Salt & Grit: ‘Beyond the End’ with Denise Levertov

Acer in the Japanese Garden at Calderstones.JPG
Acer in the Japanese Garden at Calderstones

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

Beyond The End

In ‘nature’ there’s no choice —
flowers
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’d got to the start of stanza four. Worth reading the whole poem, aloud,  again, to get ourselves back into it.

We need to look at the word ‘it’ now.  does this mysterious pronoun stand for ‘choice’? As in: ‘In nature there’s no choice…but we seem almost to have it’.

Or does the ‘it’ stand for something as yet unnamed? Just read the poem again and  notice all the times this word appears. is ‘it’ energy? Levertov  says so:  ‘It’s energy’.  The girls buying stuff in shops enjoy ‘it’ : ‘it’s their festival.’

By now I understand ‘it’ is not choice.  The pronoun stands for the thing you may choose to find, whatever it is, so it, as I am reading now = energy, festival, a kind of light, an experience as in laughter. Now Denise closes in a little, examining it more closely:

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

We turn back to nature – where, as we know from the opening ‘there’s no choice’ but there is a kind of rhythmic grace, the ‘humble rhythms’ of seasons and planetary movements. Humans aren’t like that. So

it’s barely
a constant. Like salt:

The brilliant analogy of salt – hardly  there, but when there making all the difference. Yet I now notice the word ‘barely’, ‘it’s barely’  gets a whole line to itself, makes barely a big thing, and yet look, look, it is set alongside ‘a constant’. It is barely but it is ‘a constant. Like salt’. Is this the moment of choice: ‘Take it or leave it?’

We decide?  We go towards it or away from it?

This is  the essential  choice of human beings: yes or no. Towards or away. Do you want it or do you want to gt away from it? It is  perhaps the  ultimate primal movement, and may have begun for us way back before  we were monkeys, before we were fish, way back at the beginning when we were little one-celled specks going towards or away from other specks which would turn out to be food for us or eaters of us.

The moment of choice – towards or away, yes or no –  is a moment like a speck of salt. So insignificant you might not notice it all. But it is something powerful. Taste it.

The next stanza is the longest and develops a strong rhythm, as if of movement towards a certainty. She’s understanding more about ‘it’ as the poem  emerges.

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.

Levertov returns her attention to work (we’d seen earlier her thought ‘Some have it, they force it — with work or laughter ‘, which  had been passed by as she gave her attention to the girls  in the shops) and begins with the quotation, as if in very speedy thought, skimming along  ‘the ‘hewers of wood’ & so on’ . It’s biblical but I don’t remember it, so I look it up. They are slaves or prisoners, those hewers of wood, labourers who might have been killed. Hard-working labourers they are, which leads her thought as it were by a fast, vertical jumping, to another kind of worker, labourers may or may not have it while labouring but

every damn
craftsman has it while he’s working
but it’s not
a question of work

Yes, you can see it there in skilled complex making ( she must be thinking of poetry as a craft  as well as wheelwrighting, sewing) but the  ‘every damn’ dismisses them too – of course it’s there! –  but is  work itself that does it? Nope.

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’)

A  lovely thing happens here, the felicity of language. Repose – the opposite of work – may also contain it, and as the word is written  or as we meet it, reading, a kind of rest comes, the word brings it along.  During that moment of rest, the word ‘repose’ morphs by sound pattern into ‘response, and then into respond.  Then, at this key moment, we get another quotation.

(‘reason
can give nothing at all/like
response to desire’)

I didn’t recognise this – it’s the poet Wallace Stevens – so I looked it up.  The quote is famous, and appears out of context in hundreds of places, but the link I’ve provided takes you to a page where there is a tiny bit of context.  I don’t know if it helps.

But I regroup by re-reading. The key for me now is what feels that lucky strike of  ‘repose/response’, and in illustration of her own point, it does seem to me that this is what’s happened here. Denise had a choice at the word ‘repose’, to go in various directions. Her mind, or the poetic genius in her, or sound patterns, or whatever you want to call ‘it’, offered a link to ‘response’: she took it.  It’s a moment of salt on the tongue. She took  it, I see, with the word ‘ ‘maybe’  – lovely provisional word that allows a form of play, experiment. She continues:

maybe
a gritting of teeth, to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

How different is  ‘a gritting of teeth’ to the moment that  began the unfolding of this thought, ‘repose’. But they are ‘maybe’ both ways in which our salt might work on us.

Finally, at the end,  even the ‘it’ pronoun has disappeared, like the grain of salt, tasted and dissolved. So that the poem finishes with a sort of  ambition statement,  like a vision:

to go
just that much further, beyond the end
beyond whatever ends: to begin, to be, to defy.

There are a lot of echoes in my head as I let these last lines roll around in that little chamber, but I can’t quite identify them – Hamlet, the choice of ‘to be’ rather than ‘not to be’, Tennyson’s Ulysses looking at all experience and everything ‘ever more about to be’ – but the rhythm is reminding me of something else I can’t quite remember… or is it the end of ‘Ulysses’?

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

But that’s an aside, don’t let me be distracted. We have choice,  the poem makes me feel, and that choice is about extending beyond whatever ends. I do not know if  this includes death – for me, it would seem not to… for Levertov? I don’t yet know her well enough to know.

I do think – though it may just be my own mind –  that there is an echo of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’  in the poem, and tomorrow I may start to read it.

But I want to honour Levertov’s poem by finishing with those last three  strikes of hers:

to begin, to be, to defy.

This is human work and our task. To begin, to make a start.  To be – which seems to me to be about continuing that start. But more than continuing, carrying on, it is, as the last word has it, to ‘defy’. To defy the end. To fight it.  We’ve got to be talking about death and kinds of small death here – the failure of a poem or any piece of creative work,  the moment when  fear or lethargy or laziness overcomes any desire, ‘whatever ends’. The human task is find a way of being in that dimension where things don’t end. Moving towards it. Not away from. That takes guts as well as desire, instinct, because the move towards runs out. Then you need  ‘the gritting of teeth.’

Wonderful. I’m gritting, thank you Denise.

”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.

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