This Need to Dance / This Need to Kneel

Denise Levertov and the Poetics of Faith

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Editor(s): 
Michael P. Murphy, Melissa Bradshaw
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock
    , September
     2019.
     244 pages.
     $29.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532677366.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Edited by Michael P. Murphy and Melissa Bradshaw, this volume collects several select essays presented at “‘this need to dance / this need to kneel: The Poetry and Poetic Life of Denise Levertov,” a conference hosted by the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University Chicago in fall 2015. Occasioned in no small part by Dana Greene’s and Donna Hollenberg’s biographies of Levertov (published in 2012 and 2013, respectively), the conference explored new expressions of spiritual and artistic continuity in the work and life of a poet who had at various times been an artistic agnostic, a politically engaged pantheist, and finally an initiate into the Roman Catholic Church. As Murphy states in his introduction, this collection steps away from the political focus of “most scholarship on Levertov, recent or otherwise” in order to focus on the centrality of aesthetic vision to her religious belief, exploring “Poetry as an Act of Faith” (5). The result is not less than a greater appreciation for how Levertov’s poetic and religious development furnished her with “powerful speech for political action,” but Murphy here places explicit attention on “the critical vitality of Levertov’s [Catholic] sacramental aesthetics” (12, 18).

In this volume, the editors aim to “provide a more [spiritually] complete picture of [Levertov’s] vast and singular talent” (18). To that end, two words thread through this collection, providing shape and definition to that talent: imagination and vocation. As it inevitably does in such explorations of art and belief, the word imagination bears a heavy burden. Throughout these essays, it alternately or simultaneously refers to Levertov’s ability to connect thoughts and feelings to linguistic images, to recognize the sacramental in the ordinary, and to follow the peculiar logic of Christian faith beyond the enclosures of rationalistic immanence. It is imagination, for instance, that allows her to trade a domineering, patriarchal picture of God for the insight that “God chooses to enter human reality in weakness,” according to Brent Little (93). But while imagination can conceive of an “alternative economy of relations,” as Colby Dickinson puts it, it does not by itself give shape to that economy beyond its rooting in “our deepest longings” (49). What, finally, guards Levertov from exiting into a world of “anchorless” desire and imagination that leaves the common world behind?

In vocation, there is a less obvious thread that anchors imagination and further ties these essays together, just as Levertov saw her poems tied together across her life. Indeed, Levertov herself redefined her poetic inspiration as “obedience to a vocation.” Behind mystical acts of imagination, there are glimpses of the poet at work: a woman engaged in “relentless wrestling with reality,” in “sensorial exploration,” the “exercise of memory,” pilgrimage, and concerted efforts at self-creation. In “The Winged Fountain,” José Rodríguez Herrera traces the threshold between effort and inspiration in Levertov and makes it clear that “intent listening” is the “prelude to the occurrence of the mystery” (201). Levertov reclaims the poetic vocation from genius passively possessed by the muses and stands actively, exhaustingly at attention, “with open mouth” and “keeping the mind in a state of contemplation” (202, emphasis added). The poet’s inspiration is synonymous with her discipline.

The imaginative discoveries to which these essays testify, then, are not so special by themselves; they become so in light of Levertov’s long obedience. One does still hear of the inspired Levertov, the be-mused Levertov twirling at a privileged nexus of matter and spirit. But the transformed sense of vocation within these pages offers a practiced Levertov, whose inspiration becomes practicable for all. In Kevin Burke’s essay especially, the question of call and vocation explodes from within Levertov’s poetry and assails readers: Will readers, like Saint Peter, become “the key, now, to the next door, / the next terrors of freedom and joy”? Will they accept that inspiration and the call of destiny are not antitheses but rather outworkings of “obedience to a vocation,” a new birth into freedom, danger, and a “task”? (80–81).

How appropriate, then, that Murphy and Bradshaw offer further guiding examples of artists at work. In “Loss and Memory, Mist, Grief and Grey in Poetry and Photography,” Julia D. E. Prinz compares Levertov’s poetic craft to Mary Randlett’s techniques of black-and-white photography, seeing in each a “depth perception of what is missing” and a “knowledge of the Divine born of the experience of absence” (170). Both poet and photographer, Prinz explains, engage in reciprocal, arduous curations of reality and experience:

The poet begins with invisible experience, which then makes its way [via the poem] out into daylight. The photographer, in contrast, stands in the midst of the overwhelmingly visible experience and needs to delete all unnecessary aspects of the visibility until the photo can make its way “into daylight” … photography [is] “an exercise in elimination.” (179–81)

Finally, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s “Annunciations” closes this collection, her own poems confirming that the editors have threaded this volume      together       with attention to craft. O’Donnell repeats Levertov’s insistence that the work of poetry—the techniques of “endless suspense,” the curations of “unfilled” space and of “possible ways of retelling”—is the prelude to what is called poetic inspiration (214–15). It is the condition of possibility for any confidence one might have in connecting imagination to the real.

This work—this obedience to a vocation—quietly suggests a bafflingly imitable art. Levertov solicits readers from within her poetic behaviors, her habits, her style of being in conversation and at attention, even for a poster on a subway wall. The daunting, lifelong consistency of this attention also reveals her “vast and singular talent” to be available and replicable. This is the common meaning behind a “poetic life” and a “poetics of faith.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lyle Enright is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael P. Murphy is Director of the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of A Theology of Criticism: Balthasar, Postmodernism, and the Catholic Imagination (2008). Recent writings include “Breaking Bodies: O’Connor and the Aesthetics of Consecration,” in the edited volume Revelation and Convergence (2017).

Melissa Bradshaw is a Senior Lecturer in English at Loyola University Chicago. Her work focuses on publicity, personality, and fandom in twentieth-century British and American poetry. Her book Amy Lowell, Diva Poet (2011) won the 2011 MLA Book Prize for Independent Scholars. She has also published on Edith Sitwell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and on divas more generally.