Poetry and prayer – Denise Levertov 1923-1997
By Sister Felicity Young
In the historic Hospital Chapel in Ilford, there is a memorial tablet to Rev. Paul Philip Levertoff, who settled in Ilford whilst he ministered to the Jews in the East End. He himself was of Russian Jewish stock, the great grandson of an eminent rabbi. At great cost to his family relationships he became a Christian after reading the Gospels. He became a Hebrew ( a Christian scholar), and taught Christian Jews all around Europe and in Turkey where he met his Welsh wife, Beatrice Spooner-Jones. She was brought up in Methodism and was a teacher with a Scottish mission in Istanbul - clearly no ordinary girl!
After the birth of their second daughter Olga, they came to England, first to St. Deiniol’s library in Hawarden, then settled in Ilford near Highlands Primary School, where Priscilla Denise was born.
The family then moved to 5 Mansfield Road, a substantial house near Ilford Station and close to Valentines Park. In her poetry Denise speaks of her childhood memories of Valentines Park, and they are so like mine. She speaks of Ilford High Road, Seven Kings where her marriage was registered, country places in Essex which she and her sister explored during their youth.
Denise was home-schooled and read extensively. She quickly developed a sense of her vocation as a poet, even sending her childhood verses to T.S. Eliot, who encouraged her in her calling. In her twenties she met an American and after various travels, settled in the US where her poetry took off.
In a poem written later in her life, she describes a childhood memory of being shown a convolvulus by her mother: I was barely/old enough to ask and repeat its name.// “Convolvulus” said my mother./ Pale shell-pink,a chalice/ no wider across than a silver sixpence. // It looked at me. I looked / back, delight/filled me as if/ I, not the flower,/ were a flower and were brimful of rain./And there was endlessness./ Perhaps through a lifetime what I’ve desired/ has always been to return/ to that endless giving and receiving, the wholeness/ of that attention/ that once- in –a- lifetime/ secret communion.
Attention and listening are key words for Denise; she had read Simone Weil who said: “Truly unmixed attention is prayer.”
Denise paid attention to her life, her feelings, to the social and political situation, her inner sense of justice and desire for peace. Although she had left behind her Christian beliefs, her attention to her life, her inner truth, eventually led her to embrace the Catholic faith when she was in her sixties. She felt passionate indignation about the Vietnam war and joined others in demonstrating against it, even being imprisoned overnight on one occasion.
At this time, she met Daniel Berrigan SJ and Dorothy Day, a convert to Catholicism and social activist. She came to know the writings of Thomas Merton after a long journey through doubts and questions, described in her poem Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. In the Kyrie she prays: “O deep, remote unknown, O deep unknown, have mercy upon us.” In the Credo, she prays: “Be, that I may believe. Amen.” At the end of the Benedictus, she bows before the mystery of the Incarnation: “The word/ chose to become/ flesh. In the blur of flesh/ we bow, baffled.”
It is significant that ‘doubting Thomas’ inspired her, as she could resonate with his doubts and questions. She imagines herself into Thomas’s skin as he listens to the father’s prayer for his son: Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” Thomas says: “I heard him cry out, weeping, and speak/ those words,/...and knew him my twin.” When she made the Exercises of St Ignatius, where he suggests imaginative contemplation of a Gospel scene, she realised she was already doing that. She has a wonderful poem about the Annunciation, where she speaks of the relationship between Mary’s call and the ‘annunciations’ that we experience.
In contrast to Mary’s listening attention, she sees Adam’s sin as opposite to that, and typically characterised by distracted inattention: “Fragmented Adam stares./God’s hands/ unseen, the whirling rides/ dazzle, the lights blind him. Fragmented,/ he is not present to himself. God/ suffers the void that is his absence.”
In another poem, Denise speaks of her own distractedness. In the poem Witness she says: “Sometimes the mountain/ is hidden from me in veils/ of cloud, sometimes/ I am hidden from the mountain/ in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,/ when I forget or refuse to go/ down to the shore or a few yards/ up the road, on a clear day, to reconfirm that witnessing presence.”
In her poem, FlickeringMind she prays: “Lord, not you,/ it is I who am absent....I stop to think about you, and my mind/at once/ like a minnow darts away,/ darts/ into the shadows, into gleams that fret/ unceasing over/ the river’s purling and passing....You are the stream, the fish, the light, / the pulsing shadow, you the unchanging presence, in whom all/ moves and changes. How can I focus my flickering, perceive/ at the fountain’s heart/ the sapphire I know is there?”
In a poem written for the 300th birthday of George Herbert, she prays for the grace of letting go into God: “As swimmers dare/ to lie face to the sky/ and water bears them, / as hawks rest upon air/ and air sustains them,/ so would I learn to attain/ freefall, and float/ into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace, knowing no effort earns/ that all surrounding grace.”
I am always struck by Denise’s honesty about her feelings, her doubts, her passionate active response to the problems of her time. She speaks to our consumerist culture where we are distracted by so many gadgets, and so less able to listen to the needs of our world. When she turns to prayer, she prays from the truth of where she is, not from where she would like to be.
I can ask myself, do I pray from the heart, from where I am, or do I try to put on a ‘good front’? Am I willing to go beyond my comfort zones in my concern for people from other cultures and countries who are suffering? She uses the Gospels for imaginative prayer, noticing how the Gospels relate to her life, and deepen her awareness of herself in relation to God.
I have spoken mostly of Denise’s religious poetry which she put together in a little volume called “The Stream and the Sapphire,” which is easily available. But all her poetry is like a personal journal, describing her responses to life over the long haul. It is a rich treasury to mine, for its wisdom, beautiful descriptions, seeing the double-edged nature of human life, her growing awareness of her divided self and her character flaws.
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov is a hefty tome, so the New Collected Poems of Denise Levertov might be a more realistic purchase! There is an excellent biography by Dana Greene, called Denise Levertov: a poet’s life. I hope that some of you will explore her work and find spiritual nourishment there.