Denise Levertov



For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet discovers and reveals. There are no doubt temperamental differences between poets who use prescribed forms and those who look for new ones--people who need a tight schedule to get anything done, and people who have to have a free hand--but the difference in their conception of "content" or "reality" is functionally more important. On the one hand is the idea that content, reality, experience, is essentially fluid and must be given form; on the other, this sense of seeking out inherent, though not immediately apparent, form. Gerard Manley Hopkins invented the word inscape to denote intrinsic form, the pattern of essential characteristics both in single objects and (what is more interesting) in objects in a state of relation to each other; and the word 'instress' to denote the experiencing of the perception of inscape, the apperception of inscape. In thinking of the process of poetry as I know it, I extend the use of these words, which he seems to have used mainly in reference to sensory phenomena, to include intellectual and emotional experience as well; I would speak of the inscape of an experience (which might be composed of any and all of these elements, including the sensory) or of the inscape of a sequence or constellation of experiences.

A partial definition, then, of organic poetry might be that it is a method of apperception, i.e., of recognizing what we perceive, and is based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man's creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories. Such a poetry is exploratory.

How does one go about such a poetry? I think it's like this: First there must be an experience, a sequence or constellation of perceptions of sufficient interest, felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him their equivalence in words: he is brought to speech. Suppose there's the sight of the sky through a dusty window, birds and clouds and bits of paper flying through the sky, the sound of music from his radio, feelings of anger and love and amusement roused by a letter just received, the memory of some long ago thought or event associated with what's seen or heard or felt, and an idea, a concept, he has been pondering, each qualifying the other; together with what he knows about history; and what he has been dreaming--whether or not he remembers it--working in him. This is only a rough outline of a possible moment in a life. But the condition of being a poet is that periodically such a cross-section, or constellation, of experiences (in which one or another element may predominate) demands, or wakes in him this demand, the poem. The beginning of the fulfillment of this demand is to contemplate, to meditate; words which connote a state in which the heat of feeling warms the intellect. To contemplate comes from "templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur." It means, not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is "to keep the mind in a state of contemplation''; its synonym is "to muse," and to muse comes from a word meaning "to stand with open mouth" not so comical if we think of "inspiration"--to breathe in.

So--as the poet stands openmouthed in the temple of life, contemplating his experience, there come to him the first words of the Poem: the words which are to be his way in to the poem, if there is to be a poem. The pressure of demand and the meditation on its elements culminate in a moment of vision, of crystallization, in which some inkling of the correspondence between those elements occurs; and it occurs as words. If he forces a beginning before this point, it won't work. These words sometimes remain the first, sometimes in the completed poem their eventual place may be elsewhere, or they may turn out to have been only forerunners, which fulfilled their function in bringing him to the words which are the actual beginning of the poem. It is faithful attention to the experience from the first moment of crystallization that allows those first or those forerunning words to rise to the surface: and with that same fidelity of attention the poet, from that moment of being let in to the possibility of the poem, must follow through, letting the experience lead him through the world of the poem, its unique inscape revealing itself as he goes.


Denise Levertov "Some Notes on Organic Form" in Poetry, copyright © 1965 and New Directions in Prose and Poetry #20, copyright © 1968 by New Directions Publishing Corporation. Reprinted in Poet in the World, copyright © 1973 by Denise Levertov Goodman, New Directions Publishing Corporation


Denise Levertov: An Interview with Sybil Estess

Sybil Estess: What first led you to writing?

Denise Levertov: Well, I lived in a house full of books, and everybody in my family did some kind of writing. My earliest memories of my father seem to picture him swathed in galleys. It seemed natural for me to be writing something. I wrote poems from an early age, and stories. I began to keep diaries and journals when I was a little older.

Estess: What were the circumstances of your being educated by your parents rather than in schools?

Levertov: There weren't any schools in the neighborhood which my parents thought were much good. My mother had taught school, and was a great reader. So from year to year it just seemed to work out better for me to do lessons at home, Victorian style. My mother gave me daily lessons from age five to twelve. I also listened to the BBC school programs. After that I began daily professional ballet classes and went to private French, art, and music lessons. I used to wander around the V and A a lot, and go to art exhibitions and to the British Museum and so on. It had always been intended that I should eventually go to school, perhaps to the university; but between my ballet mania and the war it just didn't happen.

Estess: Could you say more about what effect the war years in England had on you?

Levertov: First of all, the career that I had been working toward as a ballet dancer did not materialize; the war had some effect on my giving that up. To avoid the draft, which in England conscripted women as well as men, I joined the "land army," and worked for a while on a dairy farm and in a market garden. Then I began an intensive program of nurses' training, called "Civil Nursing Reserve." After a while I decided that I might as well be really training professionally to get something out of my wartime work, and I enrolled in a regular training hospital. I continued until I had become what is equivalent to a Licensed Practical Nurse, but I did not go on to become a Registered Nurse because I didn't like the strain of taking even the one and only examination that I ever took in my life, and I didn't like the way in which one's personal life was regulated. (I was always crawling in and out of windows to avoid curfews!)

