Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (II): Denise Levertov

Spiritual Exercises in a Humanistic Register (II): Denise Levertov

In 1992, the American (immigrant) poet Denise Levertov received a frightening medical report: she had contracted lymphoma. Localized and not—yet—life-threatening, the illness prompted in Levertov a desire for a more vivid spiritual awakening. Having converted to non-denominational Christianity during the mid-1980s, then to Catholicism in 1989, she met with a priest and expressed an interest in undertaking the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century priest and founder of the Jesuits. Consisting primarily of prayer and meditation, this four-week program was designed to help people feel more intensely the effects of their faith. (Participants begin by dwelling on their personal abjection and then, in a series of steps, increasingly affirm their need for, and access to, Christ’s grace.)

The exercises may be best known for their encouragement of imaginative identification with scriptural texts. With the help of spiritual guides, exercitants ponder Biblical episodes, striving to visualize themselves within these scenes. From that immersive vantage point they witness not only the arc of a well-known story but also scores of unmentioned details: air temperature and odor, the look and texture of clothing, ambient noise and the murmur of peripheral conversations, and so on. These meditative practices bore immediate fruit for Levertov as she reported such carryover effects as intensely happy dreams. She also recounted another experience, less an occurrence than an epiphany, that would prove important to her work as a poet. Donna Krolik Hollenberg, Levertov’s biographer, relates that this revelation happened one day when Levertov was waiting for a taxi. Levertov’s own account is interspersed with Hollenberg’s:

Looking at the play of light on the leaves … [Levertov] had the “familiar thought, ‘I wish Mother could see this too,’” and then she felt that “she was seeing it through me—not in the old style of vicarious appreciation of my travels … but as if she had taken my place for a moment inside my head and were looking through my eyes.” Later in the day, she thought this experience gave her an insight into what Saint Paul meant when he said, “Not I but Christ in me.” That is, if one can integrate “something, almost viscerally, of a loved person’s presence, into one’s perceptions,” this is analogous to how a holy person, a Mother Teresa, for example, might come to see people and events “in Christ’s way, not merely a human way…. Their compassion isn’t only their own.”[i]

The effect of imaginative projection here is doubled, even tripled: Levertov does not see her mother as much as she sees her mother seeing her, or seeing through her, gazing at the world through her daughter’s eyes. And this in turn conduces to a flash of religious insight as Levertov understands one of Paul’s signature aphorisms in a new light—and, by extension, vicariously shares the rapturous ethical vision of modern saints like Mother Teresa.[ii]

Moved by this experience, Levertov incorporated the spiritual exercises into her poetry. The results are compelling. Already lauded for her attention to fine detail—the poet and critic Donald Revell draws inspiration from Levertov’s description of a flea bite incurred by the exuberant presence of an unchastened dog[iii]—Levertov produced a series of poems reflecting her newfound inspiration. Fittingly for pieces modeled on the Ignatian exercises, the poems are flush with vivid impressions and a host of new meanings derived from ancillary speakers and incidents.

To an extent, this was a familiar practice to Levertov. She had already composed a number of poems based on imaginative reconstruction of Biblical episodes. One, inspired by Luke 24 and a seventeenth-century painting by Diego Velázquez, retells the story of Christ sitting with Cleopas and the latter’s traveling companion after journeying to Emmaus. The speaker is a servant girl tremblingly eavesdropping from an adjacent room.

She listens, listens, holding

her breath. Surely that voice

is his – the one

who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,

as no one had ever looked?

Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?[iv]

Another poem, “St. Thomas Didymus,” merges two well-known stories from the Gospels—that of the famous doubting disciple (“Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe”[v]) and that of the father whose son, having “a dumb spirit” that “hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters,” declares his belief even as he pleads to Jesus to “help … [his] unbelief.”[vi] In the poem, Thomas gazes on this father and feels an affinity for him:

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man

gray but vivid, standing forth

beyond the crowd’s buzzing

holding in desperate grip his shaking

teethgnashing son,

 

and thought him my brother.

