The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Task” is a twenty-five-line poem composed of two stanzas written in free verse, which Denise Levertov herself would describe as “organic poetry.” The poem discusses the character and—as the title implies—the work of God. The opening six-line stanza presents a false image of God as an uncouth and somewhat threatening old man “always upstairs, sitting about/ in sleeveless undershirt,” his arms folded over his rumbling stomach. He is asleep and probably snoring since she concludes the stanza with the lines “his breath from open mouth/ strident, presaging death” (an image suggestive of the “death rattle”). The stanza ends with an ellipsis, as if the description was unfinished, and the second stanza interrupts and proceeds to correct this image of God.

In the corrected image, God is depicted as a weaver working at his loom “in the wilderness,” described as a “huge tundra room” with no walls and a “sky roof.” However, he is not far away; he is just next door. His work is absorbing and loud, and he seems to be in some hurry to finish it. The sounds of human screams and prayers come through the clamor of his task, but the poem is somewhat ambiguous about the kind of attention God pays to them. He “hears far-off” humanity’s screams and “perhaps listens for prayers in that wild solitude.” Ultimately, humans “can’t stop their/ terrible beseeching,” but “God/ imagines it sifting through, at last, to music.” The poem concludes with the task complete, the loom quiet, and “the weaver at rest.”