Denise Levertov (1923 - 1997)
In “Making Peace,” a voice cries out from the dark, saying that poets must give us peace “to oust the intense, familiar imagination of disaster.” Responding to that challenge, the principal speaker in the poem answers,
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself...
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
Building a new social order and making a new language are parallel activities, calling for a restructuring of life and idiom:
a line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our need, allowed
In life, as in art, Levertov’s poem suggests, the time has come for a revaluation of values. On that condition rests our hope for appropriate language, to sustain us, and for a new social order.
Some years before Levertov wrote “Making Peace,” hundreds of distinguished American artists had endeavored, individually and collectively, to “make peace” by supporting the anti-war effort. From its initiation in 1965 by Robert Bly and David Ray, Poets Against the War in Vietnam sponsored benefit readings and public forums on campuses and in communities and helped to clarify the moral and political issues associated with U.S. intervention. In June, the same year, Robert Lowell, perhaps the most “public” poet of his generation, turned down President Lyndon Johnson’s invitation to a White House Festival of the Arts because of Johnson’s war. In a carefully written, even courteous letter, Lowell warned that the Administration’s policy toward Vietnam put the U.S. “in danger of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation.” Other writers, including Stanley Kunitz, Bernard Malamud, Mary McCarthy, and Dwight McDonald, supporting Lowell’s decision, expressed “dismay at recent American foreign policy decisions.”
Other artists described the agony and suffering inflicted by military forces on both sides, and in "Armies of the Night: The Novel as History, the History as Novel" (1968), Norman Mailer gave a moving, autobiographical narrative about the 1967 March on the Pentagon, which brought a hundred thousand people to a major demonstration in Washington. Well-known poets took political risks in addressing moral questions associated with American policy by writing poems of remarkable artistic skill and integrity and by committing acts of civil disobedience against the war and the draft. In 1968, at a ceremony in New York City, as Vice President Hubert Humphrey looked on, Robert Bly gave the $1,000 check accompanying his National Book Award for The Light Around the Body (1967) to a young draft resister, Michael Kempton. Similarly, Muriel Rukeyser endured arrest in anti-draft demonstrations, and Allen Ginsberg, echoing Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” encouraged citizens to refuse to pay taxes supporting war.
Among the many lyric poems that took the Vietnam war as a theme, Robert Bly’s “Asian Peace Offers Rejected Without Publication” conveys the despair that many Americans felt as the troop shipments increased from fifty thousand to two-hundred-fifty thousand to five-hundred thousand American troops and as negotiations for a cease-fire failed again and again. As Bly suggests in this eloquent poem, neither presidents nor advisers had any intention of ending the war:
These suggestions by Asians are not taken seriously.
We know Rusk smiles as he passes them to someone.
Men like Rusk are not men only
They are bombs waiting to be loaded in a darkened hangar.
Rusk’s assistants eat hurriedly,
Talking of Teilhard de Chardin,
Longing to get back to their offices
So they can cling to the underside of the steel wings
shuddering faintly in the high altitudes.
Other poems of similar skill that took the war as their theme include Robert Bly’s long poem, "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last" (1970); and lyrics such as David Ignatow’s “All Quiet—Written at the start of one of our bombing pauses over North Vietnam”; Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem,” beginning “I lived in the first century of world war”; Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra”; Levertov’s remarkable collection The Sorrow Dance (1967); and other poems based upon actual experience in Vietnam.
Levertov publicly opposed the war long before 1968, when her husband, Mitchell Goodman, was indicted with Dr. Benjamin Spock, Michael Ferber, and others, in the first “conspiracy” trial initiated by the U.S. government. The government’s various attempts to undermine and to discredit the anti-war movement failed; in addition, activists and writers, in their trials, informed the general public about real, rather than superficial, consequences of that war “reported” in the popular media.
Born October 24, 1923, in Ilford, Essex, England, Denise Levertov moved to the U.S. in 1947 and became a citizen in 1955. The daughter of an Anglican clergyman—a convert from Hasidic Judaism, and of a Welsh descendant of the prophet Angel Jones, Levertov published her first collection of poems, The Double Image, in 1946, since followed by over forty books of poetry, prose, and translation. Recognized as a major poet of the Post-modernist period, she has taught at colleges and universities throughout the country—eventually retiring from Stanford University—and has received numerous awards and honorary degrees in recognition of her achievement.
Long resident in New England, Levertov moved to Seattle in the 1980s, while continuing to give frequent public readings, and publishing new collections of poetry and prose. He longer works include “Mass for the Feast of St. Thomas Didymus” and “El Salvador—Requiem and Invocation,” an oratorio set to music, about the U.S.-financed war against the poor in that Central American country. Until her death in 1997, Denise Levertov maintained an active commitment to justice and peace organizations, supporting them with benefit readings.
A persistent theme in Levertov’s prose and poetry is the artist’s place in society and the individual’s responsibilities for the common good. As with other contemporary artists, Levertov has decried the effect of Cold War rhetoric, its poisoning of the moral atmosphere. Through her poems, a reader senses the grief, fury, and despair that have accompanied this corruption of language. In emphasizing the need for a revitalization of language as a requirement for social change, Levertov agrees with Virginia Woolf’s statement, in another context: “My sympathies were all on the side of life.” And Levertov’s poetry is a powerful source of inspiration and encouragement for “constructing peace” in a violent era.
One of the great achievements of her work is exhibited in her poems on religious themes, “Annunciation,” for example, and others on Julian of Norwich and Brother Lawrence. Because of her success in conveying religious truths without pomposity or rhetoric, Levertov is regarded one of the great religious poets in English, along with John Donne and George Herbert.
In a large body of work, Levertov’s “Life at War” from The Sorrow Dance (1967) and “Making Peace” from Breathing the Water (1984) are haunted by the effects of war and violence on contemporary culture. Both poems bring together personal and social concerns—private life and public issues—that have haunted writers particularly since 1914.
The initial reference point in “Life at War” is a statement by Rainer Maria Rilke during the First World War, followed by a lament that “the same war continues.” The speaker describes our loss of hope at a time when our memories, even the membranes of our bodies, carry remnants of perpetual war:
We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives
our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it.
In direct conflict with this knowledge is the poet’s awareness of another humankind, “whose flesh responds to a caress, whose eyes/ are flowers that perceive the stars,/ whose music excels the music of birds.” Which of these definitions of humankind will prevail, the poem asks? Which language will we choose to speak?
Throughout her later years, Levertov struggled to find appropriate responses to these questions. Endeavoring to keep things whole, she has refused to surrender to that dissociation of sensibility that separates the individual person from the common life of all.
“O, language, mother of thought,” she asked in “Staying Alive,” “are you rejecting us as we reject you?” George Orwell posed that question initially, just after the Second World War, as have writers of the Post-modernist period in confronting lies and violence justified by “politics and the English language” over the past fifty years.
Through “a religious devotion to the truth, to the splendor of the authentic,” as Levertov once put it, she has named and confronted these injustices, imagined a better future, and occasionally given it exotic form in poetry. A vision of that possible future, arising out of contemplation and action, is evoked in “Making Peace,” quoted above, and in another recent poem, “About Political Action in Which Each Individual Acts from the Heart”:
When solitaries draw close, releasing
each solitude into its blossoming,
when we give to each other the roses
of our communion—
a culture of gardens, horticulture not agribusiness,
arbors among the lettuce, small terrains—
when we taste in small victories sometimes
the small, ephemeral yet joyful
harvest of our striving,
great power flows from us,
luminous, a promise. Yes! ... Then
great energy flows from solitude,
and great power from communion.
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