 

I heard him cry out, weeping, and speak

those words,

Lord, I believe, help thou

mine unbelief,

 

and knew him

my twin….[vii]

Both poems, provocatively, rehearse dramas of belief and self-realization. In the first, the girl, belonging to a social underclass, breathlessly wonders whether the visitor in the next room will recognize and, in essence, redeem her—raise her to some more exalted station through the force of his gaze. Will he “see” her again and will she believe what—who—he sees? In the second, the speaker, Thomas, feels kinship with a man whose belief is less than what he feels it should be and of what the situation (the proximity to the Lord) seems to demand. In effect, the poem asks, what becomes of those who seem unable to fully believe? By extension, the poet (Thomas) implies, what happens to those who are unable to measure up to their own moment and imbibe the spirit of their age, and who thus fall short of what seems to be their calling? In effect, what happens to those who live as fragments of themselves?

Levertov published these poems in the late 1980s, and the questions they raise seem to have been on her mind when she began the spiritual exercises. The effect on her work appears to have been subtle, but significant. Certain poems she composed afterward again conjure themes of partial presence, of a haunting relation to some desired fullness. But the emphasis seems different; these later poems partake more completely of the presence(s) they invoke. One, “The Change,” addresses a shift in the poet’s relation to her deceased parents. “For years the dead / were the terrible weight of their absence.” But now, things seem different:

… they begin to return, the dead:

but not as visions. They’re not

separate now, not to be seen, no,

it’s they who see: they displace,

for seconds, for minutes, maybe longer,

the mourner’s gaze with their own.[viii]

As Levertov’s biographer remarks of this poem, “There is a difference between envisioning her mother and father in loving memory, which Denise had experienced before, and this feeling of seeing with their eyes at a time of her own mortal threat.”[ix] This is not a poem about the effects of partial belief, then, but one that speaks to the heightened experience that follows a fuller vestiture of faith. Experience in this latter register is intense, though it is not yet entire, for the dead are not brought back to life, not exactly. Hence, while fulfilling, it is not yet full.

Another poem, “Poetics of Faith,” earlier titled “Aesthetics of Miracle,” speaks to this compound of intense yet incomplete experience. It centers itself on the famous story of Peter walking on the water to meet Jesus.[x]

as if forgetting

to prepare them, He simply

walks on water

toward them, casually—

and impetuous Peter, empowered,

jumps from the boat and rushes

on wave-tip to meet Him—

a few steps, anyway—

(till it occurs to him

“I can’t, this is preposterous”

and Jesus has to grab him,

tumble his weight

back over the gunwale).[xi]

We see here the hallmark of the Ignatian exercises, with small, personal details (the casual nature of Jesus’s gait; Peter’s exclamation “this is preposterous”) supplementing the scriptural account. However, the poem bookends its version of this Biblical episode with two important deviations from the story. The first, with which the poem opens, concerns an abstract principle the poem conveys about the nature of poetry writing:

‘Straight to the point’

can ricochet,

unconvincing.

Circumlocution, analogy,

parable’s ambiguities, provide

context, stepping-stones.

 

Most of the time. [ll. 1-7]

Poems are about more than their objects, more than their language, more than the texture of their allusions to other poems. They’re about the inspiration that animates them, something that comes to one as “the lightning power / … of plain / unheralded miracle! / For example, / as if forgetting / to prepare them …” (ll. 8, 10-13). The story of Peter is thus, here, precisely one such “parable,” a kind of “stepping-stone.” The point the poet underscores here is that inspiration is paramount to any poem, more so than mere craft or careful technique. Peter’s kinetic, “impetuous” response to Jesus illustrates such a miracle. But that instance, that “lightning flash” that impels Peter to stride across a substance that cannot sustain him, illustrates how inspiration undoes itself as a principle. Poetic inspiration, the poet asserts, is not the result of a systematic method since, by definition, inspiration always arrives unexpectedly. Or, if there is a method that lays the groundwork for inspiration—the spiritual exercises would be one cardinal example—it cannot guarantee the “miracle” it seeks. The poet labors at her craft only to find that her craft as such counts for relatively little. What the poet desires is thus irreducible to poetry. Hence, the poet desires to be something other than a poet, since simply being a poet is not adequate to the miracle a poem needs.[xii]

The poem’s second deviation from the Biblical episode comes in its concluding lines, once Peter has been hoisted back into the boat and the miracle has receded behind quotidian reality.

