Denise Levertov on Making Art Amid Chaos and the Artist’s Task to Awaken Society’s Sleepers
“I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”
By Maria Popova
“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” James Baldwin wrote in his sublime 1962 meditation on the artist’s struggle, just as John F. Kennedy was preparing to address poetry, power, and the artist’s role in society in what would become one of the most poetic and powerful speeches ever delivered.
Two years earlier, the great poet Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997) was asked to contribute a statement on the power and responsibility of poetry for The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 — an influential anthology by Donald Allen, which shone the beam of mainstream attention upon such beloved writers as Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, and Levertov herself. Of the fifteen poets who contributed statements on poetics for the volume — including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Levertov was the only woman.
Her piece, posthumously cited and discussed in Dana Greene’s excellent biography, Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life (public library), is part personal credo, part cultural manifesto, sophisticated yet precise, speaking at once to poetry, to all art, and to society itself.
I discovered Levertov’s original typescript for her “statement on poetics” during a recent visit to the Academy of American Poets archive — the unmined trove in which I previously found the story of E.E. Cummings and the artist’s right to challenge the status quo, Thom Gunn’s reading list of ten essential books to enchant young minds with poetry, and the extraordinary letter defending Amiri Baraka against racial injustice (which Levertov co-signed alongside fifteen more of the era’s most prominent poets).
Two years before James Baldwin asserted that poets are “the only people who know the truth about us,” Levertov writes:
I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays.
But they are also makers, craftsmen: It is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are “members one of another.”
I believe every space and every comma is a living part of the poem and has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem’s life.
I believe content determines form, and yet that content is discovered only in form. Like everything living, it is a mystery. The revelation of form itself can be a deep joy; yet I think form as means should never obtrude, whether from intention or carelessness, between the reader and the essential force of the poem, it must be so focused with that force.
In a passage of timeless sagacity, and one which transcends poetry to apply to art in the largest possible sense and its function in human life, Levertov speaks to the particularly challenging though not uncommon predicament of making art in violent and disorienting times. Echoing William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech assertion that it is the poet’s and the artist’s duty “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” she writes:
I do not believe that a violent imitation of the horrors of our times is the concern of poetry. Horrors are taken for granted. Disorder is ordinary. People in general take more and more “in their stride” — the hides grow thicker. I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.
Complement with Levertov on how great works of art are born, these wonderful illustrations of six rare Levertov recordings, and Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry, then join me in supporting the Academy of American Poets with a donation to ensure the survival of the timeless treasures kept in their archive and their ongoing mission of ennobling public life with the power of poetry.
Published January 5, 2017