1. The Poet as Outreach Advocate – Fostering a “Horizon Note”
Embracing the medium of documentary film, Denise Levertov read aloud her first anti-war poem during a September 4th, 1966 episode of the 14-part public television show, “NET Presents USA Poetry,” produced and directed by the pioneer in public broadcasting and literary outreach, Richard O. Moore. Moore had filmed Levertov seated cozily in her Greenwich Street apartment in New York City while engaged in her complicated poetic process of “handwriting-typing-handwriting again,” and finally reading the poem aloud. Thus, Moore “questions the movement of poetry itself,” especially “in the age of television,” which offered a relatively new means to preserve typographic texts as a compilation of “image and sound: a form of augmented poetic reality.”1 Further, since Levertov was not asked to explain her work, the documentary avoids imposing a “textual analysis on the viewer,” favoring instead a direct interaction with the poet in her natural habitat while writing, smoking, and reciting.
It is in this intimate space that Levertov performs “Life at War” for the assembled camera crew. First, she reads another handwritten poem from her notebook, later titled “A Vision,” that she claimed had set her free:
I sort of got hung up this winter on wanting to … write a poem about the war … and being unable to do anything else as a result until at a certain point when I did do a poem that was totally unrelated to anything like that and writing that one seemed to make it possible to write the one I’ve been hung up on all this time.2
Her desire to write about the Vietnam War began with her personal commitment to the anti-war movement. Levertov and her artist husband, Mitchell Goodman, had organized protests in response to President Johnson’s decision in March of 1965 to increase the deployment of combat troops to Vietnam; they had even undertaken the very public step of placing a full-page advertisement in The New York Times to recruit writers and artists to the anti-war movement. Nevertheless, Levertov’s recitation of “A Vision” suggests another, more private source for the anti-war poetry, something Levertov calls a “waking vision”3 in her discussion of the relation between “A Vision” and “Life at War”:
I feel that I have only just begun to have some understanding of what the angel poem was about – and not enough understanding to want to talk about it, because it was a mystery to me. I hadn’t been thinking about angels. The vision of angels appeared, as far as my consciousness was concerned, out of nowhere. And it seemed at the time of writing quite unrelated to anything I had consciously in mind.
Since they were written very close to one another, and since one did seem to pave the way for the other to be written, I presume that there is actually some underlying relation between them, but I don’t feel that I understand what it was. The angel is a mediavistic kind of poem, and the war poem expresses what I know I think and feel.4
The term “mediavistic” here suggests the Medieval fascination with angels in art and philosophical inquiry. This Old-World appearance of angels in the autumn of 1966 was peculiarly “mysterious” to Levertov since her intention was to write poems devoted to the current political crisis in the United States. Still, the “underlying relation” between “A Vision” and “Life at War,” despite temporal and thematic disparities, is precisely what enables this angelic “vision” to dislodge Levertov’s writer’s block: it shifts her vision from activism and the public sphere to her intimate fears of war.
Levertov frequently revealed buried synchronicities during performances of her work. Three years prior to the Greenwich Street interview, at the Vancouver 1963 Poetry Conference organized by Robert Creeley, Levertov introduced the concept of a “horizon note”5 with regard to a set of jointly-composed poems. She explained that different poems could share a “sense of a beat or pulse underlying the whole.”6 Thereafter, in her 1965 groundbreaking essay, “Some Notes on Organic Form,” composed in the same year as “A Vision” and “Life at War,” Levertov reveals the source of this rhythmic “drone” as that of Indian music: a pulse that underlies a single line signals the “rhythmic norm” or “nuance” of emotion within a work’s larger “horizon note.”7 Such a “note,” in its horizontal expanse, frequently extends, like in a musical score, beyond the individual work. It also extends beyond the individual poet. Ultimately, a poem becomes “organic,” in Levertov’s vernacular, when it is able to detect, and synchronize with, the underlying pulse of individuals bound in community with others of like mind.
Levertov’s theory of the “horizon note” reinforces the larger potentiality of the lyric to bring a collective “we” into being, which – due to the pressing horrors of the Vietnam War – Levertov promotes as a social necessity. In so doing, she stretches the boundaries of the solitary lyric to become a site of inclusive community. Before Levertov, W.H. Auden, in the context of WWII, also champions the expansiveness of the lyric:
In our relation to one another as intelligent beings, seeking a truth to which we shall be compelled to assent, We is not the collective singular We of tradition, but a plural signifying a You-and-I united by a common love of truth.8
Levertov’s reliance in “Life at War” on the first-person plural establishes a bond between poet and reader that is distinct from the coercive “we” of political consensus, and from “the collective singular We of tradition.” That is, Levertov’s collective “we,” does not embrace the belligerent political rhetoric of the Vietnam war poised against a demonized, Communist “other.”
In this contribution I will argue that Levertov’s jarring “Life at War,” in sharing a “horizon note” with “A Vision,” is productively refracted through the lens of a lyrical “us” and “we,” rather than an exclusionary division of “us” versus “them.” The emergence in Levertov’s work of a more intimate but also more inclusive “us” resonates with a kind of radical left and anti-war populism later named “inclusionary populism” by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser.9 This non-binary variant of populism pursues a “political integration” to rectify an existing “social fragmentation” and “broaden democratic borders by following a project” of inclusion.10 This contribution will argue that particular lyric poems can produce the kind of inclusive populism characteristic of the anti-war movement. Indeed, Levertov turns her poetry of the mid-1960s into a “current event”11 by expanding her “horizon note” to include political plurality in the lyric. As a result, she derails any Romantic expectation that the lyric mode primarily emphasizes “individuality” and a “private expression of emotion”12 at the expense of community.
