The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 785

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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 again the “Black one,” an evil spirit, still anguished, riding fiercely (“as Tartars ride mares”) through bad years. In a dream, Levertov sees Olga, “haggard and rouged,” standing in a slum street. During these “pilgrim years,” Levertov lost “all sense, almost” of what Olga was experiencing.

The fourth section opens in a hospital room where Olga lies ill and in pain, her “hatredsburned out.” Seeing her sister “afloat on a sea/ of love and pain,” Levertov remembers one of Olga’s favorite cadences and sees the past (Olga’s, the world’s) reduced to a “sick bone” except for her sister’s passionate belief and political ambition.

The fifth section begins with a quotation from an old poem about lusty youth. Olga once put it to a music that pervades the poet’s own life, as Olga’s life has. This thought recalls the grassy place of their childhood, where Olga spun a magical tale about a tree root leading them into a nether world. Other lines from the old poem follow as she recalls their entering the world of “silent mid-Essex churches” adorned with effigies of medieval figures. The reminiscence evokes more lines from the same poem with which the section begins.

The second part of the fifth section follows Olga the year she was “most alone,” revisiting “the old roads” and sights she and the poet had explored together as children. Now, Olga finds changes, still anguished. The winter’s “damp still air” and frost, her poverty, the loss of her children—all reflect Olga’s depressed circumstances and hint of political failure, the stage lights gone out, the “theater” empty and locked. The vision ends with an image of Olga in her room, reading books “that winter,” and outdoors among the furrows and strange cries of birds, which the poet herself had once longed to embrace, only Olga was then “trudging after” her own “anguish.”

The final section recalls Olga’s “brown gold” eyes, which the poet has always seen while crossing the bridge over the river Roding and “by other streams in other countries.” The thought brings back another moment in their childhood when Olga’s passion drives her through the Ludwig van Beethoven sonatas “savagely.” The poet recalls “the fear” in Olga’s eyes in a photograph and wonders where the fear went as Olga passed through troubled years, what kept the “candle” lit as she journeyed. Lines suggest that Olga is last seen in an “obscure wood” with a house; from its open door, a hand beckons to Olga “in welcome.”

Turning toward her own life, Levertov has seen in the “many brooks in the worldmany questions” her own eyes want to ask of Olga’s. In those eyes, the poet glimpses “some vision/ of festive goodness” behind a gaze that is “hard, or veiled, or shining” but ultimately “unknowable.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

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 Levertov’s experience from one perception to another. Within the grasp of her own search for understanding, the poet lets the lines fall as they must, stopping on a natural pause—“To change,/ to change the course of the river!”—or continuing across the “abyss” created by spaces between stanzas. The result is a naturalness of rhythm and voice only occasionally intruded upon by such “poetic” devices as enjambment: “setting herself/ to sift cinders.”

The more characteristic use of line ending may be seen in lines 37-38: “there was a white/ candle in your heart.” There, the pause on “white” does more than rhyme would to emphasize both attitude and meaning. The poet needs fidelity to tell the truth—Olga’s candle was white—but knows that a flash of color expresses a higher truth, her sister’s purity of heart, set against the background of the previous line: “Black one, black one.” In this way, the poet discovers the image, the placement of a word, and line rhythm that reveal her understanding. At the same time, these three lines conclude another understanding—begun at line 15, “The high pitch of/ nagging insistence,” and continued through the psychological counterpointing of Olga’s strident political “rage” and her younger sister’s teasing—which concludes with the taunting rhythm of “Black one, black one.”

Music, which was at the heart of Levertov’s relationship with her sister, now helps render the poet’s experience of that relationship. One element of the poem’s imagery is its shape, and certainly its rhythms create more than a felt experience. If a symphony can inspire images in the minds of the audience, this poem’s modulations bring to the surface of the reader’s mind images that “rhyme” with, or correspond to, the ones Levertov actually provides. The very rightness of the poet’s images is established by the very rightness of the poem’s rhythms.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153

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