“At the Political Front”: Affirming Levertov’s Poetics of Witness

“I have tended to read Denise Levertov for the news, thinking of her, more than any other American poet, as a reporter or witness at the political front.”
– Patricia Hampl “A Witness of Our Time” 167

I would like to end my section on Levertov with a moment of affirmation, seeking finally to reclaim Levertov’s political work as viable and effectual within an alterglobalization movement that has tended to refuse any and all political art that is so wholly dependent on identitarian politics. What I want to argue here is not that Levertov doesn’t rely identity politics for her poetry, but rather that what Levertov does with identity is actually strikingly postanarchist, and that it sets an important precedent for feminist poets like Susan Howe, Erin Mouré, Harryette Mullen, and Juliana Spahr, that would follow historically, and that follow here in my own work. Essentially, what we need Levertov for here (in this project, in a postanarchist literary theory generally) is a politics of witness that is levelling, and that has the potential to remove us from ourselves in order to realize the inherent connections of the common. I argue that her reliance on an identitarian point-of-view is redeemable insofar as it constantly recognizes itself as one node in a rhizome of common, and that her call to political engagement is a call to recognize ourselves in poetic/linguistic and in political common with each other.

Recalling Levertov’s own quotation of Herbert Read, that the poem should function as one object in connection with a multitude of objects (which I quoted in my previous plateau), we must now understand Levertov’s poetry as functioning similarly as singularities, as molecules in a larger structure of poetic common. While he does not employ the same deleuzoguattarian language that I do, it is precisely this singularity of the poetic object that Paul A Lacey notes when he writes that in Levertov’s work, “[t]he fully realized poem is a world in itself” (“The Poetry of Political Anguish” 153). He goes on then to quote Levertov as saying: “Because it creates autonomous structures … poetry is, in process and being, intrinsically affirmative” (ibid).

I am most interested in this concept of affirmation, of affirming the position of the self only to destabilize it moments later. Understanding Levertov’s work as creating poems that exist as objects in a multitude of objects implies then that the occupation of a particular identitarian viewpoint amounts instead to the placing of the poem and the poet in rhizomatic connection with the rest of the world, necessarily complicating the issues of identity and point-of-view that I brought up in earlier plateaus, and that seem to plague critiques of Levertov’s work even still. What a postanarchist reading of Levertov’s politics suggests is that all viewing, all witnessing, needs a point from which to begin, but it also has the radical potential to destabilize those points through the very act of viewing.

I believe that this is what Alicia Ostriker’s gestures toward in her theory of “the poetics of postmodern witness”  which Hollenberg appropriately aligns with Levertov’s work (520), even though the poets Ostriker deals with are feminist in nature, and are working through the book-length long poem as a response to the high-modernist tradition of The Waste Land, The Cantos, and Paterson. Ostriker focuses on Adrienne Rich’s “Atlas of a Difficult World,” Carolyn Forché’s Angel of History, and Sharon Doubiago’s South America mi Hija, and her critical discussion often reminds her readers that she is making note of a trend in these particular texts. Nonetheless, Hollenberg chooses to apply this concept of the postmodern witness to Levertov, but as a result seems to replay the same tired critiques of Levertov’s dogmatism, save for the fact that Hollenberg unreservedly sides with Levertov. I, too, am interested in the ways in which Ostriker’s theory of the postmodern witness applies to Levertov’s work, but in order to expose how the very premise of the postmodern witness is one of destabilization rather than purely reclamation. Ostriker begins by writing of the Rich, Forché, and Doubiago pieces as “ambitiously long poems or sequences of poems, global in reach, formally experimental, each quite different from the others, but sharing certain common assumptions” (35). Already, appending Levertov’s work to this list in tenuous, as she tended to shy away from the grandiose long poem (this was, of course, more the territory of her male peers, namely Charles Olson, but we might also view Duncan’s Passages in this way). At the same time, Levertov courts the formally experimental, and certainly attempts a global reach. I maintain that Ostriker’s concept of postmodern witness is useful in reading Levertov, especially because “[p]ostmodern witness …  is a marriage of opposites. It employs the fragmented structures and polyglot associations originating in … those epitomes of high modernism” (35), all of which should recall the Levertov I’ve explicated in the previous plateaus.

