Denise Levertov: “Poem” (London, 1946)

Read The Poem (scroll down to the one entitled “Poem”)

What is so great about this poem is its excellent rhythm. Some of this is created through alliteration, as in the lines:

They drift about the darkening city squares
fingers feeling / familiar holes
a half-contented ghost among my guest

She captures not only a flavor of shell-shocked London, but a kind of universal alienation. And she does it through a quiet, powerful voice that carries us along with its rhythms. More even than the delight of the forward thrust of alliteration, the carefully stopped lines also emphasize where words fall in their cadence. Furthermore, the ideas she momentarily dangles at the end of a line before expanding them out, like

[…] thinking: Life
has always been a counterfeit, a dream

The word Life (capitals in original) blossoms out with possibility, a kind of burst of energy at the end of a momentous downward-drifting rhythm that is instantly reframed as not hopeful, but fake–life is a “counterfeit, a dream.”

Yet the poem ends in hopefulness, ringing with an image of connectedness reflected in:

letting a tap run and the plates lie wet,
while the bright rain softly shines upon the slates,
they feel the whole of life is theirs, their music
“colour, warmth, and light:” […]

It is a poem of reconciliation with the world, of deciding to, “take root in life, inherit love.” Fueled by keen observation of her outer and inner world, as well as rick rhythms and some sparkling images, this early work of Levertov remains, to me, a gem.

What is so great about this poet is her prolific authenticity. She had something like twenty volumes of poetry published, since shortly after the second world war through the end of the twentieth century. Her work rings with sincerity and the love of craft. Excellent rhythms, masterful line breaks–Levertov helped pioneer the free verse poem, finding in her voice and her love of words an American voice I myself can not help but find mesmeric.