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  • Danya Blokh

As The Eye Wanders

Throughout my life, I have unpredictably fallen into moments of rapt attention to the world. These were not sublime encounters, characterized by awe or fear, but quiet instances, coming on as I encountered a strange tree in a park or stared at a squirrel in my yard or listened to the midnight traffic from my porch. That tree, that squirrel, that buzz of passing cars, I would suddenly realize, was intended for me. The material thing seemed to be part of a conversation between myself and a great being, a being expressed in everything around me, in the yellow leaves and the acorns and the lantern light.


Though I was raised Jewish, obeying the Sabbath and attending my city’s reform synagogue, these spiritually intense moments never resonated with my religious education as much as they did with my love of poetry. It was in verse, which my parents had raised me to love and which I began to write in middle school, that I encountered the closest approximation of that enthrallment, that sense of fragile meaningfulness folded into the smallest details before me. But perhaps Judaism left its mark on my spirituality after all, as the poets whose work best captured that sense of attentive awe happened to be almost entirely Jewish: Louise Glück, George Oppen, Robert Pinsky, and, my focus in this essay, Denise Levertov.


Born in England in 1923, Levertov was the daughter of a Welsh mother from a small mining village and a Hasidic Jewish father who had converted to Christianity and become an Anglican priest. Exposed to poetry early on by her fervently literary family, Levertov published her first poem at seventeen years old, and her first book of poetry six years later. It wasn’t until her move to America in 1948, and her subsequent association with the Black Mountain Poets, the Olson Group, and William Carlos Williams, that she moved away from the traditional forms of her early poetry and developed the free-flowing, musical style for which she became famous. Her poems portray the mind in a state of passionate encounter with objects, people, and events, conveying enthrallment through skillful formal gymnastics which imitate the workings of a captivated mind.


While many poets leave critics to scour biographies for any hint of Judaism’s influence in their life, Levertov spares me the trouble. She has spoken openly of her admiration for Hasidism, the Jewish mystical movement which emphasized God’s immanence and rebelled against the scholasticism of Halakhic debate in favor of more emotional and immediate religious practice. Levertov stated in an interview:


“Hasidism has given me since childhood a sense of marvels, of wonder. The Hasidim were a bit like the Fransicans; although in both movements there was also a very great sense of asceticism, yet along with it there was recognition and joy in the physical world. And a sense of wonder at creation, and I think I’ve always felt something like that… I think that’s what poems are all about.” [1]


The best known philosophical articulation of Hasidic principles comes from Martin Buber, to whom Levertov has an uncanny biographical connection; her father published a book on Hasidism which influenced Buber’s own studies of Hasidic tales. [2] Buber’s ideology is worth exploring here, as it provides a framework for understanding the Judaic elements of Levertov’s poetry.


Rebelling against the cold rationalism of modernity, Buber found in Hasidism the basis for a radically actualized everyday existence. In his famous 1923 text, I and Thou, Buber argued that a person always exists in one of two orientations toward the world, either an I-It relationship or an I-You relationship. The first mode is a sleepwalking state; in seeing the things and people around oneself as means, in perceiving life itself as nothing more than experience, one exists with a fraction of their true self. Only in the I-You orientation, in which one encounters another thing as an exclusive subject, can one exist “with one’s whole being” in the present. [3] Though Buber’s concept of the I-You encounter resonates with other philosophers, especially the later Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas’ idea of the face-to-face encounter of the subject with the wholly Other, Buber’s You is unique in its inclusivity: while Levinas wrote in Totality and Infinity that “the dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face,” [4] Buber believed the You could be a plant, person, or God himself, its precise manifestation is secondary to the reciprocity involved in knowing that the You can act upon the I just as the I can act upon the You. Buber’s imperative to relate toward things in the world as You is clearly influenced by his faith in God’s interpenetration of the world; “through everything that becomes present to us,” he writes, “we gaze toward the train of the eternal You; in each we perceive a breath of it; in every You we address the eternal You, in every sphere according to its manner.” [5] Buber celebrated the Hasidic belief that “God can be beheld in each thing and reached through each pure deed” as the pinnacle of the I-You relation; Hasidic practice recognized that true religiosity resided not so much in law and study as in a joyous and fervent orientation to the world, a realization of the “sparks of God that glimmer in all being and all things.” [6]


Though there are few direct mentions of God in Levertov’s writing, her work brims with encounters with a ‘You’ who contains divine intent. “The Garden Wall,” for instance, the process of transitioning from an I-It to an I-You relation. The poem begins with the speaker encountering the garden wall as a fact:


“Bricks of the wall,

so much older than the house—

taken I think from a farm pulled down

when the street was built—

narrow bricks of another century.”


