Today I’m hoping to finish my reading of , O Taste and See’, a short poem by Denise Levertov. I say short – I’ve been here three days, so no promises – it takes what it takes. You’ll find the earlier posts on this poem by using the search box and typing ‘O Taste and See’. You’ll find the whole poem here.
Yesterday I’d got a point of thinking about the miracle of being a living creature: our bodies taking in food and oxygen to fuel the processes of living: literally, transformation. I’m going to pick up here:
into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being
hungry, and plucking
I wonder now where I am in this poem – still exiting the subway?
Standing at a kerb-edge, waiting to cross, risking my life by crossing the street?
The food, the oxygen, becomes flesh, and flesh must die. Therefore as soon as she writes the word ‘flesh’, without the grace of comma’s pause, Levertov must also write ‘our/deaths’. I say no comma, but I wonder here about the line ending – always a good thing to notice in modern poetry because it is one of the few structural devices the poet has in their toolkit. See how she uses it! We see the thought, logical, compelling, emerge across the gap of the line ending. If we have flesh it therefore follows we have death.
And does our death happen in the midst of life as we are crossing the street? is that why she writes it like that?
Now suddenly the poem jumps from thinking about death to plums, to quince. I look back at the other piece of fruit, the tangerine. Now I feel I am standing outside a subway exit in New York near a street fruit stall. All this is happening in my head.
I wonder if the plums are a quick glance at William Carlos Williams’ poem, This Is Just To Say. I think Levertov knew him ( I don’t look that up because I am trying to stay concentrated on the poem). But those delicious plums are in my mind now! (‘so sweet and so cold!’). That Williams poem is about unashamedly enjoying the eating of fruit. Which…
…and now I’m thinking of the ‘orchard’ and the story of Eden, of Milton’s Paradise Lost, enters my mind. The lines I remember of the moment of the fall – Book 9 – when Eve takes the fruit:
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
I look back to Levertov:
living in the orchard and being
hungry, and plucking
I don’t think it is an accident that Levertov uses the same verb as Milton. As with the Wordsworth at the beginning, I believe these fragments of other poets’ language are in Levertov’s head and imagination, in her store cupboard of lines. They bang around in there and become our own: we use them. I use them in my real life, I quote them to myself. If you are a poet you use them in your poetry. But I’ll come back to this in a moment. Let me just finish reading.
Connecting hunger to ‘being’ Levertov seems to believe that we were built to pluck that fruit, we were made with bodies that get hungry, and must eat to survive. And, like Williams, not just to eat but also to enjoy. This is an argument with or a response to Milton.
I notice that ‘being’ gets a line-ending. That’s a kind of pause, a kind of emphasis. Read it out, get the rhythm of it.
You have the pause at the line end, then you get ‘hungry’. This is a new thought, not part of Milton’s mindset at all. It’s as if, as with the Wordsworth thought (‘the world is too much with us’), she is in conversation with those thoughts/poems. She feels able to speak up, respond, say something. It isn’t rashness, says Levertov to Milton, as if they were both here in the present tense, it is hunger. All the same, that final verb, ‘plucking’, is loaded with meanings, with echoes. Yet Levertov asserts, eat the goddam plums! Be in the world, be here, be physical, be a body, be a transformation, be alive.
I want to go back now to the problem of the fact that Denise Levertov is a highly educated poet, working in a tradition which she knows well – Wordsworth, Genesis, Milton, the Psalms, William Carlos Williams. She knows all that well enough to have the language of those poems in her head as if they were natural to her. Indeed they have become natural to her – just as a simple chord progression CFG is natural to any guitarist, just as an English gardener would look for something to underplant roses, just as a cook might naturally think of cooking chicken with rosemary and lemon and pine-nuts.
You don’t have to know music theory, the history of English gardens or the molecular science of taste to appreciate lovely planting, musical flow or good chicken. For someone who has never experienced the chords C F and G the thing would be to have the experience, not to have the knowledge that those are the names of those chords. So that is why The Reader’s basic pedagogy is about shared experience: we share our reading, we experience it together. If you have facts, put them to one side, they get in the way of the poetic, the literary experience. (See my post against footnotes here.)
But part of the problem here, for a Shared Reading group leader is that some of the fibres of this particular poem are made from the other poems. those aren’t just ‘allusions’, they aren’t just footnotes. Part of the experience of the poem is the echo of Wordsworth, of William Carlos Williams, of Milton.
If you didn’t hear those echoes at all, you’d still have an experience of the poem, but some of the poem would be missing. It would be as if , for some reason, your ears just couldn’t hear the F chord, or your taste buds couldn’t pick up the rosemary. It’s not a killer, but a workaround would be good.
For me, if I was taking this poem to a group (and I hope one day I will) the workaround would be to bring the Wordsworth sonnet, and the Williams, and a fragment of the Milton. I wouldn’t stay on them long, but they’d be there to take away, or maybe the group would want to read one or more of them another time. For today, we’d just have them there and look at them in passing. They are there to be a sort of additional flavour in the Levertov dish.
For reading this short poem I’d need a whole session – at least an hour maybe an hour and half, maybe two hours (I love a two-hour session, which always seems to me the time needed to really complete some small piece of reading).
So I’d perhaps have this as a poem-only session in the week after the completion of a novel or long story. That way this poem could pick up some of the ideas in the novel – thinking of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, which could be great with this. But there would be many others. So many stories have come out of the garden, the fruit, the fall, the need to be in the world, of it and not of it at once.
Tomorrow, we’re turning back to Silas Marner
More thanks coming your way from me for this. This poem has been floating around in my head for three days. It is one I’d like to take to a shared reading group. The issue of how to deal with references to other poems, Greek myths, historical facts etc. is one I’ve often wondered about. It’s too easy to get derailed from the poem. Thank you for describing the workaround here.