Monday, July 31, 2017

On Denise Levertov’s To Stay Alive (1971)

I have recently been reading Denise Levertov’s late-60s/early-70s Vietnam-era poetry, and liking it very much — especially To Stay Alive (1971).  This is essentially a book-length poem (made up of shorter, inter-related poems) that occasionally incorporates found material and documents her experience opposing the war.  Especially given the political turmoil of our current moment, Levertov provides one possible way forward in regard to the writing of political poetry.

I had remembered reading somewhere, years ago now, that Levertov was attacked for this period of her writing, that supposedly it was slack or too close to sloganeering.  However, I found that accusation not to be accurate.  Sure, sometimes she is direct or personal, but to me this was powerful and often inspiring.  For example:

Brown gas-fog, white
beneath the street lamps.
Cut off on three sides, all space filled
with our bodies.
    Bodies that stumble
in brown airlessness, whitened
in light, a mildew glare,
    that stumble
hand in hand, blinded, retching. (“At the Justice Department”)
The enjambment of lines sets up interesting moments of surprise or expectations subverted, while the use of assonance and repetition lends a subtle layer of soundplay to what some at the time took as being merely prose-like free verse.

In certain moments, Levertov’s work in this collection is outright brutal, but justified in being so given its subject matter.  She writes in “Life at War” of

. . . the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.
This last line was one that Levertov’s close poet-friend Robert Duncan objected to as “an effect and tone of disgusted sensuality” (see Ange Mlinko’s excellent article on their debate over political poetry, here, from which the latter quote comes).  I don’t think Levertov was merely trying to draw attention to herself, as Duncan accuses her of doing; I think she’s employing the powers at her disposal, of language, to both render the awfulness of the war and to challenge the reader to confront it.  Duncan, however, may not have ultimately agreed that this can be part of poetry’s job.

In further researching all of this, I was reminded that the prominent Language-poetry critic Marjorie Perloff also attacked Levertov.  The same Marjorie Perloff who more recently has defended Kenneth Goldsmith and his appropriative reading of the Michael Brown autopsy report, and her subsequent statements on the matter that led Fred Moten to characterize her as “ignorant” and “cold-hearted” (see here, and here with further links).  Suddenly it all made sense; Perloff was on the wrong side both then and now.  As much as I like Duncan’s writing, and as much as I would even agree with many of the insights that later came out of Language poetry, people like Duncan and Perloff really seem(ed) to believe that poetry is somehow insulated from the wider world of politics and protest, that as Duncan wrote in 1971: “I am not talking about prisoners, blacks, children, and angry women in revolt — I am talking about those with work to do deserting their work. And our work is surely to get the words right. . .” (qtd. in Mlinko).  As if Levertov could not do both.  (I’ll leave aside, here, Duncan’s dismissive tone toward oppressed peoples and women.)

Perloff in a 1996 essay seconded Duncan’s suggestion that To Stay Alive was merely the outburst of an hysterical woman complaining about her own status: “Is what seems like a one-dimensional and simplistic lyric outburst against injustice or racism to be praised because its author is a member of a minority group and hence not to be subjected to the literary norms of the dominant race and class?” (“Poetry, Politics, and the ‘Other Conscience’: The Duncan/Levertov Correspondence”).  Like the New Critics before her, Perloff seems to believe in some sort of inherent, overarching criterion for “good” writing, and, more insultingly, that Levertov’s work was only taken seriously because she was a woman (whose father was a Jew who converted to Christianity).

In retrospect, Perloff and Duncan now seem woefully out of touch.  But even according to their own arbitrary premises, I would assert that Levertov’s political writing is also “good” poetry in itself.  Not only does she pay attention to language in interesting and compelling ways (with only  a couple brief examples given above), but as William Carlos Williams admitted in a famous interview, sometimes poetry can even be “a fashionable grocery list,” before going on to assert, “Anything is good material for poetry.  Anything.  I’ve said it time and time again” (The William Carlos Williams Reader, p. 100).  Levertov achieves what Williams does with sometimes quotidian material.

Additionally, it is worthwhile reading To Stay Alive is in the context of the documentary political poem, which has also been employed to great effect by Williams, Muriel Rukeyser, Haniel Long, Charles Reznikoff, and many others.  Levertov notes in a 1972 interview that she had sought “the elbowroom of a diary form, incorporating prose passages as Williams had done in Paterson . . . and as Haniel Long had done in Pittsburgh Memorandum [sic]” (“‘Everyman’s Land’: Ian Reid Interviews Denise Levertov.” Conversations with Denise Levertov, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, UP of Mississippi, 1998, p. 74).

In her monograph on Levertov’s political poetry, Audrey T. Rodgers observes a “sense of immediacy” to the work that, rather than undermining it as Duncan and Perloff claim, “endows the whole with a high level of aesthetic value” (Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement, p.104).  Certainly there has been much political poetry that thrives on a similar sense of immediacy — Amiri Baraka comes to mind, to give just one other example — and it is often the case here.  Rather than feeling that Levertov was violating some abstract notion about “getting the words right,” in reading To Stay Alive I saw that she was in fact getting the right words, invigorating, beautiful words at that.

In Perloff’s case, it seems possible anyway that maybe really she just could be a political conservative in the guise of a radical-poetry critic (she was also part of Jacket 2’s recent attempt to explain away Gertrude Stein’s enthusiastic support for Marshal Pétain, for example; see here and here), and the fact that Levertov opposed Perloff’s appointment at Stanford (see Donna Hollenberg, A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, p. 355) would not have helped matters.  However, both she and Duncan seem to me completely misguided about Levertov and political poetry more generally, almost as if they were unable to see poetry as more than one narrow thing.

Sure, there is bad political poetry, just as there is bad Language poetry.  There is even good writing by people with bad politics (Pound, Eliot, and Stein come immediately to mind).  None of this is in dispute here.  But I find it extremely short-sighted that Levertov was written off by people who set themselves up as aesthetic arbiters, yet were seemingly prompted more by partisanship (be it strictly poetic or possibly political as well) than any real sense of what “good” poetry is or isn’t.  I hope that, as time goes on, work like To Stay Alive will continue to be revisited and reconsidered, against the wave of criticism that has been set up against it.