Levertov’s This Great Unknowing: Last Poems

I finished Denise Levertov’s This Great Unknowing: Last Poems several days ago and have been struggling with exactly what I wanted to say about the book. So much so that I asked Mike if he could help me to find the exact words to express a feeling that I have about much of Levertov’s poetry.

First, let me make it clear that I like Levertov’s poetry a lot. One of the first things I look for in a poet is the ability to help me see more clearly what it is I believe, and the more I read her poetry the closer I think the two of us are attuned. She puts into words feelings and ideas I’ve felt but have seldom heard articulated more clearly.

Looking at “Immersion,”


There is anger abroad in the world, a numb thunder,
because of God’s silence. But how naive,
to keep wanting words we could speak ourselves,
English, Urdu, Tagalog, the French of Tours,
the French of Haiti.

Yes, that was one way omnipotence chose
to address us-Hebrew, Aramaic, or whatever the patriarchs
chose in their turn to call what they heard. Moses
demanded the word, spoken and written. But perfect freedom
assured other ways of speech. God is surely
patiently trying to immerse us in a different language,
events of grace, horrifying scrolls of history
and the unearned retrieval of blessings lost for ever,
the poor grass returning after drought, timid, persistent.
God’s abstention is only from human dialects. The holy voice
utters its woe and glory in myriad musics, in signs and portents.
Our own words are for us to speak, a way to ask and to answer.

for instance, I find myself agreeing with virtually everything she says, though I don’t think I’ve ever articulated these feelings as clearly as she does. Emerson and Thoreau are two of my favorite philosophers, and I was surprised when I found out that their views on human nature based on their observation of Nature stemmed from their Puritan ancestors who viewed natural phenomena as “signs and portents” from God.

Certainly life would be easier if God would speak directly to us, just as childhood was easier than adult life because our parents told us what to do. It’s much harder when you reach adulthood and have to make your own decisions based on your own observations of the situation. That might seem like a high price to pay for “perfect freedom,” but most of us would never trade adulthood for childhood again.

If there is a God, I believe like Levertov that He reveals himself in “events of grace, horrifying scrolls of history and the unearned retrieval of blessings lost for ever.” Only a child would demand that he tell us what to do directly by speaking to us.

I found 13 other poems in this 84 page book that I enjoyed enough to reread and reconsider. Perhaps it’s wrong to demand more than that from a poet, but I do.

When I thought back about all the Levertov poems I’d read, I couldn’t remember a single poem or even a single line that stood out in my memory, although, if pressed, I could certainly summarize her main themes. Rather strange when I can still remember specific poems that I read way back in high school that are still important to me, like Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush” or even Eliot’s “The Hollow Man,” a poem that I disagreed with but still made a deep impression on me.

I suspect that Mike is right when he suggested that Levertov is too cerebral. He might even be right when he suggests that might be her appeal to me, that I tend to be cerebral — though that’s certainly not a word I would use to describe myself. Heck, sometimes I even worry that I’ve been Googled
, unable to read an in-depth article, forever limited to lyrical poems where I can pause between poems for a brief mental respite, or walk away for a cup of freshly-ground, freshly-brewed cup of Poverty Bay Coffee Company’s Skookumchuck River French Roast.

In short, “Immersion” offers interesting ideas, but lacks poetic imagery, rhyme, near-rhyme or even assonance or consonance, for that matter. In other words, like many of Levertov’s poems it seems more like a prose meditation than a poem. Of course, I have found myself strangely attracted to various forms of meditation lately, so that might also explain why I like her poetry

8 thoughts on “Levertov’s This Great Unknowing: Last Poems

  1. Loren, thanks for this post and your thoughts on Levertov. I can’t recall the poems of hers I’ve read, either, though I’ve never sat down and worked through an entire book. Cerebral poetry is OK with me, being of similar ilk to you and Denise, I guess. I wish “Immersion” tried harder to be an example of the type of beyond-language communication she is talking about – but then, that’s setting the bar pretty high for poetry! She makes me think, here, and that’s enough for me tonight.

  2. Lots to think about here. Whether or not life would be easier with God speaking directly to us would depend, I suppose, on what he said. But, I’m afraid, there are many who wouldn’t listen, especially if the message is hard. This passage from Luke 16 comes to mind, about the rich man in hell, pleading for Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers:

    And he said: Then, father, I beseech thee that thou wouldst send him to my father’s house, for I have five brethren, 28 That he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torments. 29 And Abraham said to him: They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them. 30 But he said: No, father Abraham: but if one went to them from the dead, they will do penance. 31 And he said to him: If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe, if one rise again from the dead.

    I think Levertov is right in realizing there are imperfect freedoms, freedoms that enslave. The unearned retrieval of blessings lost forever refers, I suppose, to redemption from original sin. A neat ending to the poem, but I think our voice is not only a way to ask and answer, but also to praise.

  3. Thanks for your musings on Levertov. I have enjoyed them and the comments from others. The poem of Levertov’s that sticks with me is the one she wrote with only questions in the first half and answers in the second. It was about Viet Nam. I cannot quote a specific line, nor remember the title, but I can point to the place in my chest where it hit me. kjm

  4. I might have missed that poem, kjm.

    I’m not really happy with how New Direction markets her poetry. Her Selected Poems apparently only contains a small percentage of her complete poetry, like a sampler from each period.

    As far as I can tell there is no complete poems. Then there are various collections grouped together by theme which may or may not overlap with other collections.

    Unfortunately,iIt’s only in the last few years that I’ve even become aware of her poetry.

  5. I too like Levertov. And, yes, it’s sometimes difficult to say why. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on her poetry and generally agree with them. I found that her ‘New & Collected Essays’, also published by New Directions, was a huge help. It’s a valuable insight into her poetic preferences and into how she approaches writing. In fact I like many of these essays as much as I like some of her poems. I think her poetic oeuvre is to be taken as a whole – rather than being sought out for the memorableness or uniqueness of an individual poem. The interest for me is accompanying her as a fellow questing traveller through the collections as she explores, tentatively and sincerely, politics, mysticism etc.

  6. Google schmoogle — it doesn’t stop me from
    spending time with a long article or interview.
    The human mind is more than the Google guys
    “think” it is. I “love” Google, but oftentimes
    it frustrates me. Nonetheless, I put up with it,
    and learn how to, for instance, refine my searches.

  7. This levertov piece is among the best I’ve seen; an off-handed conversational tone that is a commentary on itself (language) as a distinct way to remake her point about how we talk about God/how he talks to us. (Lower case intended) I see parallels in Hopkins —who suggests we find him in all things counter, original, spare, strange. Whitman (the grass on graves) and in the very old idea that we call God forth through cabalistic mutterings, the right sequence of syllables. Lincoln: ‘far beyond our poor power to add or detract…’ For Levertov, who can be inaccessible because of her spare, spaced lines, this is almost reverential and in a syntax I suspect is ordered on purpose, perhaps even ironically? As a spiritual statement, “numb thunder” is wonderful, a compressed way of showing us what the whole poem is saying.

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