Lyric as a Way, with a Poem by Levertov


From ‘This Great Unknowing: Last Poems’

Levertov’s finesse is such that her lyric may accommodate multiple images of primal value. ‘Noblesse Oblige’ refers effortlessly/spontaneously to several traditions: Chinese, Greek, Romantic, phenomenological (that laughter). Her vision is transreligious and personal,
the images of a ‘primal ethos’ (Desmond) serving the narrative so essential to lyric: selving.

She makes it look easy. Selving this open to transcendence always verges on the absurd, on the nothing-version of the self’s permeability.

We need a myth of selving that doesn’t stop short of the final act of humility Levertov builds her lyric around and through. Since the self energetically defines itself through its will and technique, the lyric self must follow its dialectic to the brink of loss. This up/down paradox opens on the radical other that transcends the self (Levertov’s mountain). It opens on Plato/ Diotima’s myth of Eros as offspring of want and plenty. In Eros, plenty overwhelms the want. It passes through the nothing of pure presence. As Desmond points out (Gift of Beauty, 290), this passage through nothingness is not nothing, it is a way, ‘a making way.’ The space so traversed is the ‘primal porosity,’ ‘the universal impermanence, the ‘fertile void’ —- in a word, the metaxu. (Desmond’s verbal imagination is indeed fertile!).

The selving of the poet in the act of creation is an act of unselving that foregrounds what is already always there. Every good lyric however modest (let us praise poetic modesty) is a gratuitous act of self sacrifice that draws on the patterns of practice found in the most stringently selfless mystical apophatic ways. The poem is a gift. The presence of the fully charged poetic image may ‘double’ the religious image and this may cause the self to question its independence, always an unresolved issue for the sovereign self in Modernity.

Levertov’s gently ironic title suggests something of the cost of having worked through the selving and unselving process which is essential to lyric as a human way.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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