Estess: How old were you during these years? Were you writing even then?

Levertov: I was nineteen, twenty, twenty-one; and yes, I was writing. I began publishing during that period, actually, although my very first poem had been printed when I was sixteen.

Estess: What are your memories of your artistic development during the war?

Levertov: One significant thing that happened during that time was quite coincidental. When I was nineteen and entered the Civil Nursing Reserve Program, the hospital to which I was sent was in a little town in Essex--Bollwicke. When I first arrived there, I was walking down the main street and I saw a sign which said "Grey Wolfe Press." I said to myself, "Those are the people that put out Poetry Quarterly, where my [first] poem was published!" ["Listening to Distant Guns"] I went in there three days later and introduced myself to the man who by this time had become the editor of the magazine, Ray Gardner. He began reading my poetry and eventually publishing it. He also introduced me to several poets, there and in London.

Estess: Who were some of these poets?

Levertov: Tambimutu, Alex Comfort (who nowadays is famous for The Joy of Sex, but was then known as a young poet), Nicholas Moore, Danny Abse.

Estess: Did you meet regularly with any of these writers to discuss your work?

Levertov: No, but I developed some contacts. Much of the poetry in England at that time was not very good, including my own adolescent writing which appeared in my first book in 1946. But the sentimentality and lushness of what was known as the "New Romanticism" then was a reaction, partly, to the daily life of wartime--the drabness and grayness of English in the early 1940s.

Estess: Concerning the political conditions of the time then, how well do you remember the bombing in England?

Levertov: I was in London and the environs throughout the entire war, and I remember it very vividly. You wouldn't think so -to read my poems at that time--because there is very little reference to it. I think that this is simply because I was too immature as an artist and as a person to deal with it.

Estess: Did you realize what was going on historically?

Levertov: Well, I knew more than the average English person. I surely knew what Hitler represented, because I had grown up with refugees right in my home. I knew what went on in concentration camps more than most people did until the war was over.

Estess: Your family was in contact with Jewish people on the continent?

Levertov: Yes. From the time I was nine years old when Hitler came to power my family was involved in saving people from Germany and Austria. Perhaps because my mother was Christian and my father a Jew who had been converted to Christianity, they specialized in refugees who had one Jewish parent, people who had possibly been brought up as Christians and only recognized the fact that they were Jewish when they were forced to wear a yellow star.

Estess: How did you, at such a young age, assimilate such horrible political (and human) realities into your consciousness?

Levertov: There had always been a good deal of political consciousness in my family, which I absorbed. The issue of fascism, Nazism, was not the only issue with which my family concerned itself. During the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, I remember my father speaking on the street on a soapbox about that. And in the Spanish Civil War, when I was eleven, I think, I was an ardent partisan of the Loyalists. I recall that I listened to news broadcasts all the time. I grew up in an atmosphere where such issues were discussed.

Estess: As you grew up, did you develop a distinctive sense of being Jewish?

Levertov: Oh yes. Even though my father had become a Christian, and of course was an Anglican priest, he was always a sort of "Jewish Christian." He emphasized the fact that Jesus and the disciples were Jews. To him Christianity was really a fulfillment of the messianic hope. He and my mother, who was Welsh, certainly instilled in me and in my sister a great deal of pride in being Jewish, although the Jewish community did not consider us so. We were apostates in their eyes. They thought of my father as either a traitor or just crazy.

Estess: How aware were you of the ugliness of anti-Semitism in your life? Did you yourself ever feel discriminated against because you were part Jewish?

Levertov: I never felt myself discriminated against, but I surely knew what anti-Semitism is. I used to get into big arguments with people if I sensed some prejudice in their remarks. I remember that when I was about ten I used to lecture my good friend Jean, who was non Jewish, on the subject. (I was always lecturing her about something!)

Estess: How did your father happen to be converted to Christianity?

Levertov: Well, his father, who was an Orthodox rabbi of Hassidic ancestry and also a man of general culture, wanted my father to get a general education as well as a purely Jewish one. So after my father had been to the theological seminary at Valojine, he went at the age of eighteen to the University of Konigsberg, in Prussia. (He couldn't go to the university in Russia at that time, because he was Jewish.) While he was at Konigsberg he read the New Testament and became convinced that Jesus had, in fact, been the Messiah.

Estess: So it was really an intellectual conversion for him?

Levertov: Yes.

Estess: That's a fascinating story, and quite a remarkable personal history. I would like to shift the subject, if I may, to your life after you came to America. Was it during your early years here in this country that you began to have a sense of the political role that an artist can have in society?

