadian magazine The Malahat Review). The essay is largely autobiographical, and is tellingly glowing, beginning from the point of view of a juvenile Levertov (when she first meets Read at sixteen) and referring to him as a kind of celebrity throughout: “I would gaze at him, my hero, so intensely that it must have embarrassed him had he not been too modest to notice it” (233). But, beneath the teenaged Levertov’s worship of Read’s status, “Herbert Read Remembered” also demonstrates the political and poetic point at which Read’s influence can be most clearly noted in Levertov’s work. That is, amongst the autobiography of the essay, she also repeats Read’s words that she transcribed into her own journal, she says, in 1942. She quotes him as saying “What history demands in its long run, is the object itself — the work of art which is itself a created reality, an addition to the sum of real objects in the world” (237) to which she adds “That definition … gave me, at eighteen, floundering in the beginnings of my life as an artist, a ground to stand on, a measure to try and fill” (237). True to Read’s self-professed convictions, this definition of the piece of art is supremely anarchist, and, in some sense, truly egalitarian insofar as it demands that the poem become an object in the world rather than a window, a viewpoint, or a mouthpiece, from which the poet expresses his or her point-of-view. This, of course, runs counter to the critiques of Levertov demonstrated in the preceding plateaus, especially as articulated by Duncan (and by Perloff on them both).

And yet, I maintain that it is through understanding Levertov’s work in this was that we give ourselves an out from these critiques, and move towards a reading of Levertov that redeems her politics as one that is indeed in keeping with the shifting conceptions and modes of operation of an anarchist activism. The work of art as a self-contained reality that is contributed in addition to those other objects of the world is one that refuses a call to truth or to righteousness. While I have argued elsewhere that Levertov’s conception of a “truth / in fractions” runs counter to a traditional postmodern school of literary theory, especially by way of her turn to the divine, we must also read Levertov’s persistent call to witness and to alter our viewpoints as a move toward’s Read’s anarchic conception of the work of art as merely another object amongst many, another node in a rhizome of cultural production. The politics of witness is probably one of the most prominent and politically salient features of Levertov’s work, and one that has garnered a good deal of critical attention, especially in the last twenty years or so. It is so important that I will end my Levertov section with a discussion of it next week. At this juncture, it is sufficient to say simply that the process of witnessing, and of understanding our selves as merely a frame through which we see the world, is a profoundly postanarchist approach to politics. I would even go as far as to say that it runs counter to Levertov’s more socialist-leftist approaches to activism (via protest and affiliation with clearly delineated activist groups).

But, I do not wish to pass judgement on this apparent contradiction in Levertov’s politics, nor do I wish to pass similar judgement on Read (although, an anarchist knight is a particularly bizarre notion, and one that even I have a good deal of trouble reconciling). In fact, part of a postanarchist reading practice is exercising a kind of negative capability in which we no longer demand cohesion and stability from language, from a poet, or from his or her body of work. In the end, this lack of cohesion in terms of a clearly defined anarchist framework is actually quite anarchist in and of itself, and quite characteristic of all the poets included in my project. As Michael Palmer said during a discussion of the apparent contradictions in Duncan’s critiques of Levertov at the aforementioned conference, “[w]hen you examine the poets, it’s all a mass of contradiction.” He said this, as I repeat it now, without judgement, and instead with a kind of joviality that suggested the contradictions and controversies actually make this approach to politics more enjoyable and more effective than a sterile and homogenous approach. What he meant was that while Duncan was angry at the self-righteousness of Levertov, he also often had his own moments of what Palmer himself termed Duncan’s “Blakean self-righteousness.” In the end, Palmer concluded, like Read the anarchist knight, or the secretly postanarchist Levertov, that in a truly anarchic fashion: “It doesn’t cohere.”

4 thoughts on ““It doesn’t cohere”: Read-ing Levertov as Anarchist

  1. Your Levertov plateaus have been flirting with contradiction – which I think is pretty cool because as you point out Levertov is frequently considered a relatively “safe” poet – with your earlier discussion of the fractional and in this post. Pound of course couldn’t make “it cohere” so why Levertov or the political for that matter? Poetics and politics (“poelitics” … too much right?) always reach a point where they become contradictory or their internal logic breaks down: poetry is based on contradiction, but inevitably the poetics follow suit. Politics likewise is a structure: “left” or “right” or “knight” there are always certain circumstances that cannot fit within the structure and, to paraphrase Foucault, they get locked outside the city gates (or the polis).

    Like Olson said “polis is this”, but the “this” is always contradictorily changing.

  2. Lots to chew on here–very exciting stuff!

    First off, I really like this engagement with Levertov, because she is often (and I certainly do this, I must admit) given the position of “straw-man,” as you say, and this is a belittling thing to do to a major poet.

    I’m curious about your discussion of Read’s influence and Levertov’s adoption. Specifically, you write “this definition of the piece of art is supremely anarchist, and, in some sense, truly egalitarian insofar as it demands that the poem become an object in the world rather than a window, a viewpoint, or a mouthpiece, from which the poet expresses his or her point-of-view.” My question is, how does this differ from a New Criticism view of the text? There seems to be an uncomfortable overlap here between Read/Levertov’s position and the New Critics. Any thoughts on that? (And, to perhaps partially answer my question, would a turn to Olsonian “Objectism” help to clarify the distinction, or would that just muddy the water?)

    While I’m thinking about Olson, there might be some useful overlap between his use of Keatsian negative capability and what you discuss in this plateau. That might be a thread to examine.

    While I like the overall argument you offer in this plateau, I’d be a lot more convinced by it if you offered some textual evidence/specifics from Levertov’s poetry or poetics. As it stands now, the discussion is more that a bit… ethereal.

    Palmer’s comment about consistency reminds me that Cage (and many other anarchists) openly distrusted consistency as merely the force of habit. That might be another thread to examine.

    Finally, I think there’s a crucial typo in this sentence: “It is interesting to note that, as the poetics of the Black Mountain school gains contemporary critical attention, Levertov’s own politics and poetics have garnered similar critical attention.” I believe you mean to say “Levertov’s own… have NOT garnered…”?

    • Am I guilty of New Criticism? I suppose a bit. What a terrible thought. Yes, something like Olsonian “Objectism” or, maybe more anarchically, Object Oriented Ontology a la Graham Harman.

      More textual evidence, got it. I love the idea of ethereal, but… you know… that’s not a dissertation…

      And I will most certainly pursue the relationship between consistency/habit and paradox/hypocrisy. I think it’s useful.

      And thanks for pointing that out. Yes, I meant to say that Levertov has not garnered similar attention. In fact, the criticism surrounding Levertov (especially as, like we’ve discussed, BM is becoming cool again in scholarship) is pretty disappointing. It pretty much follows Ostriker’s line of thought, or puts Levertov in a continuum with Bishop and Plath and Rich and Rukeyser. That’s some nice company, I’ll admit, but I don’t think it does justice to Levertov’s work (or to the work of any of those poets) to line those ladies up like that. It’s an issue I’ve been actively pursuing in my Mullen research right now.

  3. I think we’re all guilty, at times, of New Criticism. That’s somewhat inevitable and, on occasion, a pardonable offense. You can easily correct that, so it’s not a worrisome problem.

    Your comments on Levertov criticism point to a lack I’ve thought problematic, too. And, yes, it’s an easy and often essentializing habit to lump together Levertov, Rich, Bishop, Plath, et al. It often seems to happen because, well, they’re all women and so have to be similar, right? Unlike those incessantly unique men poets, who reimagine the wheel and the world each time they put pen to paper….


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