The Poem

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“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.

Forms and Devices

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“O Taste and See” is structured in five stanzas. The first and fourth stanzas consist of three lines each; the second and third, four lines each; and the last, two. The lines of the first and last stanzas are shorter than the rest, so that, visually, the poem appears rather symmetrical. However, one’s lingering impression, after closing the book, is that the words and phrases of the poem scampered down the page in an improvised dance.

Because “O Taste and See” is an unrhymed poem without a regular metrical pattern, giving the impression of free form, one might categorize it as free verse. Levertov, however, would have objected, preferring to describe it, instead, as an “organic poem.” By organic form she meant that content determines form. In other words, if the poet is attentive to the sense and sound of the content, those will suggest the form the poem should take: the length of the lines, the line breaks, the look of the poem on the page. By breaking the first line of the poem after “The world is,” for example, she creates a moment of wondering what the world is before the slight surprise of the next line: “not with us enough.” By...

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including “O taste and see” in the first stanza, she invites readers to test her thesis that the world is not with us enough before they connect “O taste and see” to “the subway Bible poster said” in the following line (and stanza). In a similar way, the break between line 12, “into our flesh our,” and line 13, “deaths,” creates a moment of slight suspense.

Levertov’s stanza breaks are as deliberate as her line breaks. The last line of each stanza runs on into the following stanza, and the pull of the run-on is especially effective in the last two stanza breaks. Between the third and fourth stanzas, the line “savor, chew, swallow, transform” is the closest to a natural and logical sequence in the list of pleasures, and it sets up the natural, but surprising, continuation in the fourth stanza: “into our flesh our/ deaths.” At the end of the fourth stanza, the line “living in the orchard and being” seems complete in itself and consistent with the existential theme of the poem. The first line of the last stanza draws attention down to “hungry, and plucking/ the fruit,” thus modifying and enlarging one’s understanding.

Another device that Levertov employs in her poems is the use of different typefaces, and in “O Taste and See” she uses boldface for the phrases “O taste and see” and “The Lord,” implying that these are borrowed or quoted lines. The boldface also highlights and emphasizes them. Although the poems of O Taste and See were written during what Levertov called her agnostic period, they echo both the language and the precepts of the Bible, which cannot be ignored in the interpretation.


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