Levertov: My sense of the social role that the poet, specifically, can play came gradually, I think. I could not put a date to it, although I would say that the first really political poem that I wrote was about the Eichmann trial, from The Jacob's Ladder.

Estess: Could you characterize how you have changed, or evolved, politically during the last twenty or twenty-five years?

Levertov: Well, during the days of the Korean War, for example, like a lot of other people I was really unaware and unconcerned, I think. You will remember that there was actually no antiwar movement during the Korean War comparable to the one against the war in Vietnam. I shared that apathy, I'm afraid. But I began to participate in antinuclear demonstrations back in New York in the "ban the bomb" period. I was a convinced pacifist for a number of those years. Then I became more and more politically involved with the antiwar movement concerning Vietnam, and I began to feel that being a pacifist was an unbearably smug position to take. I felt self-righteous. I realized that there was a connection between the Vietnamese people who were struggling for self-preservation and between people's struggle for self-determination in all places, and with racism. So I gave up my pacifism at that point and became more revolutionary.

Estess: Would you make your political stances normative for any artist? Do you make judgments against persons who do not choose to live such a public and political life as you do?

Levertov: No. I don't think that one should make that judgment. I feet that if a person is just coldly, cynically unconcerned, that his or her art will suffer from this. But I also think that many people are concerned with the fate of their fellow beings but are just constitutionally not capable of giving their time and energy to activism. I think it would be wrong to judge them; people's own consciences should judge them, not another person.

Estess: You have spoken a great deal about American writers, such as those within the Black Mountain school of poets, who became your friends and who influenced you after you married Mitchell Goodman and moved to the United States. I wonder if you would care to rename any American writers who influenced you other than these.

Levertov: William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.

Estess: You have written more of your being influenced by Williams than you have about Stevens's influence on you. What drew you to Stevens's poetry?

Levertov: Stevens is a very musical poet, and it's really the sensuous aspects of his poetry which I have always liked. I am fascinated with his use of language for its own sake.

Estess: Do you think that perhaps your poems are often like his in this way?

Levertov: I think that there are poems of mine which show Stevens's influence, but influences do not stick out as if they were bumps. You absorb them; you cannot really talk about them directly. I can speak a bit more concretely about Williams's influence on me because certainly, coming from England, as I did, the manner in which he incorporated the rhythms and diction of common speech into his poetry gave me a shot in the arm and a way in which to deal with coming to live in America.

Estess: What caused you to make pilgrimages to see Williams? What was the nature of your visits to his home in Rutherford?

Levertov: I suppose that my first visit to Williams was somewhat of a pilgrimage. I had been reading his work for a few years before I went to see him. I had even written him a letter and had a reply from him two or three years before my first visit. On my first trip I went out to Rutherford on the bus, with either Bob Creeley or Cid Corman, possibly even both. I think that Mitch came too. Then I began going out about twice a year, for some years.

Estess: Would you read your poetry while you were there?

Levertov: Yes. He would ask to read my poetry. And sometimes he would hand me one of his own poems which he wanted to have read to him. When I met him he had already had the first of his series of strokes and it was difficult for him to read to himself. We would talk about poetry, or about people. I always had a marvelous time; but unfortunately, like a fool, I did not make a record of those conversations. They always seemed so vivid in my mind as I left there that I could not imagine I was going to forget them. I do remember that often they would ask me to come out for lunch--or as early in the afternoon as I could make it. I would perhaps get out there about 2:30, and stay until about 6:30 or 7:00.

Estess: Do you think that Williams had the sense that he was fulfilling some mission by helping younger writers?

Levertov: No. He was a most unpompous man; I don't think that he thought of himself as a "missionary" to younger writers. But I do think that he not only enjoyed these occasions but needed them. He wanted the assurance that he was in touch with younger writers and that his ideas about poetry were influencing other poets.

Estess: Did he even ask you your reactions to any part of Paterson? He had completed it by then, right?

Levertov: Not that I can remember . . . no. He had finished most of Paterson but not all of it by this time. But, alas, it's useless to ask me any more specific questions about these visits because unfortunately I just can't remember.

Estess: You have mentioned in another interview that the poets of your generation "owed Pound a great deal." What were some of the things that you owed him?

Levertov: One thing we all owed him was an awareness of the need for precision in poetry, and also an awareness of the dangers of self-indulgent sentimentalism. I really learned more about these things from his criticism than from his poetry. In The ABC of Reading he emphasizes really standing by your word. This became very important to me . . . taking responsibility for the precision of what you say. This seems to me the most basic thing that one can learn from Pound. His poetry is fascinating in some ways too, however. For example, its Cubist influence, and the idea he projects that the relationship of objects changes as you yourself move. Some of Pound's apparently mosaic method combines elements so that you get a new perspective on them. But he brings this about by causing the perceiver to move--to look at things now from here and now from there.