“Life at War” has often been criticized for excessive subjectivity. Nonetheless, I will follow Audrey T. Rodgers in arguing that this heightened subjectivity grants Levertov insight into the awful realities of war:
Levertov has been censured as ‘hysterical,’ over emotional, lacking control and order which she highly prizes. … [T]he immediacy of the Vietnam War [in “Life at War”] cannot be dismissed, and the sharp visual images capture the violence and the human indifference to the ravishment of the human body and soul. The images of burned human flesh, lidless eyes, babies nursing at dry breasts, and charred bones are the realities of Vietnam.13
In its frank admission of visceral suffering, “Life at War,” when paired with “A Vision,” shows readers how a poet may mobilize poetic detail and voice into an inclusive populist protest against the war. Poetic subjectivity, or lyricism, is, therefore, one way of resisting the us-vs.-them logic of antagonist rhetoric. That is, Levertov favors “concreteness” and “authenticity,” which are only possible through a “direct involvement in the situations about which [she] write[s].”14 Thus, for Levertov, “concreteness” in the context of war translates into a representation of the grotesque as a means to agitate readers otherwise too distant to feel either passion or discomfort. The goal of this agitation of immediacy is to expand each reader’s identification with those unseen.
2. The Poet as Judge – Evaluating Duncan’s Critique of “Life at War”
The most significant objection to “Life at War” rests on the contention that a dominating subjectivity undermines it aesthetically. Indeed, it is this critique that initiated the deterioration of the intense and long-standing friendship between Levertov and her mentor, fellow poet Robert Duncan. In a 1969 interview, Duncan revealed his bias against “Life at War”:
She’ll be writing about the war and suddenly—in one of the earliest poems that’s most shocking—you get a flayed penis, and … Suddenly you see a charged, bloody, sexual image that’s haunting the whole thing, and the war, then acts as a magnet, and the poem is not a protest though she thinks she’s protesting.15
Such a characterization was hurtful, since Duncan had been one of Levertov’s most trusted readers. In a January 25th, 1966 letter, she tentatively describes to him the dual gestation of “A Vision” and “Life at War”:
I’ve been absolutely paralyzed by unwritten poems. But I have come out of it, with one absolutely direct anti-war poem (finished this very day, though ‘brewed’ & begun with false starts back in, oh, October I guess) and a completely disengaged poem about angels. … I’m very unsure if the ‘political’ one is a good poem but it is even so a tremendous relief to have at least opened my mouth.16
Under separate cover, three days later, Levertov sent Duncan early drafts of the poems, explaining that she “felt afraid”17 to enclose “Life at War,” and, indeed, her hesitancy proved well founded.
It took Duncan six months to get up the courage to respond to Levertov in a long letter acknowledging that “[t]he war in Viet Nam … becomes a mantra for our thought.”18 However, Duncan cautions, “[w]e are not reacting to the war, but mining images here the war arouses in us.”19 After many letters soft-pedaling his critique, Duncan finally responds bluntly to Levertov in a 1971 letter in which he argues that “Life at War” serves merely as a mirror inwards, rather than outwards; that is, for Levertov the horrors of Vietnam are subsumed by the impetus to explore “the deep underlying consciousness of the woman as victim in war with the Man” and the “sadistic imaginings” of a “women’s liberation. … It is as if women would give their assurance that altho [sic] they are filled with rage, they will be good helpmates in the politics of the revolution.”20 Unfortunately, Duncan’s narrow reading of the poem aligns it with an identity politics confined to gender and biography.
Duncan must have feared his tone was too vicious (even though he did sign off with “Love, Robert”); thus, he delayed sending it, buying time to craft a long addendum in which he explains more broadly that “our partisan feelings and resolutions act as censors of the imagination.”21 Ultimately, Duncan proposes finding an outside perspective towards which the poet can expand his/her imagination. As an example, Duncan cites the auditory qualities of “A Vision,” which he calls “one of [Levertov’s] miraculously beautiful and realized poems. More beautiful in more readings. [Her] verse has a pace [he] most love[s] … a freedom in movement that is at the same time obedient to a compelling music.” Duncan knew that praise for a “recognized perfection”22 – highlighting the auditory power of “A Vision” – would appeal to Levertov, thereby lessening the blow of his harsh appraisal of “Life at War.” Interestingly, in celebrating the “compelling music” of “A Vision,” Duncan inadvertently invokes the very quality Levertov believed to bind the two poems together, namely an organically-synthesized “horizon note.”
In point of fact, any consideration of Duncan’s ‘Vietnam canon’ easily turns up poems more heavy-handed than “Life at War” in regard to graphic imagery designed to advance a political agenda. In Duncan’s 1968 poem “Up Rising, Passages 25,” for instance, after installing an “all-American boy in the cockpit,” ready to dispense “his flow of napalm, below in the jungles,”23 Duncan unflinchingly describes what follows when “this black bile of old evils [has] arisen anew”:24
the burning of homes and the torture of mothers and fathers and children,
…….their hair a-flame, screaming in agony, but …
in terror and hatred of all communal things, of communion,
…….of communism …
—back of the scene: the atomic stockpile; the vials of synthesized
diseases eager biologists have developt over half a century dreaming
of the bodies of mothers and fathers and children and hated rivals
swollen with new plagues, measles grown enormous, influenzas
perfected; and the gasses of despair, confusion of the senses, mania,
including terror of the universe … .25
Duncan’s Whitmanesque list marks the trajectory of a “specter” that begins “with Adams and Jefferson” in their fear of what would corrupt a nation and disrupt its “common humanity,” to arrive at “the vanity of Johnson; / and the very glint of Satan’s eyes from the pit of hell” “in the swollen head of a nation.”26 Duncan, though he criticizes the self-consciously polemical in others, relies, nonetheless, on a hyperbolic and alarmist description of Vietnam in his own work.
