The Harboring Silence, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

The following editorial statement from issue 86 of Image is adapted from a commencement address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in creative writing graduation in Santa Fe on August 8, 2015.

rainierDenise Levertov’s poems nearly always contain vivid reminders of the oral nature of poetry, of poetry as speech addressed to a hearer, and thus in some sense always a conversation. In her seminal poem “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus,” Levertov chooses to honor the disciple of Jesus who, after the Resurrection, needed to place his hand inside Christ’s wound in order to believe.

“Didymus” means twin, and Levertov intends us to see that she is identifying herself as the other twin. Thomas will not be satisfied until he sticks his hand inside the emptiness in Christ’s flesh—the void or silence that will ultimately speak to him.

The poem, which is separated into the traditional parts of the Mass that are sung by a choir, begins with a Kyrie, a plea for mercy in the face of our terror at both our mortality and the potential destruction of the world itself. Here Levertov can only address a figure who is entirely “unknown.” [Read more…]

The Harboring Silence, Part 1

The following editorial statement from issue 86 of Image is adapted from a commencement address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in creative writing graduation in Santa Fe on August 8, 2015.


fog“The great poet does not completely fill out the space of his theme with his words. He leaves a space clear, into which another and higher poet can speak.”

—Max Picard, The World of Silence


Graduation marks the moment when you leave the community that has surrounded you for two years for the solitude of your writing life. That community will continue to exist and even expand over the years, and will include many reunions and gatherings, but the level of intensity and support you’ve experience in the program may never be matched.

Which means that it’s now down to you and your laptop—the blank screen and the blinking cursor. Or, if you’re the old-fashioned sort, the empty page and the poised pen.

Perhaps you’re ready, willing, and able to fill the screen, but perhaps you’re nervous about all those white pixels. Will you have words to fill the emptiness? Will you be able to speak into the silence? [Read more…]

Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life, Part Two

Yesterday, in Part One of my review of the major new biography, Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life, by Dana Greene, I focused on Greene’s information and insights into Levertov’s life. Today I turn to the other term of the book’s sub-title: the poet.

Since Greene is writing a biography, not a work of literary criticism, her interest is in how Levertov’s extraordinary body of poetry both shaped and was shaped by her life experience. Indeed, Levertov’s life and art were unusually integrated.

Greene quotes one of Levertov’s colleagues after her death: “She was a unique presence because in her… everything came together in an organic whole—poetry, religion, history and politics, the natural world and people.”

From childhood, Denise sensed her vocation as a poet. At age twelve, she boldly sent some poems to T.S. Eliot. He replied encouragingly, re-enforcing her vocational identity. [Read more…]

Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life, Part One

I thought I knew Denise Levertov.

In the 1970s, she and my husband were both part of the English department faculty at Tufts University. He was writing about the Beat poets, whom Denise had known well, and she graciously came to our house for my husband to interview.

I used to walk by her house, in our neighborhood, and admire the brilliant flowers in her English garden.

Yes, I thought I knew Denise Levertov. I’ve read most of her poetry many times. After 9/11, I read it through once again, in order, starting with her 1961 collection, The Jacob’s Ladder.

I needed to be with Levertov’s poems daily because I knew that she’d engaged the difficult political issues of her day: the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, U.S. interventions in Latin America. I thirsted for her poetic insights on how to engage the post-9/11 world.

But now I realize I scarcely knew Levertov at all until reading this first complete biography of her, Dana Greene’s Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life[Read more…]