Estess: Would this kind of sensibility be able to effect some kind of "revelation"?

Leverlov: Yes. I think so. But for me revelation in poetry always concerns the movement of the mind as it thinks and feels and does so in language. For a poet, the thinking-feeling process is not merely immediately transposed into language. Rather, it takes place in language. For example, the way that a poem is written on the page is a score for the way that it should be read aloud, and the way that it will be experienced. Such concrete manifestations of perception are crucial aspects of the way that poetry can "reveal." I believe strongly that the line itself is expressive of patterns of seeing. I have never really understood the breath theory that Olson talks about; but I think that line-breaks are determined not just by physiological breathing demands, but by the sequences of your perceptions.

Estess: In regard to the matter of lines and line-breaks being a record of the sequence of perceptions, is this different from "enjambment'?

Levertov: Definitely. When writing in open forms, "enjambment" is irrelevant; although some people don't realize this. Some poets break their lines in places which throw a quite undesired, heavy accent onto a word that commences the next line, for example. But this practice of enjambment in nonmetrical forms is really a useless practice. In tight metrics it provides relief from the monotony of metrical patterns, but when one is writing in nonmetrical forms, then the line takes on a more intense function than it ever did before. So the whole concept of 'enjambment" just gets in the way of the real function of the line.

Estess: Do you think, also, that traditional forms in poetry are largely passe?

Levertov: I think that the kind of closures imposed by traditional forms relate to the sense of life within the periods which gave rise to them. After Einstein, the certainty about the future that people used to have was changed. The universe has turned out to be much less defined than we had thought--with hell below and heaven above--and we obviously live in a time of uncertainty. Forms in poetry, then, have become in my opinion anachronistic. Nevertheless, if an individual's basic sensibility is generally in tune with those kinds of underlying conceptions which gave rise to the form in the first place, a couplet, for instance, or a sonnet, then maybe he or she can use them successfully. But I think that the use of forms in a sort of wishful-wistful way--to give order where we have apparently little of it--is not poetry. I think that we should acknowledge the chaos we live in and deal with it; open forms can allow one to explore chaos and see what can be discovered there.

Estess: In addition to a sense of line-breaks, what else constitutes either a "good ear' or a 'bad ear" for poetry?

Leverlov: There are two ways that I characterize either a good ear or what I term a "tin ear." The first is the sense of line-breaks, that I have discussed. The second is a person's ear for the mimetic in sound. If a poet is deficient in this, he or she does not have a feeling for combining sounds well, noticing the quality of sounds insofar as they are smooth, rough, heavy, or light. These people tend to combine content and sound textures inappropriately. They will use really heavy, thick, dense, sticky sounds when they are dealing with material which is light, airy, or ethereal.

Estess: Can a tin ear be improved?

Levertov: I think that a good ear for poetry, as a good ear for music, is something that one is either endowed with or is not. But a poor ear can be improved by trying--if that person allows himself or herself to listen enough. So many people end up only reading poetry silently. Some poets don't even read aloud to themselves as they write. So poetry remains to many people abstract, deprived of a large measure of its sensuousness.

Estess: Speaking of the auditory sensuousness of poetry, I would like to tell you that I think that you are one of the best readers of poetry that I have ever heard. It seems to me that you have wonderful breath control. It is almost as if you were trained as a singer. I notice that when you read you inhale and then exhale slightly before you begin to speak. It's as if the inhalation gathers energy, and then as you begin to exhale you build up to a momentum which enables you to sound the words effectively. Is this process conscious with you?

Levertov: No. I don't think that the process itself is conscious. I think that this habit probably comes from having been reared in a family that had a certain tradition of being eloquent, of being able to speak in public. I grew up hearing my mother read prose aloud, and read it extremely well. When my son was little I read aloud to him a great deal and loved it. And I have a strong voice . . . that helps.

Estess: Isn't it true, then, that you might read another poet's poems in a more animated manner, perhaps a quite different manner, than that person would read them? Is this fair to the other poet?

Levertov: I regard the way that the poem is written on the page as a notation, and one should be able to follow the score and come out with a pretty close approximation of the way it is intended to be read. Some poets, though, have the ability to write beautiful scores but not to play them. It is as if they don't have the confidence to do the performance properly. Many poets are just really bad at reading their or anyone's poems.

Estess: To get back to your own writing, you have said that in composing poems you do not begin until you have an entire line, or at least a phrase, perhaps a rhythm, in mind. You say that you do not start to write when you just have a vague feeling about something you might want to say or write about. In other words, you don't push. You wait until a line or a phrase crystallizes in your head, or your car. How would you teach students to cultivate this process of waiting, and knowing when to begin to write and when not to begin?