What is most important about the politics of postmodern witness, especially regarding Levertov, is that Ostriker asserts that “it is crucial that the poet is present and located in the poem. The poet is not simply a phantom manipulator of words but a confused actual person, caught in a world of catastrophe that the poem must somehow both mirror and transcend” (35, emphasis in original). Ostriker’s language here is telling: the presentness and locatedness of the poet-figure in the work is vital, but it is also necessarily complicated by the poem’s dual role of mirroring and transcending. Rather than adopting some Platonic understanding of the poem as mimetic mode, Ostriker’s postmodern witness endeavours to make present and locatable the subject, if only to transcend that location, and to thus destabilize the subject in its movement. In this way, postmodern witness functions something like the ekstasis of Longinus that so intrigued Jackson Mac Low; it moves you, and in so doing, it removes you. In this way, Levertov’s call to witness is doubly confrontational: it forces you to look, and then it forces you to move from where you were.

It is precisely this confrontational tactic that so many critics find objectionable in Levertov’s work. This apparently dogmatic confrontation is perhaps most overtly critiqued in scholarship (which is to say, outside of Duncan’s quite overt critiques in his letters to her) in Cary Nelson’s “Levertov’s Political Poetry,” an essay excerpt included in Albert Gelpi’s volume Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Nelson describes Levertov’s poetry, exemplified for him in the collection To Stay Alive, wherein “a perfectly commendable moral commitment to practical action outside poetry enters the poetry itself. Moreover, she demands that her visions prove equal to direct confrontation” (162) . While I, coming from an anarchist framework, am obviously sympathetic to Levertov’s confrontation tactics, Nelson views this confrontation as something unnecessary for, or worse unwelcome in, poetry. Instead, I propose that Levertov’s political confrontation in her work functions as deleuzoguattarian assemblage. That is, “[t]he book as assemblage with the outside, against the book as image of the world. A rhizome-book, not a dichotomous, pivotal, or fascicular book” (A Thousand Plateaus 23). So, when Nelson critiques Levertov, arguing that “she would create a world in which love is the greater power, but she cannot” (164), his argument is fundamentally flawed. In Levertov’s rhizome-book-world, love is the greater power, insofar as it is a love of flux, so long as we are able to take what are commonly characterized as her modes of resistance and transform them into reclamation of the modes of production of subjectivities, producing experiment rather than resistance, confronting its readers into a love of common rather than a refusal of commonality.

One way to access Levertov’s protest as experiment rather than resistance is in her insistence on playing the oppressor rather than the oppressed. Despite the number of feminist poets (eg. Rich, Rukeyser) writing at the same time who were interested in writing about how the feminine is oppressed within a Western society, Levertov used even gender oppression to show Western violence against the global south. Patricia Hampl, in the same essay that gives me the epigraph for this plateau, suggests that this is indeed the case. She writes that “Levertov maintained her identity as an outraged, frustrated voice, but as a citizen of the oppressive nation, rather than as a victim of it” (171). So, while it is still certainly possible to read these poems as polemical, as dogmatic diatribes, Hampl suggests that the way out is through. We must then read Levertov’s political poetry, starting from The Jacob’s Ladder and moving onward into even her most Catholic, divining writing at the end of her career, as “poems without grace, full of confusion and sometimes misplaced anger” (Hampl 167). Even when Levertov gets angry at activists and poets who are apparently political, but refuse to take a side or adopt a clear position in times of crisis (and particularly in war), we must read Levertov’s insistence on the political importance of witness as, more legitimately, a call to the common, to the comradery of political experimentation; we must see Levertov’s voice as “strong, clear, not self-righteous, comradely even” (Hampl 170). Her work, thus, expresses a comradery, a desire for community, and a frustration when that community fails to manifest in the harsh light of American individualism, which, we can say now, Duncan falls victim to; his free individual is no less Thoreau and Whitman because Duncan writes him [and I say him clearly] as radical. Perhaps this is what Michael Palmer referred to at the conference at UEA as Duncan’s “Blakean self-righteousness.” Regardless, Levertov’s use of identity politics provides us with a way out, but only as long as we are willing to use identity, use subjectivity, as Hardt and Negri insist in Commonwealth, as “a weapon of the republic of property, but one that can be turned against it” (326). It is precisely this turning against violence (against the State), provoked by Levertov’s confrontational politics, that postanarchism requires to make the reading and writing of even the most overtly political poems an activist practice.

