What to read in a Shared Reading group: Eating fruit with Denise Levertov

garden at evening
Front garden, evening 23 May

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
the fruit.

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:

plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

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


Getting to know Denise Levertov

The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov waiting for me to open it

One of the largest and most transformative reading experiences I’ve had was reading the Complete Letters of George Eliot when writing my Ph.D. You don’t often see the Letters for sale at a price anyone would be able to afford and you’d probably need a university library to find them on the shelves, so a good way to get at a short version of them is through her husband John Cross’s biography, which is based on extracts from the Letters. (You can read Cross on Project Gutenberg). I’d read the Cross biography, but wanted to look something up in more detail so I went to seek them out and there they were, thousands of letters, in nine fat brown volumes. I started reading and realised I could feel George Eliot’s (or rather Marian Evans’) presence in them, and not just the bits John Cross had selected, but all of her: her kindness to friends, and her irritability, her toothaches, mistakes in love, her dogs, family problems, travel, thinking, music, anger with a friend who borrowed money for a cab from her servant, her continuing toothache,  her unwillingness to back the founding of Girton College, her singing, her loves,  more toothache… she was all here and across time: the young teenager, the struggling young woman, the world-famous writer. I wanted to devote some months to the sweep of the lot – I wanted to get to know her.

There are not many experiences like that in a reading life but a ‘collected poems’ may be of the same order. Realising a few weeks ago that I love the two poems by Denise Levertov that I know well (‘Variation on a Theme by Rilke’, and the poem I read here a few days ago, ‘The Metier of Blossoming’) I thought I would buy her Collected Poems, and get to know her better. The book now sits beside me, a thousand pages deep. I thought I would add my readings in Levertov’s Collected Poems to the projects underway on this blog. ‘Poem of The Day’ will continue and will often use the Oxford Book of English Verse, the slow reading of Silas Marner will continue a couple of times a week, and now getting to know Denise Levertov will be added. I’m not going to read the book chronologically, at least not at the beginning. I’m going to flip through and find things that make me want to dive deeper.

There is the old problem of reproducing works in copyright…a problem I will try to solve, but meanwhile for today I’ve found a link to a poem I’d like to read.

‘O Taste and See’ by Denise Levertov – read the entire poem here.  There is other stuff on that page – don’t read it, or not yet. Just read the poem: this is Levertov’s gift to us, let’s not  let someone else get in the way of the  direct exchange the poet offers.

Read it, read it slowly,  read it aloud and read it a couple of times. Here I read the opening  seven lines:

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

I a sort of excitement in the first couple of stanzas,  but they present me with an interesting problem as someone who leads Shared Reading groups.

Levertov’s lines draw on other lines, from other poems and from the Bible, which I recognise, but which I’m not sure that my reading group members will recognise. What am I going to do about that? Regular readers og this blog wil lknow my antipathy towards World of Footnotes.

My first task is to read the poem as myself. I need to come to it clean, without thoughts of other readers or their needs, I need to experience the poem myself. Later, I’ll work out what to do about this – if anything – in my group. My first duty is to read well for myself, because the reading I can make happen in my group will be based on that.

Those two  first lines are a sort of joke, a conversational response, almost banter. I think of Wordsworth in Levertov’s mind: as well-known as a family member, chuntering on in the way he does, and I remember his poem. What she has written is a kind of chiming for someone who has the Wordsworth poem in their head already and it makes me laugh slightly. I love Wordsworth, so what’s making me laugh? The fact that she knows him so well and he is in her head as she meditates on the subway Bible poster and that she is arguing with him. I don’t need to remember the whole of Wordsworth’s poem (though I print it here) the first line will do.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn
I do not  know the Old Testament in the same way that I know Wordsworth, but I bet that ‘O taste and see’ is from the Psalms.
But I don’t want to get caught up on the references. I read the whole of Levertov’s poem through again, and do not look up the Psalm, though I will do that later. Levertov takes the Wordsworth thought about our mechanical, exchange-relation to the world and casually turns it. Nah, William, it’s the other way round. ‘The world is/ not with us enough’. She’s changing the nature of the word ‘ world’,  which is being  influenced by ‘O taste and see’. The world is a thing or series of things we might know by our senses.
Next comes a leap of thought, taking me suddenly into no joke seriousness :
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,
I like the bold type, as if taken directly from the poster. I notice the repetition of ‘meaning’, where the second meaning changes the first.
The lines areasking,What does ‘The Lord’ mean to someone who doesn’t believe in ‘The Lord’?
That’s me: I do not yet know enough about Denise Levertov to know if it is also her. I haven’t looked her up on Wikipedia, didn’t read the book’s intro – though I might, later. But from the two poems of hers I do know well, I know  she’s somehow religious. She describes the numinous, the spiritual. I hate all these words, ‘religious’, ‘numinous’, spiritual’, loaded with their dead-to-me meanings. Yet now, reading again,  I notice that Levertov isn’t letting herself be distracted by those feelings , in fact she is remaking the vocabulary and remaking it so that it is full of new meaning:
If ‘The Lord’ is a kind of code for real experience, she says, it is code for ‘all that lives/to the imaginations tongue.’
Wow – now I’m out of my depth, and feel the deeps below, above me. This is the best of the experience of  poetry. Hurrah! I’ve got years of reading this huge lovely book ahead. But for today, frustratingly, time’s up.

