The Poem

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“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.”

Forms and Devices

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Concerning the forms of her poems, Levertov, in The Poet in the World (1973), distinguishes between free verse, which rejects precast or reusable forms in favor of freedom from all bonds, and her “organic poetry,” which, having freed itself from imposed forms, voluntarily submits to the forms that content reveals and imposes on it. The form of “The Task” is an outgrowth and expression of its contents. The poem’s two-stanza structure permits the contrast of the false image of God with the corrected image. The first stanza begins conversationally with the words “As if,” implying the conditional character of the description and establishing a skeptical tone. The reader understands immediately that this is not the true image of God. The second stanza begins with a resounding “No,” specifying—in no uncertain terms—a contradiction to the first stanza.

The controlling metaphor of the second stanza is God as a weaver whose work is weaving a great garment. The structure of the stanza is loomlike: Elements of both sense and sound are threaded into the poem, not in prose sentence order but in alternating and somewhat irregular arrangements that only present a finished pattern in the fully woven poem. For example, visual images of the wilderness in the first two lines of the stanza are followed by a line combining the introduction of the loom with a picture of berry bushes, which in turn is followed by a line in which “rain” and “shine” are juxtaposed to the aural image of the “clacking and whirring” loom. Human screams, introduced in lines 14 and 15, are commented on in lines 21 and 22; likewise, God’s listening, introduced in lines 15 and 16, is related to human voices in line 19. The “hum of bees, not the din” that he hears in line 13 is echoed by his imagining human “beseeching” as “music” in line 23. Similarly, line length at the center of the second stanza is patterned, with pairs of longer lines alternating with shorter lines. Line breaks seem to be determined by emphasis, with key...

(This entire section contains 458 words.)

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words such as “solitude,” “woven,” “task,” “God,” and “music” occurring at the ends of lines.

These devices illustrate Levertov’s ideal of the elements of a poem working together to create “a kind of extended onomatopoeia” that imitates “not the sounds of an experiencebut the feeling of an experience” (The Poet in the World). However, the poet also uses onomatopoeia in the traditional sense of using words that sound like their referents: a stomach rumbling, the loom clacking and whirring, and the bees humming. In her description of the false image of God, repeated sibilants (as in “sleeveless undershirt, asleep”) sound like breath passing through dentures, and the assonant sounds of the dull, open vowels intensify the image of the open-mouthed sleeper.


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