5 thoughts on ““At the Political Front”: Affirming Levertov’s Poetics of Witness

  1. My comments on this plateau are similar to the ones I offered on the previous: I like this re-evaluation of Levertov, but the lack of textual specifics is a problem for me. You need to work through some significant quotations from Levertov (her poetry, primarily, but comments from her poetics/interviews could also be helpful) in order to really substantiate your argument.

    So, I think that this general point is terrific and necessary: “I argue that her reliance on an identitarian point-of-view is redeemable insofar as it constantly recognizes itself as one node in a rhizome of common, and that her call to political engagement is a call to recognize ourselves in poetic/linguistic and in political common with each other.” But there’s some heavy lifting (okay, make that “careful analyzing”) still to be done.

    I don’t think you need to cut anything from this plateau (the review of the criticism is terrific and necessary to your point), but you do need to turn the spotlight towards Levertov’s work periodically throughout the plateau, so I suspect the plateau needs to be significantly longer (or perhaps split into two longer entries).

    One specific question: how do you think Levertov’s more explicitly “us vs them” poems challenge or extend Hampl’s point that “Levertov maintained her identity as an outraged, frustrated voice, but as a citizen of the oppressive nation, rather than as a victim of it” (171)”? It would seem to me that in poems like “Staying Alive” and “Tenebrae” (both from _To Stay Alive_, admittedly) Levertov carves out a sub-community (a polis?) of ethical people (including herself) within the nation, and so would seem to be both a member of the oppressive nation but also explicitly not really or fully a member of that nation (at such times, Levertov seems to present herself as the wise immigrant rather than a citizen). Thoughts?

    1. For such a close-reading nut, I really haven’t done much of it here, have I? Poor Levertov. I suppose I was so surprised to find redemptive qualities in her work that I theorized them to death and forget to include, well, them…

      Your question is a good one, and I think to give it a sufficient response, I need to spend more time with _To Stay Alive_ than I have. What I will say is that her envisioning of a community of people who can see, who are paying attention more than everyone else, is troubling. I am often put off by it. It’s an insistence on difference, on separation in some form or another from the nation. And this is an important caveat that should be added to Hampl’s argument. But, the difference is spreading (goodness, all I ever really want to do is write about Stein). And by that I mean that Levertov’s pseudo-polis is also always seeking to grow, to expand and connect. It’s why she’s so frustrated all the time at the fact that hers remains such a strong group. In one sense, it is a pretty clear “us vs them” politic. In another, in “Staying Alive” she writes: “No life / other, apart from.” And then it’s all bodies and bodies and bodies.

  2. And perhaps working through Levertov’s type of “us vs them” stances would make for a good time to return to Duncan’s “The Homosexual in Society,” which works to directly against that type of thinking. You seem to suggest in your comment that Levertov’s “us vs them” stance isn’t so antithetical to Duncan’s argument, which intrigues me.

    1. I don’t know that I want to redeem Levertov’s “us vs them” — so don’t think that I’m doing that.

      But I think that your wording, that we need maybe start understanding her politics as not entirely antithetical to Duncan’s. I’ll work through it more clearly in my edits.

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