Saturday, August 18, 2012

Denise Levertov and the need for political poetry

A poetry of anguish, a poetry of anger, of rage, a poetry that, from literal or deeply imagined experience, depicts and denounces perennial injustice and cruelty in their current forms, and in our peculiar time warns of the unprecedented perils that confront us, can be truly a high poetry, as well wrought as any other.
Denise Levertov

We humans cannot absorb the bitter truths of our own history, the revelation of our destructive potential, except through the mediation of art (the manifestation of our other, our constructive, potential). Presented raw, the facts are rejected: perhaps not by the intellect, which accommodates them as statistics, but by the emotions—which hold the key to conscience and resolve.
Denise Levertov 

Denise Levertov (1923-1997) was a British born American poet whose poetry always moves with ease between private experience and larger political events.

As a poet and citizen Levertov was mobilised by the political events of the 60's and 70's , particularly the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War figures prominently in her poetry, most notably her 1967 collection Sorrow Dance, which is full of poems of outrage against the Vietnam War.

Levertov was well aware of the dangers and limits of "political poetry" which can become overly didactic and polemical. Her work demonstrates that an engaged political poem can disturb us, while more contemplative poems can also serve political ends by pointing us towards a vision for living that leads towards compassion, peace and justice and ultimately to meaningful social change.

A Women meets an Old Lover
Denise Levertov

He with whom I ran hand in hand
kicking the leathery leaves down Oak Hill Path
thirty years ago

appeared before me with anxious face, pale,
almost unrecognized, hesitant,

He whom I cannot remember laughing out loud
but see in mind's eye smiling self approving,
wept on my shoulder

He who seemed always
to take and not give, who took me
so long to forget,

remembered everything I had so long forgotten,

Denise Levertov

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountains
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day, to reconfirm
that witnessing prescence.

Dedicated to the memory of Karen Silkwood and Eliot Gralla

“From too much love of living,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea—“
But we have only begun
To love the earth.

We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
—so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
—we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.

No comments: