The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The 182 lines of this poem (its subtitle identifies its subject—“Olga Levertoff, 1914-1964”) are divided into six major sections that range in length from fourteen to forty-seven lines. The two longest sections are further divided; section 3 has three numbered parts and section 5 has two. The poem begins with a recollection of the poet and her sister in an early domestic scene: The older sister kneels before a gas fire, undressing while her seven-year-old sister watches from her bed. The memory of Olga’s physical maturity is followed by an image of Olga now: “bones and tatters of flesh in earth.”

Section 2 shifts to a vision of Olga active in a political cause, wanting “to shout the world to its sensesto browbeat” as she reacted to the slum conditions she had seen as a child. The memory ends with Denise Levertov addressing Olga as the “Black one,” a (dark-complected?) political activist whose heart was alight with the white candle of her political commitment.

The third section is divided into three glimpses of the politically committed Olga. The first returns to a time when Olga, muttering “Everything flows,” attacks “human puppets.” The poet, a child still, felt “alien” to her sister’s muttered words but also felt a link between them and lines from a hymnal they both loved. Next, Olga is with her sister “in the gardenwe thought sometimes too small for our grand destinies.” Even then Olga’s passion for reform was active, aroused by her “dread” of “the rolling dark/ oncoming river.” Olga’s “bulwarks” against it were to perform trivial chores, write verses, pick “endless arguments,” and press on to “change the course of the river.” Olga’s “rage for order” disordered her “pilgrimage” and drove her to “hide among strangers,” still determined to “rearrange all mysteries in a new light.” In the third image, Olga is...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The open structure of the poem is evident in both line and stanza. Stanzaic lengths range from one to thirty-six (in section 6) lines, the most common lengths being two and three lines. Only section 2 contains stanzas of equal length—all triads—though stanzas of equal length are often grouped together throughout the first five sections, and a pattern of diminishing lengths is evident in sections 1, 3, and 4. Stanzaic patterning and length subtly pace the reader through the poet’s recollections and experience, diminishing in section 1, advancing regularly through section 2, diminishing again in part 1 of section 3, and so on. The pauses within the stanzas and lines themselves counterpoint or modulate—or refine—the structure that is developing on the more general level. Clearly, the poet has shaped the lines and stanzas to keep time with her experience of her subject, to shape and ultimately to understand it.

Line length is the immediate expression of Levertov’s mood as the ideas and recollections surface and form, as it were, pools of meaning, threads of understanding, and strings on which the poet plays her revelations about Olga and explores her present relationship to past lives. No predetermined pattern could accommodate this shaping force, and no other rhythms but those discovered in the making of the poem could express Levertov’s experience. Even the spaces between stanzas represent more than pauses or shifts; they are leaps in...

(The entire section is 552 words.)


(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.