Levertov: Well, it's certainly a hard thing to try to teach if a person has not experienced it. But one way that I try to teach that process, which I think is extremely important, is that when a student has a poem that has been discussed in a workshop, and it has become clear that revision, more work, is necessary, or that a certain word or words are just not the right ones, I tell them: do not try to search for the nearest synonym. I try to encourage them, rather, to return their attention to the experience which gave rise to the poem, to revisualize what they then saw, to refeel what they then felt. In other words, to go back to the source of the poem.

Estess: This is really sort of beginning again, isn't it?

Levertov: Yes. And if they can learn to revise in this way, then I think it teaches them something about that necessary waiting for crystallization. It teaches them to reattempt to unearth the experience.

Estess: Sometimes if the student has typed this poem already, does it help them to go back to handwriting when they begin to revise in this manner, in order to go back to the original experience?

Levertov: Yes. But whether or not they do this, I try to instill in them the idea of not trying to "patch up" what already exists, if they think that it isn't quite right. They do better when they ignore their draft, and return to the source. I encourage them to explore what they see when they go back. I ask them, "What do you see when you return to this experience in your memory and imagination?" I encourage them to recall it, recollect it.

Estess: What if a student comes to you, though, and says "I haven't begun to write the poem yet, but I have had this experience that I want to write about. How do I begin?"

Levertov: I would say something like "Go on thinking about it. Go on feeling it. But begin to write only when the words themselves begin to come."

Estess: You have said that writing poetry in "organic form" arises out of faithful attention to the object, and yet that it is really a presence of "the unexpected," or "the muse," which transforms that attention into poetry. You have referred to this process as a kind of "alchemy." Could you comment further on how this unpredictable "x" factor may come about?

Levertov: It is the reward that sometimes happens from having paid careful and faithful attention. If you do not give the experience your patient attention, you may be working solely by will and intelligence, and then you have to manipulate the experience. If you are very skillful, you may do some good things this way; but they are relatively superficial. But if you give to your material a kind of humble devotion, or attention, you will, if you have got any native talent to help you along, be given a good deal. And if you persist, then sometimes you are given the poet's special reward of the absolutely unpredictable. No amount of faithful attention can guarantee this, but sometimes you may be whirled right off your feet and taken into some areas of experience which you had never considered possible. This, indeed, is a gift. You cannot will it to happen. But you can place yourself in a relationship to your art to be able to receive it if it should happen; this relationship is faithful attention.

Estess: Do you feel that when you are given this gift that you have had a "religious" experience, or do you shy away from that term?

Levertov: No, I don't object to the word religious, although it is hard to use the word without getting into some kind of definition of it. But I would say that for me writing poetry, receiving it, is a religious experience. At least if one means by this that it is experiencing something that is deeper, different from, anything that your own thought and intelligence can experience in themselves. Writing itself can be a religious act, if one allows oneself to be put at its service. I don't mean to make a religion of poetry, no. But certainly we can assume what poetry is not--it is definitely not just an anthropocentric act.

Estess: Before we conclude this interview, I would like to ask you how real you think that the apparent revival of poetry in America is?

Levertov: The proliferation of little magazines, the publication of many books of poems, and the sales of some books of poems prove that there is some kind of renaissance going on. But even though there are more people reading poetry today than there were, say, thirty years ago, the number of people who read poetry is still small in relation to the total population. There are a lot more people who write poetry, too, than who read it, since some people are only interested in "self-expression," which of course is not art.

Estess: Speaking of self-expression, would you care to define what the term "confessional poetry" means to you. Do you consider yourself a confessional poet?

Levertov: Confessional poetry to me means not just poetry with autobiographical elements clearly present in it but poetry which utilizes the poem as a place in which to confess parts of one's life which are troublesome--the kinds of things which require the act of confession. Although I write many poems of a personal nature, I don't consider myself a confessional writer in these terms.

Estess: You said in another interview that confessional poetry is "a poetry that isn't interested in sound or philosophical ideas, or in images as such, but in psychology. . . ." I wonder if it is possible to have good poetry which is interested only in psychology?

Levertov: No. I don't think that a lot of confessional poetry is good poetry. Sometimes poets writing in confessional modes are gifted poets, if their language instinct is good. But I think that this is the exception rather than the rule. As I understand it, the confessional poem has as its motivational force the desire to unburden the poet of something which he or she finds oppressive. But the danger here is reducing a work of art simply into a process of excretion. A poem is not vomit! It is not even tears. It is something very different from a bodily purge.

Estess: Does confession imply guilt? If a woman, say, writes a "confessional" poem about having had an abortion, for instance, would that not imply that she has some predisposition against abortion? Why else would she have to "confess" the abortion?