Sharing an atom of truth with Bellow, Herzog and Levertov

Roses and mint, borage and clematis in the back garden 16 May

I don’t want to continue with Shakespeare’s horses today, however energetic they may be. I am not interested enough, life is short.

So I’m turning the pages of the Oxford Book of English Verse looking for something I can care about. Up to about page 200, and it’s all love and death, or fear of losing love, or having lost it,  or fear of death, or advice on how to live a good life plus  the odd aside to your cat or ‘on inviting a friend to dinner’. Where our lives are going, how to end well, that sort of thing. Yes, yes. Impatiently I turn the pages, that’s not what I want.

Instead I’m turning over in my mind the thought of what Shared Reading essentially is, what matters most. We say we are making a reading revolution and we’re changing the place of literature in the world, bringing it out of the academy and into life. When I think of some of the places we’ve made reading happen over the past decade…places where no reading was, no poetry, no novels, no help with thinking about experience, all those care homes, rehabilitation units, clinics, bail hostels, young offender institutions, mental health inpatient and community units, I think we’ve made a good start on that. I think also of the many libraries and schools and community centres where people are sharing their reading in a new way. Yes, it’s a start.

Now our new model of growth is going to spread Shared Reading even more widely.  But the wider it goes the harder it is to ensure quality: we now  have to balance between strict  rules  (to keep it right) and the spirit of the thing (to keep it lively). We have to balance as we go, and that balance is always going to be a series of movements, of many tiny, constant adjustments, with the occasional hard  pull back to the centre , just like a woman walking  tightrope.

What must be preserved?  If I came back in a hundred, two hundred years, would I hope to see still happening in Shared Reading groups? I want live-ness, some electrical moment of connection. I’d want to see some depth. Some people we’ve trained  have told me that Shared Reading consists of reading a short story, or an extract from a novel, and a poem. They have to go together.  The skill of shared reading is in the choosing. Well, no,  I tell them, I don’t agree. You can do that, but that is not a principle of Shared Reading.

You could read just a Shakespeare play, as our Shakespeare group in Birkenhead has done since 2008. Or only Daniel Deronda and no poems. Or you can read only a poem. You can read a big long poem over several weeks or months. The content matters, not the form. Which is not to say that the form of ‘some prose and some poetry’ isn’t a good one. It’s just not essential.  What is essential is the concentrated, deep nature of the reading experience. How we bring that about is up for grabs. Much depends on our confidence in the reading matter.

Like all things, literature is a continuum –  there’s poor stuff at one end, acceptably inoffensive stuff in the middle and great stuff at the other end.  People balk at the word ‘great’ because it implies  value judgement. I think we have to make value judgements. We make them about songs or beer or holidays: why not literature? Probably, making a judgement about the value content of what is to be read is a key principle of Shared Reading.

Great literature is writing which helps us integrate our own felt experience with the wisdom of others, helping us understand the world and ourselves. So, yes, great literature is certainly Crime and Punishment but also I Want My Hat Back (both stories of  loss, murder and aftermath) and probably not True Crime 3. (Though I reserve the right to change my mind in particular circumstances,where True Crime 3 might just be the volume that gets me into conversation with a particular person,  in conversation long enough to introduce them to Dostoevsky)

Depth of experience is what I want in my own reading (and why I’m not reading ‘Courser and Jennet’  today though I do think that someone could read it and get something out of it, just not me, not today) and that’s what I’d want to bring about in any Shared Reading experience. As my colleague Grace said to me yesterday, in  the first manifestation of The Reader (The Reader magazine, ‘a magazine about writing worth reading’ which we published in Spring 1997) Sarah Coley and I quoted what we felt was key passage from Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog.

The people who come to evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. Their great need, their hunger, is for good sense, clarity, truth – even an atom of it. People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.

Sarah and I had been teaching literature courses in the Continuing Education Programme for some time. I’d been doing it for perhaps ten years. I knew it wasn’t just the people who came to class who wanted ‘something real’ to take home. It was me too.

That urgent need to create a place where ‘the real’ could be found was what led to the creation of The Reader and of Shared Reading. That’s what I’m looking for when I look for something to read. So with all that in my mind (this morning’s subject matter, which, I’m sorry to say , it has my reading whole hour to realise) I now know what I’m looking for in a reading.

Therefore today it is ‘The Metier of Blossoming’ by Denise Levertov, which you’ll find here. I’m just reading the last few lines, as I’m already over time this morning.

If humans could be
that intensely whole, undistracted, unhurried,
swift from sheer
unswerving impetus! If we could blossom
out of ourselves, giving
nothing imperfect, withholding nothing!

The key thing now for The Reader’s growth is, like Levertov’s amaryllis, ‘sheer/unswerving impetus’.

It’s a marvellous unfinished wish, the end of this poem, which has been so concentrated on observing the plant, as if a scientist watched and noted its growth. But then after all that definite notation, the last two sentences – for humans – must both begin with ‘if’, must remain incomplete. For us there is only the trying.

‘If’ is the depth charger. Notice its repetition, not the big ambitions, which are so easily mouthed every day by  any old InspiringQuoteDotCom. ‘If’ opens the conversation for us in Shared Reading, this tiny word, ‘an atom’ of something good. The conversation that will grow from it will be ‘something real to take home when day is done.’

Silas tomorrow.