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To the Reader -- Denise Levertov

(Poem #201) To the Reader
 As you read, a white bear leisurely
 pees, dyeing the snow

 and as you read, many gods
 lie among lianas: eyes of obsidian
 are watching the generations of leaves,

 and as you read
 the sea is turning its dark pages,
 its dark pages.
-- Denise Levertov
             (1923 - 1997)

Quoting a bit from the biography:

   Early in her career, Levertov became associated with the poets of the
   Black Mountain school, and she credited the spare, clear, objective
   work of the poet William Carlos Williams with helping her develop her
   own vital American style of composition. She tended to avoid the use
   of metaphor and allusion, preferring instead the direct and immediate
   description of objects, perceptions, and feelings in the rhythms of
   ordinary speech.

This is by no means an easy style to master - consider how devoid it is of
all the things one tends to associate with poetry; the aforementioned
metaphor and allusion, rhyme, metre, and, in general, 'poetic' language. And
yet this is  by no means 'prose with interesting line breaks'. The images are
carefully chosen and evocative, and the very economy of words indicates the
care with which each one is selected.

Focusing on today's poem, note the way the structure is built up on several
levels. The dominant images towards the start are the soothingly reinforced
of the white bear and the snow. The 'pees, dyeing' enters as a background
note, until it suddenly splashes[1] into prominence with the highly
contrastive 'saffron'.

The second verse adds a whole new level of contrast, with the sudden,
radical scene change to images of jungles and buried gods. ('Generations of
leaves' is, incidentally, an absolutely lovely image IMHO.) And then, in the
final verse, the 'as you read', hitherto merely a narrative device of sorts,
springs in its turn into focus, as it is reflected in the sea's 'turning

And finally there are lots of nice effects provided by the repetition of the
last line, but they're not too hard to see so I won't bother pointing them

[1] sorry!
[2] well, maybe one or two metaphors
[3] one of them, for instance, is the reinforcing of the present-continuous
    tense of the poem


  Levertov, Denise

   b. Oct. 24, 1923, Ilford, Essex, Eng.
   d. Dec. 20, 1997, Seattle, Wash., U.S.

   English-born American poet, essayist, and political activist who wrote
   deceptively matter-of-fact verse on both personal and political themes.

   Levertov's father was an immigrant Russian Jew who converted to
   Christianity, married a Welsh woman, and became an Anglican clergyman.
   Educated entirely at home, Levertov became a civilian nurse during
   World War II, serving in London throughout the bombings. Her first
   volume of verse, The Double Image (1946), was not very successful. She
   married the American writer Mitchell Goodman in 1947, moved with him
   to the United States in 1948, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in

   Early in her career, Levertov became associated with the poets of the
   Black Mountain school, and she credited the spare, clear, objective
   work of the poet William Carlos Williams with helping her develop her
   own vital American style of composition. She tended to avoid the use
   of metaphor and allusion, preferring instead the direct and immediate
   description of objects, perceptions, and feelings in the rhythms of
   ordinary speech.

   Levertov's first important poetry collection, Here and Now (1957), was
   followed by Overland to the Islands (1958), With Eyes at the Back of
   Our Heads (1959), and several others. She opposed American involvement
   in the Vietnam War and was active in the War Resisters League, for
   whom she edited the collection Out of the War Shadow (1967). One of
   her finest volumes of poems, The Sorrow Dance (1967), reflects her
   opposition to the war, while The Freeing of the Dust (1975) alternates
   antiwar poems with confessional poems about her personal life. Her
   subsequent volumes show a sympathy with Third World cultures and an
   involvement with feminism.

   Levertov's later efforts included essays and prose, as in The Poet in
   the World (1973), and the verse collections Candles in Babylon (1982)
   and Breathing the Water (1987). She taught at Stanford University from
   1981 to 1994.

        -- EB

And a bit on the Black Mountain school...

   By the mid-1950s, however, a strong reaction developed. Poets began to
   turn away from Eliot and metaphysical poetry to more romantic or more
   prosaic models, including Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Hart
   Crane, and D.H. Lawrence. A group of poets associated with Black
   Mountain College in western North Carolina, as, for example, Charles
   Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, and Denise Levertov,
   treated the poem as an unfolding process rather than a containing form.
   Olson's Maximus Poems (1953-68) show a clear affinity with the jagged
   line and uneven flow of Pound's Cantos and Williams's Paterson. Allen
   Ginsberg's incantatory, prophetic "Howl" (1956) and   his moving elegy
   for his mother, "Kaddish" (1961), gave powerful impetus to the Beat
   movement. Written with extraordinary intensity, these works were inspired
   by writers as diverse as the biblical   prophets, William Blake, and
   Whitman, as well as by the dream-logic of the French Surrealists and the
   spontaneous jazz aesthetic of Ginsberg's friend, the novelist Jack

        -- EB again

Links: <[broken link]>

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