What does Levertov’s poem "To the Reader" mean?

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Denise Levertov's poem "To the Reader" presents three clear and compelling images of things that are happening elsewhere as you read.

This brief free verse poem of ten lines is simple and declarative in style. The first image could not be clearer. A polar bear urinates, dying the snow yellow in an otherwise completely white landscape.

The second image is slightly more obscure. The gods among the liana vines could be idols. Such sights are common in Nepal or Thailand, with hundreds of statues grouped around trees, peering out from between vines. These would be the only man-made figures in the poem, however. The gods could also be monkeys or some other animal that lives among liana vines.

The final image is one that could not be wilder: the dark sea. However, it is connected to the reader by the metaphor of turning pages, describing the most mysterious part of the natural world in terms of a civilized human activity.

So what does the poem mean? On one level it simply means exactly what it says: as you read, these extraordinary scenes are unfolding elsewhere in the world. It is enlightening and humbling to think about them from time to time. This then leads on to the reflection of all the remarkable things that are happening in the world, most of which no human eye sees or will ever see.

It is particularly significant that the poem ends with the sea "turning its dark pages," for we know less about the sea than anything else in the world. While we read and try to decipher a poem, the pages of the sea will always be dark to us, the meaning beneath those pages and the life of that silent world remain a mystery.

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