In a 1975 essay on outgrowing Duncan’s mentorship, Levertov cites in particular “the false interpretation begun in his questioning of ‘Life at War’” as the moment when a “negative element” arose in their epistolary exchanges.27 She locates the source of this rupture as one of “ideological difference,” in addition to Duncan’s “temperamental distaste” for engaging in the “day-to-day” humdrum of “organizing antiwar activities” that accompanied a tight “comradeship” of “gather[ing] together” and “shout[ing] slogans” with “apparent strangers.” Levertov explains that such activities fed her poetic life and gave her “hope for a truly changed future” in the middle of a “difficult present,” which she funneled back into her work at the time. In contrast, Duncan believed Levertov was “acting coercively,”28 both toward herself and toward the readers of those poems in which she embeds her political views.
Since Duncan characterizes “Life at War” as a personal war of the sexes, he mistakes Levertov’s rhetorical objective as that of a woman speaking for and about women’s experiences. Instead, Levertov speaks more broadly as an outraged citizen mobilized in opposition to a war against communism. Further, Duncan misses what Levertov will later champion as the lasting significance of her early anti-war work: these lyrics replicate for readers, even if heatedly and messily, the “experience which is shared by so many and transcends the peculiar details of each life, though it can only be expressed in and through such details.”29 In other words, her details create immediacy, especially those of a visceral and graphic nature. Levertov harnesses such details to construct a backdrop for a lyrical speaker caught in the morass of a moral quandary, activating a sense of commitment in others. Thus, the lyric challenges those embroiled in the anti-war movement to embrace the “we” of joint resistance, shared intimacy, and unfiltered immediacy. The result is a community, regardless of gender and background, solidified by its emotional devotion to a mass movement. Additionally, the negative intensity of Levertov’s war imagery creates a secondary bond through its frank acknowledgment of the visceral suffering of others.
Critics may argue that Levertov’s approach hardly differs from that of populist leaders who combine the “constant pressure” of a crisis with an “aesthetic production of ‘proximity to the people.’”30 However, Levertov’s spectacle of inclusivity favors “the more fitting attitude … to grieve, deplore, agonize.”31 Thus, her emphasis shifts towards compassion for victim and perpetrator alike, while still agonizing over the brutality committed against a universal body that connects all individuals, regardless of political affiliation. Levertov proposes this position to Duncan in the same 1966 letter in which she describes the process of composing “A Vision” and “Life at War.” This dovetails with her cautious assessment of Duncan’s poem “Earth’s Winter Song” (1968):
The part about Humphrey’s head emerging from LBJ’s asshole [since Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s Vice President, was criticized for his undivided loyalty to Johnson, even if he was personally critical of the Vietnam War] doesn’t convince me the way similar things in Dante do. Dante saw such things with so much graphic detail … but [he avoids] a kind of self-righteousness that an artist is guilty [of] when he condemns any other human being to the hell of caricature.32
Here, Levertov offers Duncan feedback with care, without calling him out directly for his grotesque “caricature.” Instead, Levertov proposes, for both Duncan and herself, the path of Dante: feel for the “burned child” and, yet, “remember the human soul, capable of change, of the murderer.”33 That is, do not turn away from what is unsightly, seeking rather a “truth” that “leaks out of the work” once “compassion can somehow manage to stretch as far as the criminal—even just to touch him with the top of the outstretched fingers.”34 The contrast here in critical: Duncan’s calculated obscenities encourage readers to laugh at and feel contempt for corrupt leaders, whereas Levertov’s poem prioritizes the cultivation of empathy.
3. The Poet as Craftsperson – Soliciting Public Engagement
“Dial (212) 628-0400 NOW! The Architectural League of New York presents Dial-A-Poem. Six poets simultaneously over six lines changed daily!” So read the ad for the Dial-A-Poem service in operation from 1969 to 1971, conceived and carried out by the performance artist John Giorno. From 9 am to 5 pm Eastern Standard Time, people all over the country called one of the phone lines connected to individual answering machines, each shooting off three minutes of poetry.35 With this initiative, Giorno harnessed the media of the day – the rotary phone – and used it to connect large audiences to recorded poems from contemporary poets, like William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Joe Brainard, Anne Waldman, John Cage, Robert Duncan, and Denise Levertov. The 1966 recording of “Life at War” – on which the Dial-A-Poem initiative relied for its answering machine line up – was taken from the NET Presents USA Poetry episode mentioned at the outset.
After the Dial-A-Poem service ended, Giorno Poetry Systems released the poem lineup as LPs; the 1975 LP, “Biting off the Tongue of a Corpse,” featured Levertov’s “Life at War” (and, incidentally, also a Duncan poem, “To Speak My Mind”). Yet, prior to ending its three-year run in 1971, millions had called Dial-A-Poem to hear poems that spoke directly to “the demands of the present,” since, in Levertov’s 1967 assessment, “we are living our whole lives in a state of emergency which is—for reasons I’m sure I don’t have to spell out for you by discussing nuclear and chemical weapons or ecological disasters and threats—unparalleled in history.”36 In other words, in the midst of her current “state of emergency,” Levertov chooses to channel popular technology of the day – the rotary phone and voice recordings – to forge a contemporary response to us-vs.-them wartime rhetoric. She directs her actions to facilitate a widespread sympathy with the victims of war through these new domains of technological mediations into which the intimacy of her lyrical, subjective voice may penetrate.