The speaker’s focus on the wall’s past separates her from its physical presence. Buber explains that “only as the You becomes present does presence come into being. The I of the basic word I-It, the I that is not bodily confronted by a You but surrounded by a multitude of “contents,” has only a past and no present.” Thus, the garden wall is first introduced to us as a litany of historical facts; the speaker is meditating on the origins of an It rather than encountering a You. The wall’s subjectivity is further denied by its dissection into constituent parts, both in this opening stanza and the first line of the next (“Modestly, though laid with panels and parapets”). By ending most lines on punctuation, Levertov keeps the wall from cohering into an entity. The reader is kept at bay, introduced to the scene slowly and as of yet unable to fully see the wall.


Yet in the middle of the second stanza, after describing the rows of flowers which obscure the “[modest]” and “unnoticed” garden wall, the speaker unexpectedly encounters its stunning appearance:


“but I discovered

the colors in the wall that woke

when spray from the hose

played on its pocks and warts—”

The change in Levertov’s vocabulary, from descriptive to personifying, creates the sense of an encounter with a You. If colors in the wall can “[wake],” if the wall can have “pocks and warts,” then it is capable of the subjectivity we usually ascribe to human beings; Levertov here enacts Buber’s blurring of the boundaries between things, people, and divinity, suggesting that even a wall can act upon those who encounter it. Crucially, as the wall acquires the status of a You, the speaker of the poem also changes, becoming a stronger and fuller I. Compare the uncertain I of the intentionally clumsy line in the first stanza, “taken I think from a farm pulled down/when the street was built,” to the stable,

acting I of “I discovered/the colors in the wall.” This transition reflects Buber’s assertion that the I of I-It differs from the I of I-You: “The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being,” while “The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being.” [7] Thus, the more the poem’s speaker recognizes the wall’s subjectivity, the more complete the speaker’s own subjectivity becomes.


The wall’s status as a You is further accentuated by its visual description in the next stanza, which departs from the factual consideration of the first stanza and instead portrays the wall in vivid sensual terms:


“a hazy red, a

grain gold, a mauve

of small shadows, sprung

from the quiet dry brown—”


No longer are the lines end-stopped, isolating the elements of the wall from one another. Instead, Levertov’s erratic enjambment mixes the vivid components of the wall together. None of these lines makes sense alone; instead, each depends on the rest for meaning. Having transcended its component parts to become a singular being, the wall has ceased to be an It and been elevated to a You.


The poem’s most overt religious sentiment arrives in the final stanza:


“archetype

of the world always a step

beyond the world, that can’t

be looked for, only

as the eye wanders,

found.”


Though the poem up to this point has simulated the recognition of a thing’s subjectivity, this closing statement goes a step further: having become a subject, the wall now expresses the divine You which, according to Buber, emerges in encounter. It is almost shocking how concretely Levertov parallels the Hasidic principle of panentheism, which, unlike Spinozan pantheism’s belief that God is identical with the world, asserts that God is both greater than the world and reflected in everything within it. The wall is not literally divine, but instead a reflection of that divine residing “a step/beyond.”


Even more uncannily, Levertov’s assertion that this divine reflection “can’t/be looked for, only/as the eye wanders, found” directly echoes Buber’s statement that “the You encounters me by grace—it cannot be found by seeking.” The enjambment and sentence structure of Levertov’s lines repeatedly throws the reader off-balance: “archetype/ of the world always a step” leaves the reader suspended in the middle of an action; the next line, “beyond the world, that can’t,” again strands the reader in an inconclusive limbo; the indeterminacy is only heightened by the lines “be looked for, only/ as the eye wanders.” Levertov’s delivery of the final word, “found,” is a sigh of relief, both completing the clause and delivering a pleasing resonance with the words “world” and “for” in the previous lines. Formally and sonically, Levertov forces the reader to trust that the poem will bring them toward resolution, just as we must trust that life will bring us toward the divine.


Thus, while “The Garden Wall” portrays the process of recognizing a thing as a subject, it also captures another religious resonance between Levertov’s work and Hasidism—the question of obedience and intuition. By comparison with the ascetic scholarly focus of Rabbinic Judaism, Hasidism was a defiantly messy practice: its founding father, Israel Ben Eliezer, was known for his emotionality and tendency to break out in unexpected weeping; Hasidim sang and danced ecstatically; instead of hermetic study, they embraced spontaneous insight and unexpected revelation. In the Hasids’ eyes, of course, their actions were not expressions of disorder; rather, they were the result of powerful belief in God’s immanence, of certainty that sacred order enclosed in all actions, even those which other sects might consider profane. In fact, according to Buber, the impulse to order and arrange the world closes one off from the I-You orientation. “Only It can be put in order,” he writes. “Only as things cease to be our You and become our It do they become subject to coordination. The You knows no system of coordinates.” [8]


Levertov’s writing is suffused with this very faith in world order that, paradoxically, allows her to embrace illogic and intuition. “Her confidence in the value of present life stems partly from her assumption… that the world is orderly: that it moves by plan in balanced, harmonious dignity,” critic Linda Welshimer Wagner writes. “Her concept of experience as a revelation of basic order grows from her belief in a systematic universe and in the poem as an orderly re-creation of it. Because the poem as an art form has this inherent design, it cannot merely reflect chaos.” [9] Throughout her pieces, what first seems disorderly is revealed to be exactly as it should; in “The Crack,” for instance, as “a spring night” enters the speaker’s “mind through the tight closed-window,” she realizes that:


“For this, then,

that slanting

line was left, that crack, the pane

never replaced.”


