Monday, June 9, 2008

STL #68: "Beyond whatever ends"

On Denise Levertov

In the run-up to the this new "Test of Poetry," I think I said Denise Levertov did not have a statement on poetics included in the NAP. That is incorrect. I made the mistake because the order of the poetics section does not quite follow the order as the poetry roster. Robert Creeley jumps the line from fifth in the poetry section (based on his age) to third in the poetics section (based, probably, on his stronger identification with Black Mountain.)* I'm glad Levertov's statement is there, because it brings up her enticing idea of organic form: "I believe every space and comma is a living part of the poem and has its function, just as every muscle and pore of the body has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem's life." She also believes that "content determines form, and yet that content is only in form. Like everything living, it is a mystery." In these few lines we can see the strong intellectual identification with the other Black Mountaineers, especially Duncan and Creeley who she considers the "chief poets among [her] contemporaries."

With her thoughts on organic form in mind, "Beyond the End" reads as an ethical defense of how that form emerges in free verse. It begins "In 'nature' there's no choice --" which seems to argue against the 'organicism' of free verse. Free verse offers infinite choice, so how can it be called organic, in the sense of 'natural'? If "flowers/swing their heads in the wind, [and] sun & moon/are as they are," then why should the poet presume not to similarly confine verse to the boxes of sonnets "as they are"? The answer will rely on those inverted commas around "nature" that I will work my way back to. While "nature" operates without "choice," "we seem / almost to have it." Choice is Olsonian "energy: a spider's thread: not to / 'go on living' but to quicken, to activate: extend:" The energy is creative, one that reaches out to contribute to ("quicken" or "activate" as opposed to simply represent) that which exists. 'That which exists' surely must be nature-- a spider web as much as "the girls crowding the stores." Although this creative energy exists in and affects "nature," "[i]t has no grace like that of/the grass." It is "barely/a constant" like other natural forces. It does not only manifests in work, although "every damn / craftsman has it while he's working / but it's not / a question of work: some shine with it, in repose." Rather it is a Stevensian "will to respond"--again, not to represent--that shapes poetry. The poet, in a sincere response to "nature," creates further "nature" that is "beyond the end/beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy."

This creative defiance, in a poetics descending from Pound to Zukofsky to Olson, is defined in by poetic line. The line, the organic unit of breath in the Black Mountain/Projectivist program, is often linked to the poet's integrity or sincerity. Levertov specifies the poet's decision of the line break to be essential to craft. I touched on line breaks when discussing Olson, and indeed I'm always fascinated by line breaks in both open and closed forms. But as interesting in open forms is lineation itself. The poem has stanzas of 6, 6, 4, 6, and ends either with one of 11 or probably two of 7 and 4 (there's a page break that confuses the issue.) I could hit my prosody handbooks to come up with closed forms with 6-4 line patterns, but it's the variation-- the shift from 6-6-4 to 6-7-4, that is most important. The 7-line stanza, concerned with craft, incorporates the Stevens quotation which overflows into the next stanza, the only stanzaic enjambment of the poem. This construction echoes the pushing "beyond the end" of the poem's argument.

At this stage in her writing career, Levertov that the "social function" of poetry, if it has one at all, "is to awaken sleepers by means other than shock." (Her Vietnam-era poetry might suggest she reconsidered this position.) Perceiving the craft in this poem and meditating on its significance could be just such an awakening. There's a small lexicon for the awakened mind in the second and the final stanzas. The two triads map onto one another nicely: quicken=to begin, activate=to be, extend=to defy.

To read: the Poems 1960-1967 I've had on the shelf for a dozen years.

*Levertov and Creeley are the only poets in the NAP I ever met. ("Met" is an exagerration; I was in the same room as Levertov once and Creeley twice.) Some time later than this writing, Levertov became a Northwesterner, writing at least a few poems about Mount Rainier. I went to a poetry reading of hers sometime in the early 90's. She was a dignified kindly presence, with a slight British accent remaining and, I remember, a slight lisp.