Levertov, likewise, argues that the “obligation of the writer” is not to be compelled to write poems of a political nature. Rather, it is “to take personal and active responsibility for his[/her] words,” to avoid any indulgence of “hypocrisy” and, thereby, to avoid being tricked into writing political poems that falsely employ “deliberate, opinionated rhetoric, misusing their art as propaganda.” Above all, the poet “must speak to him[/her]self, to maintain a dialogue with him[/her]self.”37 In this way, Levertov assesses the value of a political lyric, or any lyric in fact, in terms of its ability to establish an authentic dialogue with the self. From this centered approach, the poet, then, may place readers in an honest dialogue with themselves, each to each. Here, Levertov turns Duncan’s accusation on its head: instead of viewing subjectivity as a liability, Levertov proposes that an authentic response takes war personally. Levertov, then, discourages readers from elevating an external voice (or leader), who proclaims to speak for everyone, above a self-directed dialogue. As she does throughout her career, Levertov expands statements of craft and aesthetics to accommodate moral imperatives. Thus, the “demands of the present” prompt Levertov to use the first-person plural pronoun, despite knowing full well that “we” in times of war is perilous, frequently abused as a tool of political rhetoric. With this danger in mind, she nonetheless forcefully prods her readers towards acute and uncomfortable self-reflection when confronted with cruelty.
Correspondingly, Levertov laments that a narrowly-focused academic approach to poetry in schools and at the university devalues the individualized performative elements of lyrical poetry. To enable recipients (including listeners and readers alike) to bring their “whole selves” to a poem, Levertov suggests instead that teachers “give their students fuller opportunities to have poems befall them, as direct experiences, before they begin to analyze them.”38 In essence, Levertov advocates what John Giorno’s Dial-A-Poem performance-art initiative and Richard O. Moore’s “NET Presents USA Poetry” documentaries mutually endorse: direct access to artistic works, in absence of a teacher or professor. In Giorno’s case, the works arranged in a line-up – from current political poems, to Black Panther speeches and Buddhist mantras – were juxtaposed to maximize the richness of the readers’ experiences and political exposure. In each instance, from Moore, Giorno, and Levertov, a vision of expansive popular reception embraces inclusionary populism in its rejection of elitism and expertise. This framework allows Levertov to oppose the Johnson administration’s mobilization of a divisive rhetoric about an unpopular war. And more broadly, it enables Levertov to (re)shape the lyric as a site to foster democratic interaction(s).
The complicated publishing history of “Life at War” signals its significance in relation to Levertov’s oeuvre of war poems that will follow. That is, “Life at War” stands at the beginning of a much longer arc: Levertov first published the poem in Poetry Magazine’s June 1966 issue devoted to writers traveling across the country in opposition to the war in Vietnam. In March 1967, Poetry Magazine published “A Vision.” Then, in her 1967 volume, The Sorrow Dance, Levertov published both “A Vision” and “Life at War,” though in separate sections: “A Vision” appears first in “Perspectives,” whereas “Life at War” follows in a section of the same title, as the second part of a sequence of nine poems. Four years later, in the volume To Stay Alive (1971) – released shortly after Relearning the Alphabet (1970) – Levertov reprinted a selection of poems from the two prior volumes, chief among them “Life at War,” but not “A Vision.”
The “Author’s Preface 1971” in To Stay Alive justifies including poems from the earlier collections to advance Levertov’s theory of organic poetry in which individual poems act as parts of a larger continuum, “the first note[s] of a scale or melody.”39 This attests to a belief in “the artist as craftsman,” wherein each “autonomous” work “accumulate[s] over the years,” illustrating how the poet can be an “explorer in language of the experience of his or her life.”40 In essence, Levertov asks her readers to consider the “relationships that exist between poem and poem,” based on connections only possible by straddling her various volumes, akin to the straddling of distances between individuals to, likewise, foster community. That is, Levertov insists that poetry, like politics, is (inter)personal and evolving. After all, in republishing a selection of her earlier works about Vietnam in 1971 – at a time when a great deal has transformed in her personal approach to the war – she orchestrates a reading of these works that parallels, as we will see, the exchange between the angels in “A Vision.” As a result, Levertov discards a model of isolated and discrete interactions in favor of
the more universal sense any writer [her] age—rooted in the cultural past barely shared by younger readers, yet committed to a solidarity of hope and struggle with the revolutionary young—must have of being almost unbearably, painfully, straddled across time.41
This juxtaposition of works, then, becomes a developmental “record of one person’s inner/outer experience in America during the ‘60’s and the beginning of the ‘70’s,”42 revealing a “horizon note” connecting individual works. Ultimately, this “straddling” of time is a performative enactment of the lyric’s ability to remain open and dynamic, and to nimbly engage the concerns of Levertov’s “revolutionary young” readership, her chosen “we,” while still savoring the richness of literary tradition. With this gesture, Levertov expands her concept of the “horizon note” beyond that of poem-to-poem compositional correspondences. That is, she brings a younger and likely more politically receptive readership in sync with the rhythm and mood from the beginning of her involvement in the anti-war movement. Resultingly, Levertov’s evolving personal point of view accrues wider cultural significance in advocating for inclusive populism. Indeed, this interconnection will become a focal point in my reading of how the mysticism of “A Vision” facilitates a greater understanding of the horrific details in “Life at War.”
