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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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Anne-Marie Cusac

Reading Levertov in Wartime


If I didn’t live in a country at war, I would still think of Denise Levertov. I would think of poems I love — the well-known “Olga Poems,” “Song for Ishtar,” “Caedmon,” and others that are less often anthologized — “The Five-Day Rain,” “A Note to Olga,” and “Eros at Temple Stream.” I would relish Levertov’s frank erotic poems about female sexual love. I would ponder how to bring into my own work Levertov’s technique (one she shares with a very different poet, Elizabeth Bishop) of manipulating sound patterns, pauses, and line to make the most commonplace of words throb with new vitality:

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some petals fall
with that sound one
listens for
              (from “The Tulips”)


Levertov was my teacher from 1989—1991. So, even if my country were not at war, I would still think of the many lessons she taught, and a few of those I resisted. I’d remember with amused, befuddled fondness how laughter could possess her entire body — but probably not as often as I do. Because Levertov died in 1997, I would miss her, but probably not feel, as I often do, that if she were only here I would understand my culture and my country a little better and know how to act within it. I would not find myself considering, over and again, the challenge and problem Levertov left for politically engaged poets who follow her: the tasks of acting responsibly and also writing poetry when one is a citizen of a powerful nation with a history of forcing acts of war upon weaker countries and their peoples.


These were tasks Levertov faced with courage, urgency, and probably great heartache. She was an activist, a teacher who did not hesitate to bring her sense of political necessity into the classroom, and a lyric poet compelled to write anti-war poetry, often to the dismay of those who had praised her earlier poems. I can only imagine how devastating it must have felt to receive from Robert Duncan, her mentor, a letter describing one poem about the Vietnam War as “the clotted mass of some operation . . . having what root in you I wonder?” These words come from a man who had remarked on the “correspondences” between his poems and hers, a guide and human being Levertov said she loved. In “Some Duncan Letters — A Memoir and a Critical Tribute,” Levertov quotes the letter and accuses Duncan of “a reading-into, a suspicion of nonexistent complex motives that obstructs his full comprehension of what does exist.”


Duncan’s dismayed response to Levertov’s turn to political verse was one of many. Levertov wrote her first overtly political poetry during the Vietnam War, at a time when the U.S. poetry establishment was deeply anti-political. The presence of such writing alongside poems in her well-known lyric voice seemed disruptive to her critics. Most reviews either made small mention of the political poems or panned them as a group. More than thirty years later, many of the literary and journalistic tributes that followed her death described a Levertov divided into two halves — one aesthetically brilliant, the other aesthetically questionable.


Levertov often seems to embody a broader schism in American poetry. In 1996, as the guest editor of The Best American Poetry, Adrienne Rich wrote in her introduction, “I was looking for poems that could participate in this historical emergency, had that kind of tensility and beauty. I wasn’t looking for up-to-the-minute ‘socially conscious’ verse; I was interested in any poet’s acknowledgement of the social and political loomings of this time-space — that history goes on and we are in it.” Rich explicitly chooses sides in her introduction, writing, “I was consciously struck by how many poems published in magazines today are personal to the point of suffocation.”


Two years later, as guest editor of The Best of the Best American Poetry, Harold Bloom declined to include any poems from Rich’s selection and lobbed a potato in the direction of poetry “of a badness not to be believed because it follows the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet.” Others, including John Hollander (condemning as a potential “travesty” poetry that furthers “the immediate interests of any institutionalized moral, political, or sentimental agenda”) and, more quietly, Yusef Komunyakaa (advocating on behalf of socially engaged poems), joined the Best American anthology war.


My problem with this endless debate is the assumption that certain subject matters are inherently inferior. To confine poetry, in my understanding, is to reduce it. I begin to wonder, in American society, what is poetry’s role. Prettiness? Pleasure? Linguistic play? Storytelling? Is it to be diminished to tiny ineffectuality?