Levertov also writes in opposition to the stringent ordering of things which might suffocate serendipity. In “About Marriage,” for instance, she warns against the constraints of matrimony:


“Don’t lock me in wedlock, I want

marriage, an

encounter—”


Her choice of the word “encounter,” the term Buber uses to characterize the meeting of the I and the You, seems more than mere coincidence. Wedlock causes one to see their partner as an object, an It; it forecloses the possibility of seeing them as a You. The poem goes on to describe a day in the park in which the speaker observes various species of birds flocking together, then concludes:


“It’s not

irrelevant:

I would be

met

and meet you

so,

in a green

airy space, not

locked in.”


In both “The Crack” and “About Marriage,” Levertov celebrates openness as the precondition for encounter. Yet the question of order and openness is most interesting when it comes to Levertov’s consideration of writing itself. For instance, in her 1979 essay “On the Function of the Line,” Levertov argues that modern poetry’s “exploratory, open [forms]” rest on a counterbalance between the orderly structure of grammar and the intuitive wildness of line-breaks. According to Levertov, line-breaks “represent a peculiarly poetic, alogical, parallel (not competitive) punctuation” which injects an irrational counter-rhythm into the poem’s rational syntax, creating an experience “closer to song than to statement, closer to dance than to walking.” Crucially, though her essay is ostensibly directed toward fellow poets, Levertov does not prescribe a particular approach to the line-break; she merely draws attention to it as a source of musicality which allows each poet to express their unique voice, but leaves the nature of that voice open to each poets’ individual determination. This aversion to imposing order, this faith that close attention to one’s internal musicality will allow the poem to realize an inherent order of its own accord, is an expression of the Hasidic affinity for spontaneity over calculation and song over study, imbued with the faith that these sensual elements have their rightful place in the divine world order. Levertov writes:


“When the written score precisely notates perceptions, a whole—an inscape or gestalt—begins to emerge; and the gifted writer is not so submerged in the parts that the whole goes unseen. The sum is objective—relatively, at least; it has presence, character, and—as it develops—needs. The parts of the poem are instinctively adjusted in some degree to serve the needs of the whole. And as this adjustment takes place, excess subjectivity is avoided. Details of a private, as distinct from personal, nature may be deleted, for instance, in the interests of a fuller, clearer, more communicable whole.” [10]


Levertov’s faith in poetic instinct seems warranted by her own poems. In language, line, and voice, they are far from orderly; their varied line lengths, abrupt enjambments, and sonic play pushes them away from structure and toward vigorous sprawl. Yet ultimately, each poem achieves its own inner logic, and many compel the reader—or, at least, myself—to feel suddenly connected to the numinous. Her poems are not just encounters with a You, but each poem is itself a You, a subject whose music she has heard, which has acted upon her as she acted upon it. As she writes in her “Statement on Poetics”:


“I believe every space and comma is a living part of the poem and has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem’s life. I believe content determines form, and yet that content is discovered only in form. Like everything living, it is a mystery…” [11]


Perhaps this is why, all those times I have quietly marveled at the trees and the squirrels and the hum of the highway, I have felt the very same sensation as when I’ve been moved by a great poem. A poem is a You in its own right, a living subject which acts upon and transforms the I encountering it. Of course, not every poem does so; some irritate me, some vaguely entertain me and quickly leave my mind. But sometimes, I come across a text that transcends the page and becomes a being, a glimmer of that world “beyond the world,” and I feel awake.



 

Notes:

1. Joan Hallisey, “Denise Levertov’s “Illustrious Ancestors” Revisited,” Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 9, No. 2, American Jewish Poets: The Roots and the Stems (Fall 1990), 166.

2. Hallisey, “Levertov’s “Illustrious Ancestors” Revisited.”

3. Martin Buber, I and Thou, (Free Press, 2023), 54.

4. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 78.

5. Buber, 57.

6. Ibid.

7. Buber, 1.

8. Buber, 26.

9. Linda Welshimer Wagner, Denise Levertov (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967), 21.

10. Denise Levertov, “On the Function of the Line,” Chicago Review, vol. 30, no. 3 (1979), 36. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/25303862.

11. Denise Levertov, “Statement on Poetics,” in The New American Poetry, ed. Donald Allen (Los Angeles: University of California, 1960).

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