Sustaining those light and swift

steps was more than Peter

could manage. Still,

years later,

his toes and insteps, just before sleep,

would remember their passage. [ll. 26-31]

Experiential immediacy devolves, in Peter, into drowsy rumination over an indelible impression, into the trace of an event that, having occurred, nevertheless begs credulity in hindsight. But again, within the context of the poem, that episode functions as an example of the self-undoing poetic principle that inspiration supersedes technique—which is to say, that poems defy the poets who create them. Peter’s reflection on his miraculous experience is thus a figure of the poem brooding over its own ecstatic origins. Do all poems effectively walk on water? If so, what or who inspires them? Here, within the context of Levertov’s poem, Christ is the source of the poetic “miracle”—Christ, the Word, the original Maker (or poet: poietes).[xiii]

What then does that imply for Peter, the disciple—the poet of merely human means? Such a question was born, for Levertov, from the spiritual exercises, which, for all their efficaciousness in heightening the imagination, underscore the weakness of the exercitant, her perpetual need for grace. How so? Because whatever the exercises (for Levertov, the poems) exhibit of the effects of their inspiration, they seem to wish to communicate something beyond their own capacity—they seem to wish to tell us something more about the source of their inspiration. Peter’s steps across the water are a mere figure for what remains ineffable, namely, the feeling of inspiration and the relation it bears to its source. On that subject, the poem is relatively mute, rendered virtually speechless. Nevertheless, its very existence suggests that something has moved the poet—some event, some miracle. It stands as proof, it seems to tell us, of something greater than itself.

And this changes how we evaluate Levertov’s “Ignatian” poems. On their own terms, and like what one of her earlier spokespeople, Thomas, professes of himself, the poems miss their moment: they fail to measure up to their own inspiration; whatever they reveal, they remain bound by their own opacity. But they manage nonetheless to expand the possibilities for what poetry can mean. For these poems refuse the modern truism that art exists for its own sake. Indeed, Levertov’s Ignatian poems suggest, whatever is “poetic” in poems is secondary, a little beside the point. These poems are profoundly relational, even transformational, for more important than the poem as such is the source of its inspiration and how that inspiration ramifies in the poet or reader who receives it. No poem speaks (only) of itself: if it does not transport us beyond ourselves, if it does not transform us, it is nothing.

Ultimately, there is something deeply Ignatian about this idea. No exercitant would claim that the experiences the exercises inspire, however vivid, are all that significant detached from the divine impetus that prompted them. Indeed, what is spiritual about the exercises is less their product, less the vision they inspire, than their claim of connection to that divine source. To that extent, what seems most meaningful about Levertov’s Ignatian poems, or any product of the spiritual exercises, is the opening of divinity to, or perhaps within, the one who seeks.

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center


[i] Hollenberg, A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 416-17, original emphasis.

[ii] I should emphasize the purportedly rapturous nature of such vision because Teresa, we would later learn upon the publication of her letters, professed suffering from extended periods of spiritual despair. See Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk (New York: Image, 2007). Phyllis Zagano and C. Kevin Gillespie read Teresa’s letters through the lens of clinical depression as well as the spiritual tradition of the Dark Night of the Soul. See Zagano and Gillespie, “Embracing Darkness: A Theological and Psychological Case Study of Mother Teresa,” Spiritus 10.1 (2010): 52-75.

[iii] Revell, The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2007), 6-8.

[iv] “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velázquez),” Denise Levertov: Collected Poems, ed. Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey (New York: New Directions, 2013), 767, ll. 1-6.

[v] John 20:25, King James Version.

[vi] Mark 9:17, 22, 24, KJV.

[vii] “St. Thomas Didymus,” Denise Levertov: Collected Poems, 844, ll. 1-13.

[viii] “The Change,” Denise Levertov: Collected Poems, 940, ll. 1-2, 17-22.

[ix] A Poet’s Revolution, 417.

[x] See Matthew 14:22-33, KJV.

[xi] “Poetics of Faith,” Denise Levertov: Collected Poems, 963-64, ll. 13-25.

[xii] On the tension between individual poems and a larger conception of poetry, see Oren Izenberg, Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), esp. the Introduction: “Poems, Poetry, Personhood,” 1-39.

[xiii] On the incarnational—sacramental, eucharistic—implications of this idea, see our BYU colleague Kimberly Johnson’s book Made Flesh: Sacrament and Poetics in Post-Reformation England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

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