Over time and across volumes, Levertov shifted the typographic proximity between “A Vision” and Life at War.” In The Sorrow Dance (1967), “A Vision” appears six pages prior to “Life at War,” which is fitting, since it set the other free, as Levertov explained of its inception in the “NET Presents USA Poetry” footage. (In fact, the 1971 publication of “Life at War” in To Stay Alive is also set free from the sequence in which it is embedded in the earlier volume.) Granted, her decision to republish “Life at War” in the later volume, in the absence of “A Vision,” complicates a horizontal reading of the poem pair. Still, Levertov expands the reach of “Life at War” by (re)situating it as the starting point for her larger project of poems about war. Sadly, this orchestrated, developmental arrangement in To Stay Alive is likely lost on the readers of The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (2013), since the editors, Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey, chose to print each poem only once, disrupting an arc across individual volumes. The editors do make specific note at the end of The Collected Poems of their various deviations from the earlier New Directions volumes; thus, they justify each instance in which they override Levertov’s artistic prerogative to incorporate poems that “belonged in the new context of the later volume.”43 In her idiosyncratic shaping of a multi-volume arc, Levertov broadens her oeuvre’s multi-generational appeal. In expanding her poetry’s cachet among the anti-war youth, Levertov aligns herself with the Dial-A-Poem project and the poetry documentaries from Moore. Each protests elitist institutions and cultural partitions on a different, but aligned, front: television, telecommunications, and print. Akin to this embrace of “newer” media, Levertov’s editorial choices reinforce how much she values the buy in of, and exchanges with, a younger readership who would benefit from a repackaging of older works.
4. The Poet as Witness – Making “We” Audible
Beginning in the 1960s, Levertov becomes more interested in having her poems exist in, and respond to, a communal space; she commits herself to work driven to awaken “pity, terror, compassion and the conscience of leaders … by strengthening the morale of persons working for a common cause.”44 Levertov accomplishes this goal, in part, by heightening her poetry’s auditory qualities. “Life at War” unfolds as if the speaker were standing before a group of like-minded, committed citizens. In this way, Levertov immediately focuses at the poem’s outset on the central internalized and yet communal problem: As the “same war / continues,” the “disaster” is making us “numb,” “weighing” us “down.” But “no,” she declares, unlike Rainer Maria Rilke, we need not be filled with “bitterness.”45 The negation of “no,” then, turns into the affirmation of “yes”: “Yes, this is the knowledge” of horrors done in our name – “who do these acts, who convince ourselves / it is necessary” – and a frank acknowledgement of the disregard for human life occurring in “Viet Nam as I write,” along with a sincere empathy, “we / go on knowing of joy, of love.”46 Again, Levertov stresses in this affirmation the personal nature of poetic experience. Thus, an individual aesthetic experience grounds a civic responsibility, to cast aspersions on any national myth of a passive “we.”
Rilke’s presence in “Life at War” is doubly important: first, as a model of the solitary poet who, like Levertov, must come to terms with human tragedy, and, secondly, as the static figure against whom Levertov and her readers may position themselves. This significance becomes most apparent when we analyze “Life at War” through its pronouns, since the role of poet occupies the poem’s only singular pronoun: in the past, through Rilke, “My heart… / Could I say of it, it overflows,” and, then, in the present, through Levertov, documenting the destruction of war “as I write” [emphasis added].47 Levertov borrows direct speech from Rilke’s August, 1915 letter to Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, wherein he puzzles the relation between individual suffering and communal suffering. In the letter from which Levertov incorporates Rilke questions how “boundless” “consolation,” as it “appertains to humanity itself,” could be “contained” in a “vessel” as “narrow” as the heart, which, he laments, is “rigid with sorrow,” “its contents” “coagulated into an amorphous lump”;48 as a result, the heart is unable to accommodate any sense of plurality. Levertov – as a canny lyricist looking back to her looming poetic predecessor – transforms Rilke’s “coagulated heart” into a communal “husky phlegm” that “we” breathe in and then speak out together.49 Phlegm, here, acts as an evocative metaphor for inhibited speech, poetic and political. Thus, Levertov strategically employs Rilke’s isolation at the outset of “Life at War” to initiate a physical meditation on historical suffering that, unlike Rilke’s inflexible empathy, she telescopes out from an inner distress, to a public outcry.
After Rilke’s solitary voice departs, “Life at War” becomes resoundingly plural: “We have breathed the grit of it in… Our lungs are pocked with it” [emphasis added].50 At this critical time in American history, Levertov’s register of “we” assumes varied forms of intimacy, stanza to stanza: from sharing the same physical reactions to the violence of Vietnam, the same ability to respond creatively as “humans…who can make…mercy, lovingkindness,” to the same assuredness, in the final line, that “living at peace would have.”51 Amazingly, this demure but inclusive pronoun (a microcosm of inclusionary populism) has the power to slowly undermine a larger and lasting adversarial stance. Therein, the poem engages in a back-and-forth exchange of orality, which is critical to its ability to reach an actual, rather than imagined, audience. As Walter J. Ong memorably claims, “[s]ight isolates, sound incorporates.” That is, sound arrives “simultaneously from every direction at once,” enveloping the listener.52 Charles Bernstein similarly contends that the orality of the typographic poem is what carries it into the social realm: “Poetry’s social function … is to bring language ear to ear with its temporality, physicality, dynamism: its evanescence, not its fixed character.”53 Therefore, a poem’s performative and oral enactment, that which Duncan admires in “A Vision,” is what allows it to become fluid and multivocal, “possibly dissonant … foreground[ing] the dialogic dimension of poetry.”54 Similarly, Levertov’s support for diverse forums of new media is assuredly a savvy recognition of the political potential of aurality.