Levertov was careful not to shrink or confine poetry. During the first Gulf War, I brought to her workshop a poem I was sure was all about the war, but situated in a domestic moment I thought I understood. I had struggled with the words and myself, anxious to write the kind of poetry I thought I should be writing at a moment when my country was at war, and when I was, in other parts of my life, busily engaged in the peace movement. But I found that I didn’t know the war well. When the other students read my war poem as a love poem, I saw they were right. It was a love poem. That is, I’d failed.


Levertov’s response surprised and comforted me. She said that not all poets were meant to write anti-war poetry.


It’s an idea Levertov laid out more explicitly elsewhere. “If [writers] are inspired to write about their political concerns, that is good,” she said in a 1983 radio interview. “If they are not inspired to do so, they have exactly the same responsibility as any other citizen, any other conscious adult with a moral conscience — and that is to participate in any way they can. . . . Because you can’t make a good poem out of ‘ought to.’ You cannot. And you can’t make a good poem out of opinion and good intention.”


On the other hand, as her above words imply, she requested that we act. One day in workshop during the buildup to the Gulf War, a friend of mine admitted he was having trouble concentrating because he was so upset. “What are we going to do about this?” asked Levertov. Her question implied responsibility, and a task.


Not all the students joined in, but many did with apparent relief, guided by a woman with nearly thirty years’ experience in the anti-war movement. Every Saturday, a dozen or so of her students and friends met in front of the Stanford Quad with homemade signs that read, “Poets for Peace.” We took the train together to San Francisco and marched with the church groups, anarchists, stiltwalkers in black and white makeup, and thousands of other citizens. One day, we came upon a man with a white beard, leading another group bearing signs that read, “Poets for Peace.” He was Lawrence Ferlinghetti.


On campus during the week, we organized read-ins against the war. They started small — we read to ourselves the first night. But as word spread, the library where we held them filled up. Our read-ins became a regular announcement at campus rallies.


Levertov was a committed protester, but not a dominating one. Once she had set us in motion, she let us go. At the rallies in her trench coat and sunglasses, she stood back from the crowds, an interested smile on her face. At the read-ins, she would sit at the far side of the room, silent and listening.


In “On the Edge of Darkness: What is Political Poetry?” Levertov argues that poetry’s exclusion from both politics and broad engagement in the human community results from aesthetic reduction. People equate poetry with the lyric, and that mode alone, she writes, casting aside modes that traditionally carried more diverse material:


“However, writers who accepted the lyric as the available mode and whose bent was for poetry, not for prose, nevertheless had a variety of things to say; so that the lyric in the twentieth century, like prose fiction, has become a repository for content previously dealt with in dramatic, epic, narrative, or satiric modes.”


Levertov was one of those poets whose voice sought lyric, and who yet had much to say. She was aware of her political poetry as a kind of experiment.


But Levertov also saw a more sinister process at work, one in which poets had willingly engaged. During the Romantic period, she wrote, poets became ever more disconnected from the larger society. Although the roots of this dislocation were earlier, “the Romantic period intensified this isolation by seeing the artist as endowed with a special sort of temperament which was not only operative during the making of works of art, not only when the poet donned the Bardic mantle, and was actually writing, but which made him at all times supersensitive.”


For the poets, “It was an easy ego-trip.” But such isolation does not foster a sense of responsibility to the larger human community; a poet who is supersensitive needs to respond only to the poet-self. “The public, predictably, began to think of them as undependable fellows, at best whimsical and capricious, at worst, dangerous madmen, and in any case not responsible citizens. . . . Thus a good measure of effectiveness was taken away from the poet by what had seemed an elevation of his role: that is, by the attribution to him of more refined sensibilities and profounder passions than those of other people.”


“The elevation of the lyric mode as the type or exemplar of poetry, because it was the most personal mode,” led to “a distrust of the political when it did turn up in verse.”


