Was da bomb, I should say; she died in 1997. That was a bad year for poetry. We lost William Matthews that year as well. (And Larry Levis died in 1996.)
“The Poet in the World” has been one of the most satisfying reads I’ve had in quite a while. I’ve always enjoyed “Some Notes on Organic Form,” which is perhaps her most well known essay, and whenever I teach I assign her essay on line breaks (“On the Function of the Line”), which I believe is one of the more cogent formations of contemporary lineation strategies. I have no idea why it’s taken me so long to read the rest of her essays.
I believe I am enjoying them due to my own recent (past 5 years) poetry endeavors: I adhere to a kind of rigid poetics, and due to my volunteering workshopping time, I spend a good deal of energy re-articulating those poetics (ad nauseam) and in general trying to lead horses to water. So it’s immensely refreshing to read someone who is coming, much more so more than less, from the same angle, someone who does not argue the outliers and miss, so the cliché goes, the forest for the trees.
For example, I cannot say how many wearying times I have attempted to subtly slip the following into some student’s skull. (From “Notebook Pages,” all italics hers.)
2. Note to a student: What you have been showing me is a kind of poetry, the poetry of ideas (as one says the poetry of motion). It does not discover itself in words, in sound patterns, in actual verbal textures; it is language-oriented insofar as it is probably not possible to dis-sociate philosophic thought from language (though the physicist and mathematician and musician – and painter and architect—do think nonverbally). If you had an adequate language of symbols (in the sense of signs, referentials) at your disposal, you could define/express, these ideas in it as well (better) than you can in poems. The material of a poem must need to be a poem, not something else (an essay, a story, or whatever.) “The material of a poem is only that material after the poem has been made,” says T.S. Eliot (in his introduction to the Selected Writings of Paul Valery)—which is perhaps the same thing inside out, as it were. Your notes [to which the Scoplaw appends, “explanations”] are often more interesting than the poem itself, which seems mere shorthand notes for the notes. You must get the material into the poem, making the explanatory notes unnecessary. Or else, you must recognize that certain material does not really depend on language, not, that’s to say, on the full resources of language (as those resources are manifested in poems)—but only on a kind of utilitarian recourse to language faute de mieux, as signs representing ideas; in which case you should be prepared to write prose, and learn to write a prose as transparent, as unobtrusive, as you can, a pure medium for the ideas. What I've been saying might be mistaken for a statement of belief that there are poetic and nonpoetic "subjects.” No, I don't mean that. It is not the subject, ever, in itself’ it is the way the individual responds, relates, to it. When I speak of the material “wanting to be” a poem or an essay or a story, or whatever (or an equation), I mean the total material—i.e., the “subject” plus the perception of it. One has to learn to recognize the tendency, the pull, of this conjunction, this inscape.
I believe Levertov is articulating one of the most difficult things to “teach” in creative writing (sadly, it’s also one of the most difficult things for non-writers to lean – this often unfortunately includes reviewers, professors, and editors): that a poem is Sound AND Sense, Form AND Idea, and that in a well-made poem each and every syllable, each and every phoneme, pulls “double duty” as it contributes to a sonic pattern and an ideational pattern (or thematic pattern, or narrative, if you prefer). The poem must, like our experience in the world, be at once abstract and concrete – it must faithfully present the sensorial world of ducks and dander, while at the same time inviting the abstractions of delicacies and danger. Also, most difficutly, the poem must harness or yoke the one to the other – the sonic patterning must reinforce the themes of the poem, and the themes of the poem, the ideas they present, must ground themselves into the sonic pattern.
In other words – it ain’t just about your sensitive creativity dude.
I think that the current generation of adult Americans have had their love of poetry mostly beaten out of them by the secondary educational system. Sadly, the collegiate system’s approach is little better. Both often focus on “the ideas” or “what the poet was trying to say” rather than the poem itself. As if the poem itself were discardable – a crossword to be solved or a cipher to be interpreted. The gorgeous and necessary play of language is often lost in the silence of the mind - and the language that mind subsequently produces is, sadly, flat and often dead.
Well, enough of that.
Here’s a Levertov poem from 1992. It's a deeply political poem - but notice how the form, the sounds, reflect and enhance the themes, how the pacing dictates the emotional inflection. (You have to read it aloud to notice this. Trust me, I'm a professional, I read aloud.) It's great to pick up on such clever things as "bushes" but it's not just an isolated data point - it's integral. Pens beget puns, what I can I say?
In California During the Gulf War
Among the blight-killed eucalypts, among
trees and bushes rusted by Christmas frosts,
the yards and hillsides exhausted by five years of drought,
certain airy white blossoms punctually
reappeared, and dense clusters of pale pink, dark pink--
a delicate abundance. They seemed
like guests arriving joyfully on the accustomed
festival day, unaware of the year's events, not perceiving
the sackcloth others were wearing.
To some of us, the dejected landscape consorted well
with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,
daily sunshine, disgusted us like smile-buttons.
Yet the blossoms, clinging to thin branches
more lightly than birds alert for flight,
lifted the sunken heart
even against its will.
as symbols of hope: they were flimsy
as our resistance to the crimes committed
--again, again--in our name; and yes, they return,
year after year, and yes, they briefly shone with serene joy
over against the dark glare
of evil days. They are, and their presence
is quietness ineffable--and the bombings are, were,
no doubt will be; that quiet, that huge cacophany
simultaneous. No promise was being accorded, the blossoms
were not doves, there was no rainbow. And when it was claimed
the war had ended, it had not ended.