For Levertov’s purposes, an apt poetic strategy to replicate a vocal and active communication – while in the throes of the anti-war rallies during the mid 1960s – is suggested by the metaphorical pattern of natural webbing. This image of human interconnection shapes “Life at War” as a whole: “Man … whose understanding manifests designs / fairer than the spider’s most intricate web.”55 Surely, Robert Frost’s “Design” lurks behind this spider-driven metaphor. Thus, the description of humanity capable of “music,” like “birds,” and “laughter,” like “dogs,”56 is not meant to establish competition, but rather to symbolize the joyful wisdom of a world that acknowledges its multitude of interconnected voices, such that “these acts” overseas “are done / to our own flesh” [emphasis added].57 The result is an assemblage of many individual voices, like the Dial-A-Poem recording line-up of disparate voices collected for one caller at a time, rather than that of a single monolithic voice.
Levertov devotes “Life at War” to the mutual engagement of the eye and the ear – the visual and the auditory – which simulates an “intuitive interaction between all the elements involved” in an organic poem.58 With these senses in sync, the lyric becomes a three-dimensional, performative experience, a “linguistic impulse,” and, above all, an “absorption in language itself,” which accompanies “the awareness of the world of multiple meanings revealed in sound, word, syntax.”59 Ultimately, the theatrical quality of “Life at War” most acutely allows readers to appreciate how the lyrical “we” deviates dramatically in its ultimate aim from the ideological us-vs.-them rhetoric of the cold war. That is, Levertov’s lyrical “we,” bound to inclusionary anti-war populism, in no way presumes homogeneity among its readers. Further, Levertov replicates the anticipated diversity of her readership – like a good teacher appealing simultaneously to a variety of learning types – through her enactment of synesthetic integration.
5. The Poet as Intermediary – Charting “Intellectual Love” <
Levertov’s political poetry relies on a balance between the singular and the communal to remain “clear even after the writer has ceased to be aware of the association that initially impelled it.”60 Levertov, thus, celebrates the journey across multiple poems, like in “A Vision” and “Life at War,” as it develops from inspiration, to balance and control. Even if her enthusiastic address to ‘the people’ borrows from the inclusionary populist playbook, Levertov does not do so to exacerbate conflict and intensify polarization or scandal. Instead, what drives Levertov’s lyrical “we” is an open-ended and dialogic performance of risk-taking that does not make one side passive, and the other active. Granted, “Life at War” openly undertakes the risk of being strident in images like “the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk / runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,” alongside “implosions of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.”61 In reaching out loudly and emphatically, Levertov’s poem, nonetheless, seeks a compassion that benefits from the presence of the other.
In “A Vision,” the angels – paused midair and separated from “the throng of angels” to hover “dazed before one another” – are also true performers of interactive compassion. To enact a contemporary variant of compassion, both poems in this pairing continue to rely on the inspiration of tradition: from Rilke’s 1915 letter in “Life at War,” to Spinoza’s epigram, also quoted by Pound, on “intellectual love” at the beginning of “A Vision”: “The intellectual love of a thing is the understanding of its perfections.”62 Certainly, if we recall Rilke’s angel in The Duino Elegies (1923) and Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940) – his angel facing the wreckage of history, instead of the future into which he is being blown – Levertov’s angel-motif in “A Vision” appropriates the literary history of angels in conflict. In Levertov’s enactment, the two angels are “poised / on the brink of dispute,” but dispute they do not, since they recognize that each is “imbued with the mysteries of the other.”63
In effect, these angels balance the idiosyncratic differences of each other against the unifying force(s) of the whole. Each angel had his/her own coloring: “blue and green glowed in the wingfeathers” and “red to gold the sheen of the other’s.” And each sees the “seafeathered, peacock breakered / crests of the other angel’s magnificence,” filling each “with a vision of / flame-petallings, cream-gold grainfeathered glitterings, the wings of his fellow.”64 Levertov, thus, makes her poem a celebration of sound, and of differences of sound, tied closely together, or as she says, “among blues and greens strongshafted” to the “sapphire bloom.” The angels are opposites unified by a spear-like shaft of feathers on either side, “never … a shrinking to opposites” (264).65 Each angel, though distinctive in color and nature, becomes interdependent and engaged in the other’s fate.
We should not forget that “A Vision” paved the way for Levertov to write “Life at War,” since it taught her how to make the voice of “solitude” “audible and singing to the multitude of other solitudes.” She discovered therein how to “score” the lines so that “a whole … begins to emerge.”66 As in “Life at War,” “A Vision” revolves around the use of “we” – “their feet touched earth,” “their vision’s harmony,” “flew into their wings” [emphasis added]67 – to establish an internal chorus that models an imagined community between poet/speaker and readers. In the middle of a humanitarian crisis, Levertov thereby recognizes the necessity of (re)making the lyric into an elastic form. The lyric becomes capable of both enclosure – capturing two angels in intimate interaction – and expansive plurality – enabling American citizens to better comprehend what violence their government unleashes on the “flesh” of Vietnamese citizens across the globe. Hence, “A Vision” guides us in an empathic reading of “Life at War,” since it models both poetic and political relationships: Duncan to Levertov, (older) poet to (younger) reader, and, ultimately, citizen to citizen in a collectivity that respects individual differences while resisting the us-versus-them logic that motivates war.
A flexible lyric, charged with social responsibility, shuttles between the singular and the many, accommodating a diverse populace within its textual frame:
The shift in critical attention from lyric ‘I’ to ‘you’ has coincided with a new emphasis on understanding language and literature as communication and performance. The emphasis on address has also brought forward the social dimension of the genre against accusations of solipsism, narcissism, and aesthetic detachment.68
Contrary to claims of “aesthetic detachment,” Levertov’s plural pronoun simulates a performative, if fraught, gathering among a multitude of perspectives. Even if Levertov claims – in 1959, toward the beginning of her migration to the US – that poetry’s “social function … is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock,”69 this does not suggest that poetry cannot, should not, make us feel appalled. Levertov’s heightened poetic address must, first and foremost, “awaken” her readers. As we recall, Rilke – interjected directly into the political upheaval of the 1960s – acts as Levertov’s cautionary example of an empathic subject left bitter and ineffective. A “delicate Man” must rise above brutality and bitterness to create beauty that “excels the music of birds,”70 or angels devoted to an “intellectual love.”71 After all, for Levertov, a poet in the world must balance the intellect and the heart, the eye and the ear, the objective and the subjective, the self and the other, and the bitter and the beautiful.