Levertov’s insight is revealing, but I wonder if the problem is bigger. There are many other countries, for instance, where political poetry is celebrated. When I think about aesthetic prohibitions on political material in poetry, I think of other forms of American forgetting. Because I am a journalist who cares about social justice, I think about happy news — the emphasis on human-interest reporting in local television news and many local papers. I think about the precipitous drop in reporting on our current war, a conflict expensive both in lives and dollars. As the American Journalism Review recently reported, the war costs taxpayers “nearly $5,000 a second, according to some calculations.”


Despite the expense, “the decline in coverage of Iraq has been staggering,” the review reported. “During the first 10 weeks of 2007, Iraq accounted for 23 percent of the newshole for network TV news. In 2008, it plummeted to 3 percent during that period. On cable networks it fell from 24 percent to 1 percent, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.” Newspaper reporting on the conflict also fell off steeply. Among the theories the American Journalism Review offered for the war news decline was the possibility that Americans had adjusted to the war. It was now part of a familiar environment, and no longer newsworthy.


My own feeling about Levertov’s political poetry is that its quality varies. The best of the poems are excruciating, precise, profound, communicating their emotion fully. The less successful do not achieve this. This variability, and love of the best work, is something I would note about probably every poet I admire. Among the Levertov political poems that compel me are “Modes of Being” and its recognition of the difficulty of feeling fully in the face of human-made horror:


Near Saigon
in a tiger cage, a woman
tries to straighten her
             cramped spine
and cannot.
*             *             *
is real, torture
is real, we strain to hold
a bridge between them open,
and fail,
or all but fail.


Another is “A Note to Olga,” Levertov’s expression of grief both for the war and for her dead sister:


. . . Your high soprano
sings out from just
in back of me —

We shall — I turn,
you’re, I very well know,
not there,

and your voice, they say
grew hoarse
from shouting at crowds . . .

yet overcome
sounds then hoarsely
from somewhere in front,

the paddywagon
gapes. — It seems
you that is lifted

limp and ardent
off the dark snow
and shoved in, and driven away.


Reading the political poems at this moment in a long war, I am struck how some of them have gained meaning in the last several years because our time has come to resemble Levertov’s:


While the war drags on, always worse,
the soul dwindles sometimes to an ant
rapid upon a cracked surface;

lightly, grimly, incessantly,
it skims the unfathomed clefts where despair
seethes hot and black.
              (from “An Interim”)


These stanzas seem wise to the public despair the American Journalism Review article captured. More personally, on reading this, the fatigue and sense of a drying-up of spirit the lines convey, emphasized by the rasping short “a” sound, unfortunately captures my own uncomfortable relation to the current war, which does not cost me directly, though many, far away, pay with hurt, death, grief. The cost to myself is almost solely spiritual.


And the buying and selling
buzzes at  our heads, a swarm
of busy flies, a kind of innocence....

And at their ears, the sound
of the war. They are
not listening, not listening.
              (from “Tenebrae”)


I did not like the above stanzas ten and twenty years ago. They seemed judgmental then. Now they seem perceptive about the comfort shopping can bring to a diminished ant soul, and how buying and selling becomes a kind of “innocence” because it seems to have significance, while at the same time the war pounds, its significance more fundamental, but distant.


Ever since former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges published War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, I have thought about that title. The words capture a terrible truth about why wars recur. Surely, the early days of the Iraq War gave the U.S. government (and much of the U.S. public) meaning; for some, the war still does this. While Levertov’s Vietnam War poetry is not likely to delight, it offers sustenance and a reminder, and it will do so again, to another reader in a powerful country during another war “that gives us meaning.”


I had a similar experience recently of finding that objects I would otherwise understand as a little sad, preoccupying, carefully crafted, had, because of the Iraq war, taken on a power that made me gasp. As I was drafting this essay, I picked up a friend at the airport. He was returning from a journey that took him through, among other places, Vietnam and Cambodia.


He had brought back gifts. The people who made them, he explained, were badly injured during the Vietnam War, many of them civilians with bodies devastated by Agent Orange. He handed me a carved wooden jewelry box; a stylized wood figure of a woman in a “non la,” the traditional hat; and a piece of silk embroidery showing a peasant hoisting trays of fruit. Unexpectedly, as I gazed on their beauty, the gifts opened inside me a cave of grief.