Levertov: A poem about an abortion could be confessional without being about guilt. It could simply be about pain. Or it could be exhibitionistic, since sometimes the impulse to tell the world about one's private life includes exhibitionism. On the other hand, a woman might write a poem about abortion from a highly ideological point of view; she could want to tell the world what it's like to undergo this. There are many different ways that one might write such a poem, none of which would involve guilt.

Estess: But would most of these really be confessional in the way we use the term for much of contemporary poetry?

Levertov: It's a very subtle, tricky point, really. Does the way in which confessional" is used today imply guilt? I tend to think that it doesn't have to. It can just be the need to get something off your chest. Confessional in this sense is just telling a personal story and feeling better for having told it. But it could be true that when this becomes exhibitionistic, then guilt is involved. I don't know about what psychologists would say about this.

Estess: Do you think that the best confessional poetry is that which creates a myth of the self, and thus universalizes the experience. Lowell's poetry, for instance?

Levertov: Yes. Then confessional poetry transcends the merely self-therapeutic; it attains some kind of universality. And I should conclude this topic by emphasizing that what I object to most in some so-called confessional poetry is that the impulse for the works is so exclusively related to the need for the poets to unburden themselves that the aesthetic is disregarded.

Estess: I wonder if you find that writing poems is particularly painful?

Levertov: Dealing with pain is not a primary function of poetry for me; that's why I say that I am not "confessional." The act of writing poetry is, to me, extremely pleasurable. I think that the whole myth of the sufferings of the poet is vanity--vanity in the biblical sense even. The sufferings of the poet are no greater than those of any other person. Perhaps some people who are poets may be said to be more aware of some things than a lot of people are, and in that awareness they may suffer a little more than average. But I think that there are so many other people who are just as sensitive but who don't have anything creative to do with their sensitivity. Since they have not found a way to incorporate their sensitivity into action, they actually suffer a great deal more than anyone who is able to create out of sensitivity.

Estess: My question concerning pain involves, partly, just what you brought up: the sense that people do suffer according to their level of consciousness, of sensitivity. Especially sensitivity concerning their own self consciousness. The question sometimes becomes "how much sensitivity or self-consciousness can one stand?" Obviously poets such as Sylvia Plath and John Berryman felt that they could not stand any more.

Levertov: Yes. But it was not as poets that they suffered. It was as individuals who happened to have a very low threshold of suffering, of pain, that they despaired. One can say that if they had not been poets they would have suffered just as much--or more. Yes, more. And they might not have lasted as long as they did.

Estess: Berryman remarked in the last interview that he granted, published in the Paris Review, that he wanted to be pushed to suffer. He wanted God, as he said, to push him toward suffering in order to be able to write. His words were, "My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal that will not kill him. I think that what happens to my poetic work in the future will depend upon being knocked in the face, thrown flat, given cancer, or other things of that kind. I hope to be nearly crucified." What would you remark about such an attitude?

Levertov: I would remark that there do exist in the world masochists, and that some masochists happen to be poets. It has nothing to do with the nature of the poet per se.

Estess: In what direction was Sylvia Plath developing when she died? We tend to think of her as a confessional poet.

Levertov: I think that she was fantastically gifted in her images; she was indeed an inspired image-maker. This saved her poems from being just therapeutic.

Estess: How much is sheer loneliness and isolation essential for the artist, if not pain?

Levertov: Loneliness is different from solitude. I think that solitude is essential, in varying degrees, for any artist. I happen to need a lot of it. And since I lead a very busy life, and am also quite sociable, I really enjoy living alone now that I do so. Because if I did not live alone, I would have an inadequate degree of solitude.

Estess: Did you have an inadequate degree when you were married?

Levertov: Well, sometimes. But I was married for twenty-five years, and I expect that most of that time I needed to be. I have no regrets about that part of my life, and I don't think that writing and coordinating family life was all that difficult to do, as some people say it is. But people change; their needs become different. . . .

Estess: You have said in an essay entitled "A Sense of Pilgrimage," which you incorporated into The Poet in the World, that you consider your own life myth as that of a pilgrim or voyager. Does such a sense of your exploratory life path have within it loneliness, or merely solitude?

Levertov: Both. Pilgrims go through trials and tribulations; that is part of pilgrimage, isn't it? Even in fairy tales, there are always all sorts of dragons and dark woods to be encountered on one's way to where one is finally going.

Estess: Is there any specific myth that you would use to characterize where you are now in your life?

Levertov: Ah, where am I in my life. . . . Well I am certainly in a different time period from the one I was in, say, four years ago. Perhaps it began with buying my house, or perhaps it began with deciding to, definitively deciding to, end my marriage. I am not at all sure where to put the beginnings of it. But I know that I am in a phase of life which has to do with living alone, and with having a lot of freedom. All of my decisions now have to be my own decisions. I alone decide whom to see, whom to love, whom to spend time with, what time to get up, what time to eat. Of course I realize that many decisions which one thinks one is making are actually already made for one by life itself.