In meditating on the duality of war, and the human beings embroiled therein – those capable of good and bad, of making art and making war – Levertov constructs an alternative to divisionary populist rhetoric, through an inclusionary variant. In essence, she both collapses and oscillates between moral binaries, such that each individual position becomes fluid and in negotiation with its opposite(s). Rodgers explains how Levertov conflates binaries throughout “Life at War,” beginning with its title:
The basic tension in the poem rests upon the duality of mankind: all he can ‘make’ and all the inhuman acts he can perpetrate. The images are balanced precisely on this duality. … It is the imagery that orders the poem’s structure, dictates the tone that vibrates between despair and hope, and is responsible for the great emotional impact of the poem. The title itself is an oxymoron and prefigures the ‘impossible’ juxtapositions perceived by the speaker.72
Read alongside the angels in “A Vision,” hovering just ahead on the road of human evolution, Rodgers’ claim about “Life at War” becomes more compelling, since images increasingly dictate the shape of “A Vision,” rather than rhetoric. That is, the angels in “A Vision” are both earthly creatures, “whose wingspan encompass entire earthly villages” and heavenly ones, “whose heads if their feet touched the earth would top pines or redwoods.” The expansive and powerful bond between the angels parallels the “horizon note” itself. Interestingly, their position and relation to one another is not static, since they are “both in immortal danger of dwindling, of dropping / into the remote forms of lesser being.”73 For Levertov, a static position is deadening. In her opinion, this is what left Duncan politically “isolated,” “keeping him out of more involvement in the Movement during the sixties and earlier seventies,” since his “political awareness” was “formed in the forties and earlier fifties”; thus it “remained static,” looking backward to an era in which political involvement was “Stalinistic, coercive, and regimented.”74
Unlike Walter Benjamin’s backward-facing angel (a bit like Duncan himself), Levertov’s angels – nearly human in their fragile state of falling backwards into “a lesser being” – look at each other. And what appears opposite between them, “poised / on the brink of dispute,” is actually what unifies them: jointly they “live by their vision’s harmony / which sees at one glance / the dark and light of the moon.”75 Here, Levertov’s image of a moon of conjoined light and dark relies, at its core, on unity, rather than antagonism.
In the interview from Moore’s “NET Presents USA Poetry,” Levertov made the important distinction in “A Vision” between a “waking”76 vision and a “sleeping” vision; this poem arose, she explained, out of the conscious mind intent on solving the riddles of the temporal, physical world. Thus, the figure of the angel is a metaphor for what humans can be when they avoid “shrinking” from “opposites.” After all, this pair of angels (like our pair of poems) is the only pair who has “halted,” since the others “passed and repassed,”77 presumably sidestepping human destruction. This pair, though, pauses, charmed by the colors of each other other’s wings and the sounds of a Hopkinsesque sprung rhythm Levertov “makes” in linguistically replicating the plumage within the poem: “illumined the sapphire bloom,” the “perfections of scarlet.” In the end, they hover in this human realm of language before presumably proceeding onto “the heavenly chasm” to become “dreaming angels.”78
What these angels do not have, however, is the ability to make sounds themselves; first, they borrow the words of Spinoza (and Pound) at the onset and, second, their “speech” remains a “silent interchange of perfection.”79 Indeed, Levertov’s choice to keep her angels mute may be her attempt to avoid interjecting an antagonistic rhetoric into their mouths. Notice the poem’s title of “A Vision,” not “A Conversation,” or another named oral interaction. Therefore, the emphasis overwhelmingly centers on the visual act of seeing a “vision’s harmony.”80 What follows thereafter is the unifying power of orality – one Ong and Bernstein celebrate – in the form of our poet’s linguistic transcription of angelic exchange. Approached in tandem, the vision of angel “facing” angel and the poet’s (re)sounding linguistic performance together create synesthesia: the visual perfection triggers an auditory chime and echo of human voices speaking in concert, aligning, once again, the eye and the ear.
These paused angels need the flawed and risk-taking humans below, caught on the precipice, like Rilke, of becoming numb in “Life at War.” Levertov balances the last stanza of that poem, like in “A Vision,” neither in day nor night, but within the more inclusive and developmental, “day and night.” In this span of gradation, from which “our nerve filaments twitch,” Levertov offers her readers a double negative: “nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying.”81 As mentioned earlier, this image arises out of Rilke’s “coagulated” and inflexibly singular heart. Levertov, thus, takes an image of isolation, rooted in the singular first-person pronoun, and gives it physicality – and commonality: it is our communal speech impediment. Only then, in Levertov’s estimation, can the “writer and reader come to know what it is they know” and grasp experience “in any degree of fullness” via “art’s concreteness: The Word Make Flesh, Concept given body in Language.”82 And Levertov carries this dictate out very literally by grounding Rilke’s heart metaphor in the very weight of our human bodies: the “phlegm” Levertov refers to as the “mucous membrane of our dreams / coated with it, the imagination / filmed over with the grey filth of it.”83 Initially, Levertov externalizes phlegm, coating and filming over surfaces. By the end of the poem’s argument, however, her readers are ready for a concrete and communal transformation. That is, although we might think of phlegm as a grotesque and viscous substance produced during a respiratory illness (potentially transmitted from one individual to another), it is understood historically as one of the four bodily humors that reflects a character of calm, composure, and self-control, what one would need in order to step outside of a conflict as horrendous as Vietnam. Indeed, this thickening into (a potentially impeded) language is what could ground angels and elevate humans, both willing to seek out Spinoza’s intellectual love and a language of “mercy”: “We are the humans, men who can make; whose language imagines mercy, / lovingkindness.”84 Therein, Levertov chooses Spinoza’s model of inclusivity, rather than Rilke’s model of inflexibility. Significantly, “Life at War” internalizes and subsumes the grotesque as part of the lyrical “we” (having begun with Rilke’s “formless lumps,”85) rather than externalizing it into the enemy of cold war rhetoric. In essence, it internalizes the corporeality that Duncan vociferously rejects in “Life at War.”
