The Asymmetry of Form with a Poem by Denise Levertov

A work of art shows signs of human perfectionism, to borrow a phrase. The artist starts with her singular being but in a process called mimesis of old fashions a new more beautiful — expressive — self. This second self shows an energy coming from beyond.

This energy we may call original as opposed to given. If you conceive of a work of art as an open process initiated by the acceptance of an aesthetic gambit, you will see in the final whole an asymmetry most easily grasped in terms of a plurality of voices that make up the unique sound of the work blending somewhere beyond any one performance of the text.

Where’d THAT come from?

As the saying goes, form emerges and keeps emerging in new cultural settings.

This is by Denise Levertov. It illustrates how a lyric may follow a ‘narrative’ of states of consciousness. It enacts the unfolding in consciousness of a vision that can only be approached at an angle. After the second matter-of-fact stanza which is anything but (being s return to some pristine order), she returns to a heightened version of the first landscape. But with a difference, and that’s where the asymmetry of the thing reveals itself. Some ‘other’ has emerged. This is no warmed-over nature poem. The crickets are very ‘other’ yet their ‘religion’ would seem to be embraced by the second self of the poet and potentially the reader.

The date of the poem reminds us of what else could have kept the poet, deeply involved in social protest, up at 3 AM. Is this pathetic ‘projection’ of the kind the naturalist critics deride, or is it a transcending form implicit in the lyric art?


Metaxological Note: Levertov and the Intimate Universal.

The doubleness of art suggests the ethos of the metaxy or Between. This ancient conception, rooted in Plato and developed in our time by Eric Voegelin and William Desmond, helps place the lyric genre in its proper context.

Desmond’s concept ‘the Intimate Universal’ is a reframing of propositional analysis. It helps us avoid the rigidities of systems based on univocal concepts (e.g. formalism).

This conception— why Intimate, why universal— is vividly illustrated by this poem. There are two stages of the process that results in the work of art. Desmond writes (The Intimate Universal, 268): ‘The aesthetic happening is the womb that nurtured our aesthetic selving and, with it, our possible art—but this art, in the doubleness, can turn the aesthetic happening into a field for its own endeavor.’

The flow or lyric narrative is from the aesthetic happening of selving to the second stage, which paradoxically allows for a reframing of the happening to illuminate the sacred threshold of the ‘fertile void’ wherein the selving finds expression. Desmond’s wording —‘for its own endeavor’ — employs the neuter pronoun as if the process were not the result of a human self’s endeavor. In fact artists often reflect on the companioning spirit of art.

(This is a return to the first selving in its original context via the void. All this needs a fuller treatment.)

Anyway, we’ve shown how this narrative is illustrated by Levertov’s poem. Lyric poems seem particularly hospitable to the Intimate Universal; and metaxological analysis is more useful than less differentiated analyses.

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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