But in any case, I am sure that there must be a myth which is about a person having come to a new country or a new mode of living. There is always a myth to express practically anything--all phases of life, all attitudes, all stances; so I would bet that if I really searched among the world's literature I could find one. But I haven't got one to present you with, though it is an interesting thought.

Reprinted from American Poetry Observed: Poets on Their Work. Ed. Joe David Bellamy.
Copyright © 1984 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.



by Nicholas O'Connell
Poets & Writers Magazine -- May/June 1998

Denise Levertov, who died on December 20, 1997, was much loved by her readers and an inspiration to several generations of poets. She forged a middle path in modern poetry, marrying the hard, dry objective style of the Imagist poets with the music and metaphysical yearnings of figures such as T.S. Eliot. Like her mentor, William Carlos Williams, Levertov excelled at the direct presentation of the object, and yet she went further, endowing such objects with rich metaphorical significance. Born in England, she emigrated to America with her husband after World War II, and spent the last years of her life in Seattle, Washington, near one of her most profound influences, Mt. Rainier.
During her lifetime, Levertov published more than 20 books of poetry as well as translations and essays. Her most recent publications are The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature and The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, both published by New Directions in 1997.
The following interview was conducted on October 27, 1997, at Levertov's home, a cozy brick house in the Seward Park neighborhood of Seattle. Levertov still retained British mannerisms--a soft English accent, a humorous, conspiratorial tone, and a preference for Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar, which she served throughout our talk.

O'Connell: When did you first start writing poems?

Levertov: As a small child.

Why did you write them?

I had the impulse to do so.

You never asked why?


Were you good at it?

I was secretive about it, actually. From a very early age, I knew that I was going to write poetry. I also thought I was going to be a painter and I spent several years studying ballet. But when you have a real vocation, a lot of the other things fall by the wayside and you're left with the main thing.

How did you learn your craft?

By writing and a lot of reading.

Did you have teachers?

No. I hardly even went to school. I did lessons at home with my mother. I didn't attend school ever, except ballet school.

How did that influence your approach to poetry?

I think it was beneficial. With my particular abilities, I was very fortunate. I never had to read anything I didn't want to read, or write anything I didn't feel like writing. Of course I came from a very literate and somewhat literary background. I grew up in a house full of books where everybody read. That's how evenings were spent by the family. It was like a Victorian childhood.
We were not an English family. My parents had lived in so many places, and the people who visited us were from all over Europe.
My father was a Hassidic Jew, who had a very pious ancestry. He had converted to Christianity while at the university in Germany. By the time I was born he had settled in England and become an Anglican parson. He was a very well known preacher and scholar but was looked at askance, because if you weren't Oxford and Cambridge and Eton and Harrow, they didn't know what to make of you. So I had the feeling of being European, although I adore the English countryside and English literature.

When did you first start publishing your work?

The first poem I published was written when I was sixteen. My first book, The Double Image [1946], was written between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one. It came out when I was twenty-two. That was published in England before I came over here.

Was William Carlos Williams an important early influence?

When I was a greenhorn in America trying to come to grips with my new situation in life, his influence was very immediate and imitative. You can see it in some of those early poems. It's very clear. It sticks out.
He was very fond of me and amazed that someone who understood what he was talking about and writing in ways that he approved of would come out of England. He was pretty anti-English.
I first read Williams in a bookstore in Paris. My late ex-husband and I were living there then. I started reading him and Stevens around that time.

What did you find attractive about his work?

After I got over here, I suffered from undiagnosed culture shock. The rhythm of people's walk, speech, and everything was entirely different. We'd been living a student life in Paris, staying in pensions, with parents, and not living a regular married life. Then we came over here. Suddenly I was pregnant. I had to learn how to buy groceries on a shoestring and things like that.
Williams was a sort of gateway into my own development as a poet. He opened up a new way of handling language. His essays and ideas were important and influential for me too. And when I got to know him, he became a wonderful friend.

Did you feel an equal pull in the direction of T.S. Eliot?

I had grown up with T.S. Eliot as an important figure and started reading him at a somewhat precocious age. I was influenced by him by osmosis. Growing up, we thought of him as an English poet, just as we thought of Henry James as an English novelist. It's amazing to look back on. At that time, there were very different ideas about literature in England and America. But after I got to know Williams's work, I really went off Eliot, because he comes to a slump at the end of every line. It's only in recent years that I've been able to appreciate Eliot again.

Do you choose the subjects of your poetry, or do they choose you?

There's very little strictly deliberate about anything I do.

Did you approach the subject of Mt. Rainier deliberately?

