Sands of the Well

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

Levertov’s career has been marked by moral vision and political courage, a remarkable balancing of “everyday” life, mystical insight, and political utterance. These characteristic themes are maintained in SANDS OF THE WELL, as is her ability to find and express the epiphanic moment of perception or spiritual uplift. The special notes of Levertov’s later years, notes that include the embrace of the Pacific Northwest and of a more conventional religiosity, are played with stunning expertise.

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SANDS OF THE WELL is divided into eight sections. Several sections contain nature poems, ranging from poems of description to poems of identification. Levertov insists on a correspondency of nature within and without the human agent. The title of the second section, “Sojourns in the Parallel World,” underscores this concern. Other sections gather poems about memory and music.

Section VII, “A South Wind,” focuses more intensely on the unity of man and nature, on how a certain type of looking is finally a state of being and becoming. Here, also, Levertov meditates (if brief lyrics can be meditations) on the sacred gift of language. While religious imagery and sentiments color “A South Wind,” a more particularized evocation of Christian faith links the poems in the book’s last section “Close to a Lake.” These devotional poems, placed where they are, suggest Levertov’s pilgrimage from wonder to worship. She remakes the language of religious thought into something sharp and lively. In this collection, as in her career of half a century, Denise Levertov demonstrates a willingness to push in many directions, to reach out for what life offers, and beyond.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXV, October 26, 1996, p. 24.

Booklist. XCII, April 1, 1996, p. 1339.

Commonweal. CXXIII, December 20, 1996, p. 23.

Library Journal. CXXI, May 1, 1996, p. 97.

Philadelphia Inquirer. May 19, 1996, p. K7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 26, 1996, p. 101.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, July 7, 1996, p. 2.

Sands of the Well

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1905

In “Revolutionary Love: Denise Levertov and the Poetics of Politics,” Sandra M. Gilbert describes Levertov as “a poet who trusts that a thread of potential joy is woven into every inch of the fabric that constitutes daily reality” (Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry, edited by James McCorkle, 1990). She is, and has always been, a poet of affirmation who wonders at the human ability to risk that joy, to undermine its potential, through corrupting political action and environmental inaction. In an earlier age, she might have been one of the “Fireside Poets,” so confidently does she combine aesthetic and ethical dimensions in her work. In her own time, she is one of a handful of major poets whose careers have been marked by moral vision and political courage. In this regard, her writings belong in the company of William Everson, Robert Bly, and Robert Lowell, whose great-grandfather James Russell Lowell was one of those very “Fireside Poets” from whose pen a satiric brand of political poetry flowed. In terms of a mystical element in her poems, Levertov herself has noted affinities with the work of Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley.

Born in England and educated at home by her Welsh mother and a Russian-Jewish father (who later became an Anglican clergyman and biblical scholar), Levertov married an American and came to the United States in 1948. Her first collection, The Double Image, was published in 1946, and her first collection after coming to the United States was Here and Now (1957). By the 1960’s, Levertov was a well-known poet whose craft had reached maturity. With O Taste and See (1964), this prolific poet’s seventh volume, she had approached major stature, her work marked by a celebration of the everyday. Soon after, American involvement in Vietnam galvanized Levertov’s “revolutionary love,” giving it a focused, explosive, and unavoidable subject. Her remarkable balancing of personal and political utterance defines one important aspect of her persona but has led critics and anthologists to undervalue those poems that do not overtly plumb political consciousness and conscience. Her work through the 1970’s and 1980’s remained highly personal, though far more directly revelatory than the poems in her more modest and figurative first volumes.

All of Levertov’s characteristic themes continue in Sands of the Well, her twenty-second collection, though the topical political poem is less frequent. Her ability to find and express the epiphanic moment of perception or spiritual uplift is as strong as ever. Her engagement not merely as an observer but as a denizen of the natural world is here even more richly evoked and convincingly textured. The special notes of Levertov’s later years, notes that include the embrace of the Pacific Northwest and of a more conventional religiosity, are played with stunning expertise. Here and there, in this generous volume, are pieces that might well have been set aside as notebook work, but on the whole the level of intensity is high, and the variety of experiences that Levertov addresses is abundant.

Sands of the Well is divided into eight numbered and titled sections. The first two of these are comprised of what might be called nature poems, though the direction is from poems of description to poems of identification. These poems are buoyed by awe and a latent mysticism, reminding readers of the abiding influence on Levertov of such giants as William Blake and later poets in the English Romantic tradition. A poem such as “Concordance,” found in the opening “Crow Spring” section, clearly owes a debt to William Wordsworth, perhaps as filtered by Robert Frost:

Brown bird, irresolute as a dry

leaf, swerved in flight

just as my thought

changed course, as if I heard

a new motif enter a music I’d not

till then attended to.

It is one of many poems that insist on a correspondency of nature within and without the human agent. The title of Levertov’s second section, “Sojourns in the Parallel World,” underscores this thematic concern. In a poem by the same name, Levertov philosophizes about the parallel and overlapping world humans call Nature, “only reluctantly/ admitting ourselves to be Nature’ too.” She reminds us of the moments when, moving beyond our obsessions, we seem to step out of ourselves as “something tethered/ in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch/ of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.” When we return again, like the winged emblem of the imagination in John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” we find ourselves changed.

