The New Asceticism and a Poem by Levertov

Certain ‘minimalist’ poets have much to offer an age in which words are suspect. Levertov’s translations of Guillevic for example. Levertov herself wrestled with the problem of rhetoric. If in youth she absorbed some values from Williams, fair enough; her searching passionate nature plunged her into spiritual depths; sometimes the poems are ‘pure.’ The ambiguity of the term ‘pure poetry’ may have found a new context!

‘The Cat as Cat’ uses the basic narrative of lyric contemplation —- outside, inside, down/up (to riff on Augustine)—- to meditate the between world of her cat and herself (flesh/spirit). Themes—-metaphors, mirrors, I-Thou)—-appear briefly, suggestively. The poem concludes with a minimalist anthem lullaby.

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Of Levertov’s Mountain

In our new thinking about the ordinary and the sacred, certain things are experienced not as symbols of transcendence, but as sites of immanent being even in their finitude. Transcendence foregrounds such things.

Now this experience is ‘aesthetic,’ and so a dimension or aspect of plurivocal being. In an earlier ‘climate of opinion’ this experience would have been considered panentheistic. This development deserves further thought.

The phenomenon is readily observed in Denise Levertov’s poem ‘Effacement.’ Here she compares the mountain as it is today —‘cloud’— in a simile drawn from the Bible. A two-for, embedded complex image. So both resources of her poetic grammar—- the ‘is’ of equivalency (‘Today the mountain/is cloud…’) and the simile (‘like the archangel…)—-help her convey her experience of the mountain.

The image of Tobias accompanied unknowingly by an angel frames the narrative in ways suitable to the sacred/ordinary topos. Ironically it will be noted that the willingness to perceive in the finite thing the values of the sacred may be taken as a repetition of the hermeneutics of Christ, though the absence of an apocalyptic endgame makes a difference.

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