Denise Levertov: ‘Beyond The End’ plus spiders and live snakes

Dreaming Spires: Echiums and Foxgloves at Ness Gardens

Today I’m starting a new series of readings from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (ed.  Paul Lacey and Anne Dewey,  pub. New Directions 2013). Many thanks to New Directions for permission to reprint the poems here, see below for formal acknowledgement.

I will  be aiming to read about ten poems over the coming year. Unless they are very short, I’m not likely to finish a whole poem in one morning’s reading, so they may extend over a  few days. They will all be searchable under ‘Denise Levertov’.

In each case, I’ll be reading as if preparing for a Shared Reading group – first law, know how to read the poem as yourself. A poem like today’s might well benefit from being the only thing on the menu – it’s a rich poem.

The first poem is from  the 1957 collection, Here and Now.

Beyond The End

In ‘nature’ there’s no choice —
swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are. But we seem
almost to have it (not just
available death)

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

the girls crowding the stores, where light,
color, solid dreams are – what gay
desire! It’s their festival,
ring game, wassail, mystery.

It has no grace like that of
the grass, the humble rhythms, the
falling & rising of leaf and star;
it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:
take it or leave it

The ‘hewers of wood’ & so on; every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work: some
shine with it, in repose. Maybe it is
response, the will to respond–(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’) maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

I begin by reading the whole poem through, aloud.

But before that, how did I choose it? Well, I have this lovely anthology of The Collected Poems from New Directions, and one Saturday afternoon I  set myself down the hammock in the back garden and started reading. I read them quite quickly, looking to be in some way touched, arrested by something (I don’t define that to myself at all). If that happens, without going in it,  then I make a little note ‘come back to this…’

In such a first-glance-reading I’m looking for a feeling that matches something I’ve got in me. Or maybe in some way, the poem surprises me. Either way,  fair to say, I chose this poem because of my felt response to it and that’s how I’ll be choosing all these poems in the Levertov series.

Now I read again, trying to see my own reactions as well as simply having them. Looking back, I feel my response really began at the word ‘energy’. Later it was deepened by ‘activate’ and ‘response’. Such thoughts things matter very much to me and I am interested in thinking about them. Wordsworth describes the human mind as ‘creator and receiver both’ and it feels like that to me, and I like trying to think about my mind. This seems about how life works.

But, going back to the poem and rereading, and noting my responses: I feel adrift and am also thinking right away, and that adrift is not quite knowing where I am in the first stanza because of the bit in brackets (not just available death). I  decide to go back to the start – again – and start again.  So, just to note, that in this poem which is new to me, I’ve read it three, four times before I even start trying to understand what it is, what my responses are.  You go back to retest the ground, to re-feel your feelings, to stumble into a sense of the sense.

I am back at the beginning and wondering about the inverted commas around ‘nature’, as if that word too, is uncertain, is not definite.

I’m asking myself first, what is ‘nature’ and how does that connect to ‘human nature’ – because this poem is about being human (I know that because of reading to the end several times).

The poem begins (‘In ‘nature’ there’s no choice’) at the point where Denise  realises there is a difference between our human nature and the wider nature. The brackets mean nature-as-we-think-of-it-as-not-us…green stuff, mountains, sky, bears.  This gets me thinking  – isn’t everything about human nature natural? Still, I continue with her and her distinction: other forms of nature seem to be ‘as they are’, from one end of the universe to the other:

swing their heads in the wind, sun & moon
are as they are.

Flowers, touched by wind move but not of their own will, sun and moon seem static in the skies, with no decision in their placing. They are ‘as they are’. But not us, we ‘seem to have’ choice. Now to the difficult bracketed bit  ‘not just available death’ – does that mean: choice to be here or not, availability of suicide? That is the big choice, as Hamlet realised. Available death, too, in our ability to choose to kill each other? Flowers don’t have such choices.

Big as this is the choice is not only about death, as the next stanza tells us…

It’s energy: a spider’s thread: not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken, to activate: extend:
Some have it, they force it —
with work or laughter or even
the act of buying, if that’s
all they can lay hands on–

Why a spider’s thread? I remember Walt Whitman’s poem ‘A Noiseless Patient Spider’ and wonder if Denise Levertov has remembered it, too? I know from my complete skimming read-through of the entire book that she often  remembers and quotes or partially echoes other poets in her work. I look up the Whitman.

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

The filament launched forth by Whitman’s spider is very like the ‘energy’ Levertov  is thinking of here. I’m wondering about human energy, what it is, where does it come from?

In a Shared Reading group, I’d be stopping here to initiate a conversation about energy.

But oh dear. Time’s up – that went fast. More  on energy tomorrow.

”Beyond the End” By Denise Levertov, from COLLECTED EARLIER POEMS 1940-1960, copyright ©1957 by Denise Levertov. Use by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.



2 thoughts on “Denise Levertov: ‘Beyond The End’ plus spiders and live snakes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s