The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Task” is a twenty-five-line poem composed of two stanzas written in free verse, which Denise Levertov herself would describe as “organic poetry.” The poem discusses the character and—as the title implies—the work of God. The opening six-line stanza presents a false image of God as an uncouth and somewhat threatening old man “always upstairs, sitting about/ in sleeveless undershirt,” his arms folded over his rumbling stomach. He is asleep and probably snoring since she concludes the stanza with the lines “his breath from open mouth/ strident, presaging death” (an image suggestive of the “death rattle”). The stanza ends with an ellipsis, as if the description was unfinished, and the second stanza interrupts and proceeds to correct this image of God.

In the corrected image, God is depicted as a weaver working at his loom “in the wilderness,” described as a “huge tundra room” with no walls and a “sky roof.” However, he is not far away; he is just next door. His work is absorbing and loud, and he seems to be in some hurry to finish it. The sounds of human screams and prayers come through the clamor of his task, but the poem is somewhat ambiguous about the kind of attention God pays to them. He “hears far-off” humanity’s screams and “perhaps listens for prayers in that wild solitude.” Ultimately, humans “can’t stop their/ terrible beseeching,” but “God/ imagines it sifting through, at last, to music.” The poem concludes with the task complete, the loom quiet, and “the weaver at rest.”

The Task Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Concerning the forms of her poems, Levertov, in The Poet in the World (1973), distinguishes between free verse, which rejects precast or reusable forms in favor of freedom from all bonds, and her “organic poetry,” which, having freed itself from imposed forms, voluntarily submits to the forms that content reveals and imposes on it. The form of “The Task” is an outgrowth and expression of its contents. The poem’s two-stanza structure permits the contrast of the false image of God with the corrected image. The first stanza begins conversationally with the words “As if,” implying the conditional character of the description and establishing a skeptical tone. The reader understands immediately that this is not the true image of God. The second stanza begins with a resounding “No,” specifying—in no uncertain terms—a contradiction to the first stanza.

The controlling metaphor of the second stanza is God as a weaver whose work is weaving a great garment. The structure of the stanza is loomlike: Elements of both sense and sound are threaded into the poem, not in prose sentence order but in alternating and somewhat irregular arrangements that only present a finished pattern in the fully woven poem. For example, visual images of the wilderness in the first two lines of the stanza are followed by a line combining the introduction of the loom with a picture of berry bushes, which in turn is followed by a line in which “rain” and...

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The Task Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Block, Edward, ed. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 50, no. 1 (Fall, 1997). Special Levertov issue.

Gwynne, R. S., ed. American Poets Since World War II. Vol. 5 in Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980.

Hollenberg, Donna. “’History as I Desired It’: Ekphrasis as Postmodern Witness in Denise Levertov’s Late Poetry.” Modernism/Modernity 10, no. 3 (September, 2003): 519-537.

Janssen, Ronald, ed. Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 3 (Fall, 1992). Special Levertov issue.

Little, Anne Colclough, and Susie Paul, eds. Denise Levertov: New Perspectives. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 2000.

Long, Mark. “Affinities of Faith and Place in the Poetry of Denise Levertov.” ISLE 6, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 31-40.

Rodgers, Audrey. Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.

Wagner, Linda W. Denise Levertov. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province. New York: New Directions, 1979.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Denise Levertov. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.