6. The Poet as Explorer – Constructing an ‘Engaged Poetry’
Although journalists consider Vietnam the first ‘Living-Room War’ in its immediacy for television viewers, it was not until the 2003 Iraq War that embedded reporters would actually ‘go live’ with footage in the field; only at that point could reporters justifiably employ the pronoun “we” to describe a war zone first-hand.86 As a result, early in the war, Levertov could not be embedded in the proximity of Vietnam except in her imagination (and her consumption, like others, of the media coverage). Indeed, her first fact-finding trip to Hanoi was not until 1972.
By necessity, in her first anti-war poems Levertov had to become a practitioner of what the 2012 anthology The New American Poetry of Engagement calls “engaged poetry,” referring to work that “bears traces of post-confessional, political, experimental, and modernist.” In the fifty assembled poems that “espouse a stance of witness,” poets admit that they “have not directly witnessed or participated in the events they describe. They reveal, in short, a distance between event and subjectivity,”87 while still wanting to wake up their potentially “dozy” readers. “In this way, the first-person voice implies the incommensurability and inexpressibility of geographically distant events, while suggesting a painful complicity.”88 It is this paradoxical state of simultaneous distance and responsibility that frequently necessitates the poetic recalibration of the lyrical I.
A recalibration achieved through inclusionary populism, however, may threaten rather than correct democracy, as Levertov well knew. Thus, its methods must be employed with responsibility and caution, especially since our contemporary modes of communication – shifting from rotary phones to social media – reanimates and complicates the long-standing distinctions between distance and proximity. In this context, artistic works that embrace inclusionary populism should facilitate a broad discourse, to give voice to the marginalized, and to alert citizens to abuses done in their name. Further, its practitioners should acknowledge that as a “gradational” category, while offering a framework outside a narrow binary, inclusionary populism might still include elements of exclusion.89 That is, any deployment of inclusionary populism must disavow a singular legitimate representative of ‘the people,’ yours or mine. Herein lies one of the key advantages to a relational reading that follows Levertov’s theory of the “horizon note.” In isolation, “Life at War” speaks primarily for and to those opposed to President Johnson’s position on the Vietnam War. In contrast, the interaction in “A Vision” is redemptively expansive, if distant. Together they present a path forward: a cool-headed angelic exchange “strongshafts” itself to an unflinching witnessing of the grotesque aftermath of war. With both immediacy and distance in play, they step outside a simplistic binary. As a result, Levertov offers readers a “we” pronoun spacious enough for a group of agglomerated individuals to cacophonously interact along a single “horizon note.”
As we have seen, an effective protest poem is one that wildly takes a risk, and yet does so with control, like Langston Hughes’ “I, Too” (1926), which balances on one line “I” and “America.”90 An earlier version of his line, “They’ll see how beautiful I am,” was “how beautiful we are.” Hughes, however, replaced “we” with “I” as a means to balance the solitary subject against the larger American nation he protests. Indeed, a civic voice that successfully negotiates the balance between “I” and “we” best cultivates productive dissent. The task of a recalibrated lyrical “we” is to channel the democratic impulse of inclusivity, and to welcome a diverse readership during a time of social unrest.
A discussion of a poet who resists an exclusionary populist polarization and demonization during the Vietnam era remains vitally important in America’s two-party system and current climate of political hostility and stalemate. In a poem aptly titled “Political Poem,” the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019, Tracy K. Smith, evokes Robert Frost’s “Mowing” and “The Tuft of Flowers”: “’Men work together,’ I told him from the heart, / ‘Whether they work together or apart.’”91 Written while ‘embedded’ in the Trump era, Smith – with Frost, the preeminent advocate of middle ground, at her side – conjures in “Political Poem” a rural scene in which “mowers” would each “stop at the whim” “to let his arm float up, stirring / the air with that wide, slow underwater / gesture meaning Hello! and You there!” The other, “more than one mile away,” would “pause / catching that call by sheer wish, and send / back his own slow one-armed dance, / meaning Yes! and Here!” In this exchange, positions of opposition may be “threaded / to a single long nerve,”92 an “instant of common understanding,”93 while each remains distant and committed to “his tool and shearing.”94 Smith, re-engaging Levertov’s “horizon note,” connects “there” and “here,” “you” and “I,” “we” and “us,” to lyrically replicate a face-to-face encounter, spread across a wide field, in which Americans may learn to converse with those they oppose. The Spinoza quote that hovers over “A Vision” may continue to encourage civically-minded lyricists today, as a kind of super-motto, to merge intellect, love, and understanding into a full-bodied appreciation of a lived political reality. Thus, lyricists may expand upon the exploratory process of discovery embraced by Levertov: be open, reflective, and ready to revitalize the lyrical “we” for an engaged poetry yet to come across the horizon.