“O Taste and See,” the title poem from Denise Levertov’s sixth collection of poems, urges readers to experience life fully and sacramentally. Reading the poem one can imagine Levertov riding a subway train in New York, where she lived at the time of the writing, looking up at the advertising signs, and reading or imagining the words “O Taste and See,” then, as she often did, making a connection between her experience and the possibilities of that phrase in order to form a constellation of perceptions (to use her term) intense enough to suggest the opening lines of the poem: “The world is/ not with us enough./ O taste and see.”
These lines contain two reversals. The first is a curious reversal of William Wordsworth’s title “The World Is Too Much with Us.” For Wordsworth the “world” is commerce and exploitation, while for Levertov it is nature and the potential for satisfying experience. The second reversal is the counterintuitive order of “taste and see.” The natural and logical order would seem to be seeing something first and then deciding to taste it. Yet the implication of the title, and the poem, is that tasting or experiencing enables one to see or understand. Such is the obvious intent of the biblical origin of the phrase “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalms 34:8). In other words, only by experiencing God or life can one truly know or appreciate God.
The poem tells readers to taste and see “all that lives/ to the imagination’s tongue.” Then there follows a litany of pleasures that are concrete, abstract, emotional, spiritual, physical, aesthetic, and richly sensuous: “grief, mercy, language,/ tangerine, weather, to/ breathe them, bite/ savor, chew, swallow, transform// into our flesh our/ deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince.” All seem equal, such as grieving and savoring; all seem equally ordinary, as when death is as ordinary as crossing the street; and all, from their ordinariness, evoke mystery and meaning.
“O Taste and See” concludes with one more surprising twist: an image of one’s present existence as paradisiacal or edenic. “[L]iving in the orchard and being// hungry, and plucking/ the fruit.” This image is not the Eden of the Fall of Man on one hand or an unattainable utopia on the other, but a description of life as it could be if lived fully.