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.

Snakes ‘n’ Shopping in Denise Levertov

cherries.JPG
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 —
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.

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.

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

ness1
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 —
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 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:

flowers
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.

 

 

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:

transform

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

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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

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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.