No, I came to live here and there it was. I keep on writing poems about it. I've taken a vow not to desecrate it by going up there. People should stop trampling all over it, leaving their garbage behind, and necessitating the placing of comfort stations around so-called wilderness. They should let wilderness revert to being wilderness.

How do your poems about Mt. Rainier start?

When it's out, I can see it from my work room and my kitchen window. I usually take paper and pencil in my pocket when I go down to the park. Often something starts as I'm walking around there.

An idea or a line?

A line. Sometimes more than a line. Sometimes a whole draft.

How do you get the second draft?

Well, it depends. I might see that the punctuation isn't right, or the line break isn't quite right, or I may want to add or subtract something. If you copy something out by hand, before you move onto the typewriter, you've already gone on making minor changes. This is an intuitive part of the creative process, and one that's eliminated by the use of word processors. People get such a completed-looking copy that they think the poem is done. The word processor doesn't take as much time as actually forming the letters with your hand at the end of your arm which is attached to your body. It's a different kind of thing. They don't realize that this laborious process is part of the creative process.

Do you consciously examine the imagery as you're putting a poem together?

No. I've been writing poetry for many, many decades. In talking about the process, I'm almost obliged to say, "First you do this. Then you do that. Then you stand back. Then you do that." But these things overlap and flow into each other. One has to use that linear description of a process that is actually much less linear, much more intuitive, doubling back on itself. But it's only for convenience sake that one has to talk about them as a sequence of discreet events, because they really aren't.

How about the sound of the poem? How do you work that out?

One has to have a good ear, but you also have to read what you're working on aloud. Even if you have a good inner ear there are certain awkwardnesses that only become apparent when you speak out loud. At some stage, you have to at least mutter to yourself. When I'm writing it out, I do a lot of muttering.

In the essay "Some Notes on Organic Form," you talk about finding a form that grows out of an experience. Is that what you try to do in each poem?

Yes, it's discovery, being attentive to the form that emerges. Critics always talk in such a deliberate way as if poets write with the same methodology that people write criticism. One doesn't write poetry that way, or fiction.

Some poems come into being and don't need revising. They emerge out of nowhere. You have to recognize they are complete and not mess around with them. This certainly doesn't happen with every poem. But you would be mistaken to suppose that every poem has to go through many revisions. You're bound to develop some craft confidence in all this after you've been doing it for a while.

Does your emphasis on a metaphysical dimension in poetry distinguish your work from that of William Carlos Williams?

There is more of such a dimension in his poetry than many readers and critics have noticed. They get stuck on that damned red wheelbarrow and those stupid plums and they never look any further.

In the essay "Some Affinities of Content," you spoke about how you responded to the goal of Northwest poets to submerge themselves in something larger than individual ego, in their case, nature. Do you try the same approach in your poetry?

I hope I do. I'm certainly very tired of the me, me, me kind of poem, the Sharon Olds "Find the dirt and dig it up" poem, which has influenced people to find gruesome episodes in their life, whether they actually happened or not. Back when Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were the models for neophytes, you had to have spent some time in a mental hospital to qualify as a poet. Now you have to have been abused. I know perfectly well that lots of people really have been abused, but it's unfortunate to use the fact of abuse as the passport to being a poet. I'm certainly tired of that kind of egotism.

Does this desire to submerge the ego involve a kind of spiritual quest, whether explicitly religious or not?

I think that's true, don't you? It's in the air. When I started writing explicitly Christian poems, I thought I'd lose part of my readership. But I haven't actually. I think interest in religion is a counterforce to the insane, rationalist optimism that surrounds the development of all this new technology. This optimism is a twentieth-century repeat of attitudes in the nineteenth century, when they thought that steam, electricity, and telephones were going to make for some kind of utopia. There's a lot of dependence on technology today, and a willful ignorance that it's messing up resources, may end up destroying life on this planet, and then we'll have to start over without it. Our ethical development does not match our technological development. This sense of spiritual hunger is something of a counterforce or unconscious reaction to all that technological euphoria.

Did your understanding of poetic inspiration help to imagine what it would be like to have religious faith?

That's one way of putting it. When you're really caught up in writing a poem, it can be a form of prayer. I'm not very good at praying, but what I experience when I'm writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer.

Is prayer similar to poetic inspiration, in that you can't force it, but simply must wait and hope for it?

But you do have to focus your attention. I was really amazed at how close the exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola were to a poet or novelist imagining a scene. You focus your attention on some particular aspect of the life of Christ. You try to compose that scene in your imagination, place yourself there. If it's the Via Dolorosa, you have to ask yourself, are you one of the disciples? Are you a passerby? Are you a spectator that likes to watch from the side, the way people used to watch hangings? You establish who you are and where you stand and then you look at what you see. -

Nicholas O'Connell is the author of At the Field's End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (University of Washington Press, 1998) from which this interview is excerpted.