Saturday, December 20, 2008

UnCommon Sense

Denise Levertov is one of those great poets who is sometimes overlooked because of her politics. Which is why Jacket's issue on her is such an important thing. These essays, reflections and sharings of very personal interactions with Levertov are necessary, not only because she is a poet of peace and we are again in a time of seemingly endless war, but because she has particularly valuable insights about poetry's role in the world.

As the responsibility of the poet (which makes me think, now, of the wonderful poem "Responsibility" by Grace Paley read last week at the Joiner Center's tribute to her), Levertov is recorded by poet Mark Pawlak as saying:
"It is not the responsibility of the individual writer to increase the literacy of the masses,” Denise asserted. “To assume oneself responsible and able to do so would be arrogant. A complete upheaval of the social order is necessary to achieve that. It is rather the individual writer’s responsibility to work toward a revolution."
This profoundly reasonable understanding of how a poet can be 'of the people' addresses something I've thought about for a long time, since first reading Neruda and Vallejo as a teenager. How can a poet write in the voice of the people without a kind of condescention? And this quiet private conversation points me in the right direction.

Later in the same piece, Pawlak shares another few sentances from an interview which hold the kind of no-nonsense wisdom that I associate with Levertov:

"A poem can have only literal meaning and still be a poem. I think of such poems as ‘plain’ poems. But, myself, I prefer that layering of meaning upon meaning which metaphor allows. However, any metaphor deserving the name must in poetry arise from the literal; and the layering of one meaning upon another must never obscure the literal; reading of the poem.”

Metaphor arising from the literal, the layering of meaning upon meaning while still remaining transparant to the concreteness of the image, this has always been for me the ultimate poetic achievement. I find this to be the common ground in every poem that moves me - though I couldn't have put it into these words exactly.

Finally, in the same Pawlak piece, he discusses her view of writer's block, something I have languished in recently.

She has as much as said that the creative unconscious has a natural rhythm of its own that cannot be rushed. Because one is not putting pen to paper, she has explained to me, does not mean that there is inactivity in the unseen depths of ones being, activity that might eventually surface as poems.

And this rational, undramatic approach to writing and life is perhaps what inspires me the most about Levertov, and about the perspective offered by this issue. Levertov has been for me one of those poets that I want to know better, that I want to read more carefully. This is still true, perhaps it will always be that she is one of the poets I feel like I can never fully approach, or appreciate. But the demonstration of her uncommonly common sense, her practical apprach to the world, and to writing is something that is so often missing in poetry. She dispenses with the mystique, the persona and is simply engaged with the world, without pretension. This is why now more than ever we need to read poets like Levertov - poets who engage the literary world with the actual world, who see with rationality and sense the work that needs to be done, and literature's place in doing it.