Saturday, December 23, 2006

Reading. Levertov.

I came to poetry late. I was twenty-five. Nearly twenty years ago we wrote haikus as second-graders; in high school we made our way through Blake, Dickinson, Whitman. In college I would read Pushkin, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, fervently, obsessively. But it would not be until I turned twenty-five that poetry became a real part of my existence, as necessary to my mind as all other forms of literature, as necessary as food and water and air. It was a chain reaction, that went thusly: Bukowski-Ferlighetti-Ginsberg and then absentmindedly, Milosz-Levertov-Brodsky-Mandelstam-Akhmatova. But I come back to Levertov because she in turn sent me back to my own beginning.

In the far reaches of my mind are engraved two words, the epigraph to E. M. Forster's Howards End. (I will come back to that another time). Only connect, he says. (I remember writing a paper for an English class my freshman year of college, laboriously unwinding and unkinking the various connections that intersect throughout Howards End, but I forget what my conclusion was. I only remember that the words only connect were the key to my understanding of the novel). So it is with a shock that I begin to read an essay by Denise Levertov and find those words that resonated within me all those years ago, that have stayed with me all my life, marked in indelible ink against the shifting sands of my memory.

The writers I have loved most I have loved because they have the ability to make me understand what it is I love most about literature itself, and put it in words far more clearly and beautifully than I ever could. Denise Levertov is one of these writers. Poetry is necessary to a whole man, she writes, and that poetry be not divided from the rest of life is necessary to it...Literature - the writing of it, the study of it, the teaching of it-is a part of your lives. It sustains you, in one way or another. The obligation of the writer, or poet, she tells us, is: to take personal and active responsibility for his words...When words penetrate deep into us they change the chemistry of the soul, of the imagination...The poet does not use poetry, but is at the service of poetry.

And then Levertov brings me back to the words which have blazed clearly in my mind for some fifteen years, when she quotes William Carlos Williams, saying, No ideas but in things...does not mean "no ideas." It means [to quote Wordsworth] that "language is not the dress but the incarnation of thoughts." "No ideas but in things, " means, essentially, "Only connect" is therefore not only a craft-statement, not only an aesthetic statement (though it is these things also, and importantly), but a moral statement. Only connect. No ideas but in things.The words reverberate through the poet's life, through my life...It brings us to the heart of poetry, of Levertov's belief that the meaning of literature, of poetry, is only so that we may connect.

Levertov, Denise. New & Selected Essays. New Directions Publishing Co., 1992. pp. 134-138.

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