He had in his bags two other objects. One, for a friend who had lost an uncle in the Vietnam War, was an old cigarette lighter, once owned by a U.S. soldier. The lighter bore an image of a tank and the years “65—66.” On the back were the words, “I hate the war but it doesn’t hate me.” The other was a U.S. soldier’s dog tag imprinted with the name William and what appeared to be a Polish last name.


During his journey, northwest of Saigon, my friend had encountered a Viet Cong soldier. The man lived for twelve years in the Cu Chi tunnels — a vast, interlocking system under the jungle floor. After the first four years, the man had fought with a single arm. My friend walked a short distance through the tunnels, finding them stifling. Such a home could entomb you, he said.


I have almost no memory of the Vietnam conflict. I was too young. Were my country not now at war, I might have found the stories and gifts profound and moving. But they would have belonged safely long ago, before my time. Instead, I recognized them, viscerally, as my own.


When the United States went to war against Iraq again, I found I missed Denise Levertov with a heart-dropping hurt. I missed her companionship at protests and peace meetings with ministers and church groups. I missed what I sensed in her — an urgency combined with the knowledge of experience and the long haul. “These reciprocations are what make community and communion possible — even if not often experienced, or not for long . . .” she wrote in a 1992 postcard, that referred back to our shared Gulf War peace work. But any reciprocation during the second Iraq War would have to occur in memory.


I soon learned that others were thinking of Levertov. In 2003, Sam Hamill, a poet and founder of Copper Canyon Press, received a note from Laura Bush requesting his presence at a White House symposium on Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman.


Hamill responded with an e-mail to friends. It read, in part: “When I picked up my mail and saw the letter marked ‘The White House,’ I felt no joy. Rather, I was overcome by a kind of nausea. . . . Only the day before I had read a lengthy report on the President’s proposed ‘Shock and Awe’ attack on Iraq, calling for saturation bombing that would be like the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo, killing countless innocent civilians. The only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam.” Hamill called upon all poets “to speak up for the conscience of our country” by submitting poems for “an anthology of protest.”


Within thirty-six hours, the submissions of poems to Hamill’s project had overwhelmed his e-mail account. The First Lady heard of the poets’ plans and canceled the symposium. On February 12, the day the White House symposium was supposed to happen, poets participated in more than 135 readings and events around the country denouncing Bush’s war moves against Iraq. By that date, Hamill’s new web site ( had published more than 6,000 poems.


I interviewed Hamill a few months later and asked him about his friendship with Levertov. It was “the spirit of Denise,” and a few other influences he said, that “is what made me decide when I received the invitation to the White House, that I simply couldn’t just say ‘No, thank you’ and pretend that it was OK.” He longed for her company. “Denise would have loved all of this. She loved that kind of social engagement in ways, frankly, that I don’t. But I’ve missed her a lot because she would have buoyed me.”


Nearly twenty years after the time I spent with Levertov, I know how the temptation to give up can weigh the mind, how the chest can feel overwhelmed by the knowledge of suffering on one’s block and in the broader world, suffering — in all too many cases — that a country I love has caused. I also know what a human example can mean, how it can cause the mind to swerve from self and selfishness back to being, as Levertov put it, “the poet in the world.”


She recedes in my memory, Denise Levertov. I recall fewer details than I once did, and with less heat, hilarity, and longing. What’s left are the poems, and the moral signal, which casts out its shadow on the forced American sunny days and its bright glare through the American night.

Anne-Marie Cusac, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Roosevelt University, is a George Polk Award-winning journalist, Contributing Writer to The Progressive Magazine, and also the author of two books of poetry entitled The Mean Days (Tia Chucha, 2001) and Silkie (Many Mountains Moving, 2007). Cusac’s nonfiction project, Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America, will be published by Yale University Press in the spring of 2009.

Photo, top: Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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