Snakes ‘n’ Shopping in Denise Levertov

Cherries ripening to provide wassail-fest for the starlings as soon as I leave the garden

Today I’m continuing the reading I started yesterday, of Denise Levertov’s ‘Beyond The End’

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.

Yesterday I’d got up to the word ‘quicken’ and had to stop writing at the point where I was  wondering about human energy, what it is, where does it come from?

Do you ever feel you haven’t got it? The energy to shine brightly, to respond, to put something forth? Of course when you overcome the inertia that naturally slows us , sometimes the energy flows even more strongly. Why/how does it come and go? What is it? Is it physical? Or perhaps how is it physical when it is also about  spirit or something? Thinking now of  my recent reading in Silas Marner – if we read it as an energy map, marking on coloured markers how much energy Silas is putting forth…you’d see the glorious golden light in him as he plays with his coins at night. And you’d mark in the dimness, almost extinguished energy once he has been robbed. And Dolly Winthrop – up at 4.30am to use her energy up every day!

To a reader not used to the  rhythms of a Shared Reading group, this paragraph above will seem like an aside and a chatty drifting away from the text. And necessarily, because we do this, one of our Reader Leader phrases has to be ‘ back to the text!’ But these asides or diversions are not really off the point. They are just very, very slo-mo reading. They are giving people in the group an opportunity to think. that opportunity will often times be taken up by someone using up airspace, or by chat or a bit of biography… but the space and leeway such inconsequential chat creates will also sometimes become a place where we can begin to  become aware of powerful thoughts.

When we read a word like ‘energy’ there are a lot of possible thoughts which might cross your mind. Reading is not a one-dimensional stick-line  – it’s a bundle of  live snakes. We want to know what they all are. In an experienced reading brain, many of those thoughts (the live snakes)  will be firing with word-related random association. Energy =  gas bills, neurones, electricity, red giants, meditation, amphetamines, sport and Whitman’s spider….though we won’t always be conscious of these thoughts, they will be passing through us. Seems to feel good to slow things down and get as many of them out  and named as we can. This is what we call consciousness. The more there is of it, the better. But back to the text.

So, like Whitman’s spider,  Denise Levertov’s energy is about extending out of your self. And the language here asks whether, like poetry, life too isn’t a bundle of live snakes, rather than a fixed line from a-b. Energy, she says

not to
‘go on living’ but to quicken,

And that’s the point, isn’t it?

If energy were energy only  to ‘go on living’ we’d be in world of straight lines, of keeping going. Silas  keeps going, he goes on living, but he is sort-of dead after Lantern Yard – like a spider! – he mechanically weaves only his linen. The unpredictable disfunctionality of his linen then producing gold coins (with faces) which he begins to love (what capacity for love then!) which makes his mechanical producing of the cloth only a means to an end – he is no longer pure machine-insect-man. He is quickened by love!

But once  he has been robbed of his gold he falls back into energy-less despair. Like Thomas Hardy , in The Going, he might say

I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . .

There are types of death in life.  Energy of a mechanical  sort is required. But  for live energy, for extension, for going beyond, we need something else. Levertov uses that marvellous livening verb, ‘quicken’ to make us think ‘new life’.

I’m looking back at the title, ‘Beyond The End’ which I had initially thought was about death (still do think that )but now I also think it is about ends – any ends. As in wherever things are currently ended. How things are. What you’ve ended up with or at. And it is more about ‘beyond’ than ‘end’.

You get that lovely little run of words: ‘to quicken, to activate: extend:’ which is about the way humans can go beyond themselves, touched, brought to life. Things get bigger. We become more. I’m really enjoying this. Now Denise looks for it – and what is interesting here is that she casts about, in the chatty, discursive way we might do in Shared Reading, as if she is asking herself – what is this thing I am talking about? How can I make it real? Who has got it, this extending, this going beyond?

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.

Work, yes, and we’ll come back to that. Laughter yes, how you can get beyond yourself and into a different place through laughter and finally ‘ the act of buying, if that’s/all they can lay their hands on -‘. It’s as if she is pulled up sharp by this thought and allows it to blossom for a generous moment (given that this thought started with ‘even’, as if we had reached the pits), loving seeing the girls loving the stuff in shops. Levertov’s generous looking for good (unlike my own grumpy anti-materialism) turns the girls’ feeling into something beyond the material, into something ancient and humanly long-standing : ‘It’s their festival,/ ring game, wassail, mystery.’

You can stay with each of those words and let them bloom across the table – old words for old ways of getting out of yourself.  But time is up…

Reading at this slow rate, each poem from ‘The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov’ is going to take me a week. Hurray.


”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.

4 thoughts on “Snakes ‘n’ Shopping in Denise Levertov

  1. Heather June 26, 2017 / 9:00 am

    Those of us living with chronic illnesses are acutely aware of energy and its comings and goings. Sometimes to, ‘go on living’ is all that can be managed. So how much joy comes with that quickening when it happens.
    I’m also a bit grumpy about ‘buying’ as a source of joy, but, ‘if that’s all they can lay hands on-‘ ? She says this so generously and so well.

    • drjanedavis June 26, 2017 / 8:05 pm

      Yes – good to spot that extra bit, Heather, the all important ‘if’…

  2. Jamie June 26, 2017 / 6:55 pm

    It’s really good to be reminded of this energy… how to ‘activate’ it is often a problem… reading this poem and your thoughts on it seems to have activated something new and quickened my mind today, thank-you.

    • drjanedavis June 26, 2017 / 8:06 pm

      Great poem – glad you enjoyed a burst of lovely light from it!

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