In the third section, called “It Should Be Visible,” Levertov groups her most forcefully political poems. In “Protesting at the Nuclear Test Site,” Levertov marvels first at the returned scorn of the victimized desert landscape. Soon after, however, her initial revulsion turns “almost to love” as she recognizes “marks of torture” and is moved, almost, to bend down and “kiss that leper face.” A far more complex poem, one of the most complex in the entire collection, follows. “The News and a Green Moon. July 1994” juxtaposes information about comet fragments digging craters into Jupiter, massacre and famine in Rwanda, ritual cleansing, and political slaughter in Haiti. The poem becomes an eloquent cry to bring awakening from“moral torpor” as Levertov’s “old buoyant will for change” does not allow the beauty of a night when the moon shines like “a disk of soft jade melting” to obscure “earth’s cries of anguish.”

Section IV, “Amamnesis,” adumbrates the past and the workings of memory. It also reads like a thumbnail autobiography of Levertov’s spiritual journey. These lines from “Something More” might be taken as credo:

With the will to see
more than is there, one comes, at moments,
to perceive the more that there is:
from behind gray curtains of low expectation
is drawn forth, resplendent.

Other notable poems in this section include “The Great Black Heron” and “The Cult of Relics,” poems in which Levertov plumbs memory for its keys to the present and the universal.

The next two sections (formally sections V and VI), “Representations” and “Raga,” are short and highly integrated. “Representations” is presented as a single sequence in nine parts; “Raga,” though structured differently, can also be read as a sequence poem. “Representations” juxtaposes passages on the tangible world, the perception of it, art, and the domain of spirit. Levertov’s references to the czar’s Russia may allude to her father’s origins, and thus the entire poem may be a weaving of philosophy and personal history. Simultaneously, it is a poem about rapture, time, and timelessness. The poems grouped in “Raga” all have to do with music. Several attend to the relationships between the motions that create music—the conductor’s movement and the physical exertions of musicians—and the music itself. Again, there is an interest in the interweaving of the temporal and the eternal, especially in “Unaccompanied” where Levertov describes the artist’s transport: “Violinist, alone as on a martyr’s cross/ you have forgotten us.” In her evocations of the composer, conductor, and musician, Levertov is clearly probing her own art as well. In “A Trio by Henze,” with its reference to “strokes calligraphic,” the connection is unmistakable. These are gentle, uplifting poems that remind the reader of the traditional association between music and religious expression. In so doing, they prepare for the last two sections of Sands of the Well, sections in which Levertov’s poems turn more and more into hymns and prayers.

Section VII, “A South Wind,” focuses more intensely on the unity of man and nature, on how a certain type of looking is finally a state of being and becoming. Here, also, Levertov meditates (if brief lyrics can be meditations) on the sacred gift of language and its essential affirmative purpose. For Levertov, the Romantic notion of the poet as priest carries forward. “The Lyre-Tree” alludes to this tradition and to poems such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Aeolian Harp” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” Levertov pleads with Orpheus: “lend me power to sing/ the unheard music of that vanished lyre.” “Primal Speech,” “The Hymn,” and “Writer and Reader” elaborate this credo and sense of vocation.

In several of these poems, Levertov tells more than she shows, but in others she is true to the modernist impulse of letting the image have its way. In this respect, poems such as “Your Heron” and “Hymns to Darkness” remind readers of Levertov’s debt to William Carlos Williams, a debt much more pronounced in earlier sections of this book and in Levertov’s earlier collections.

While religious imagery and sentiments color “A South Wind,” a stronger and more particularized evocation of Christian faith links the poems in the book’s eighth and last section “Close to a Lake.” These devotional poems, a kind so rare in contemporary poetry, suggest Levertov’s pilgrimage from wonder to worship. For Levertov, God is “the air enveloping the whole/ globe of being,” and humanity breathes “in, out, in, the sacred.” While our wings are stirred, “only the saints/ take flight.”

In such poems as “Poetics of Faith,” “Conversion of Brother Lawrence,” and “What Time Is Made From,” Levertov refashions the language of religious thought into something sharp and lively. One could put away the traditional prayer book and bring a congregation to great heights of spiritual engagement through these poems. And, inspired by her sermonlike poem “Dom Helder Camara at the Nuclear Test Site,” one can find the nexus of language, faith, and deed. In this poem, prayer and resistance meet on “forbidden ground/ where marshals wait with their handcuffs.” After being booked and released, the protesters reassemble past the boundary line “back to a freedom that’s not so free.” Then, led by a frail octogenarian (the title figure), they “. . . dance in the unity that brought us here,/ instinct pulls us into the ancient/ rotation, symbol of continuance.” For Levertov, prayer alone is not enough.

Writing about Levertov in the second volume of his A History of Modern Poetry (1987), David Perkins complains that Levertov’s career has been that of poetic chameleon: “She illustrates poetic styles of the times and places in which she has lived, and is lacking, as a poet, in strong individuality.” It might be wiser, and it is certainly more kind, to praise her gift of sensitivity and responsiveness, her capacity for change and growth.

If there is a constant in Levertov’s career, it is her practiced faith in open form, a faith articulated in her 1965 essay “Some Notes on Organic Form,” published in Poetry magazine (and later collected in the landmark 1973 anthology, The Poetics of the New American Poetry). Levertov considers organic poetry to be “a method of appreciation, for example, of recognizing what we perceive, and is based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural categories. Such a poetry is exploratory.”

Exploration is the hallmark of Levertov’s art. In Sands of the Well, as in her career of half a century, Denise Levertov demonstrates a willingness to push in many directions, to reach destinations, and to move on.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXV, October 26, 1996, p. 24.

Booklist. XCII, April 1, 1996, p. 1339.

Commonweal. CXXIII, December 20, 1996, p. 23.

Library Journal. CXXI, May 1, 1996, p. 97.

Philadelphia Inquirer. May 19, 1996, p. K7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 26, 1996, p. 101.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, July 7, 1996, p. 2.

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