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The Midwifery of Creativity: Denise Levertov on How Great Works of Art Are Born

“Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.”

Few things gladden the heart, at least this heart, more than the immortal evidence of great friendships between artists — that mostly invisible scaffolding of goodwill and kinship of spirit upon which creative culture is built and without which the heavy lonesomeness of the creative life would crush the artist. An encouraging word from a friend or mentor can work, and has worked, wonders for the creative spirit — there is ample evidence in the epistolary friendship of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, young James Joyce’s correspondence with Ibsen, Mark Twain’s emboldening exchange with Helen Keller, Emerson’s career-making letter to Walt Whitman, and Frida Kahlo’s beam of compassion to Georgia O’Keeffe.

Among the most beautiful of these spiritually sustaining friendships is that between the poets Robert Duncan (January 7, 1919–February 3, 1988) and Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997). It began with a fan letter Duncan sent to Levertov in May of 1953 and continued for more than a quarter century, over the course of which they exchanged nearly 500 letters, now collected in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (public library) — a formidable 800-page tome containing these two literary titans’ views on life, love, poetry, politics, family, fame, and the intricate machinery of creativity.

In one of the longest and most revelatory letters in the volume, penned between October 25 and November 2 of 1971, 48-year-old Levertov articulates her most fundamental creative credos more directly than in any of her public writings.

She considers what lends a poem — and any great works of art — its power:

I have always had a strong preference for works of art in which the artist was driven by a need to speak (in whatever medium) of what deeply stirred him — whether in blame or in praise. I’d sooner read Dubliners than Finnegans Wake. Beckett bores me. Most of Gertrude Stein bores me — she’s nice for tea but I wouldn’t want her for my dinner. I love George Eliot…

I should qualify the “deep stirring” I mean: I prefer … works where need to speak (in whatever medium was theirs) arose from experiences not of a technical nature but of a kind which people unconnected with that medium also shared (potentially anyway).

Illustrating this with an example that calls to mind Amanda Palmer’s assertion that “you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected,” Levertov writes:

A sculpture inspired by the potential of the piece of wood it is carved out of might move me by its beauty of proportion, texture, decorative qualities etc. but usually not as much as one behind which one can feel some other human experience, to which the artist-craftsman’s feeling for the wood contributes, so that the emerging inscape (the revealed inscape) is of the conjoining of some other life experience with the present experience of the wood, the material. Each grasped, revealed, by way of the other.

Elsewhere in the lengthy letter, she captures another aspect of this mutuality:

One can anyway only be shown something one knows already, needs already. Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.

Illustration by Ohara Hale for six rare recordings of Levertov reading her poetry. Click image to see more and listen.

But this “deep stirring” quality of great art, Levertov cautions, doesn’t arise from the rational appeal of the work’s subject matter, or what it is currently fashionable to call its “content” — a term I’ve long despised for implying the vacant filler of an unfeeling form. Rather, she argues in one of the most beguiling descriptions of the creative impulse, it comes from the artist’s sincere and insurmountable desire — need, even — to externalize a mysteriously moving interior experience, a private event of the psyche, into a public work of art:

I do not at all have a sense of luring anyone into the poetic by catching hold of them through my subject matter. The idea appalls me in fact. Some events — whether a tree in a certain light, a Mexican family looking at the movie stills outside the cinema, a dream, my own condition of being in or out of love, of some epiphany relating to husband, child, friend, cat or dog, street or painting, cloud or stone, a book read, a story heard, a life thought about, a demonstration lived through, a situation, historical and/or topical, (that’s to say known in the moment of its passing into history) — it doesn’t matter, the list is endless, but some events (selected by some interior mysterious process out of all the other minutes and hours of my life) begin to form themselves in my understanding as phrases, images, rhythms of language, demand to be further formed, demand midwifery is one way to put it. Not all that one feels most strongly makes this verbal demand, even if one is a poet — by poet here I mean prose writer too — … but whatever experiences do demand it are always strongly felt ones. That is my testimony.

She seals the sentiment with one final stab at the vanity of vacant form:

I understand that for some people something like problem-solving is in itself a stimulus — e.g. the challenge of how to tell a story as a poem, not prose, without sounding archaic or stilted, might stimulate someone to make up a story to see if it could be done. But I myself would never be interested unless I first had a story to tell.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov with T.S. Eliot on the mystical quality of creativity and Jeanette Winterson on what grants great art its power, then revisit these wonderful archival recordings of Levertov reading her poetry.

Published June 2, 2015




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