Fruitful Reciprocity

Excerpts from The Poet in the World by Denise Levertov:

The obligation of the poet (and, by extension, of others committed to the love of literature, as critics and teachers or simply as readers) is not necessarily to write “political” poems (or to focus attention primarily on such poems as more “relevant” than other poems or fictions). The obligation of the writer is: to take personal and active responsibility for his words, whatever they are, and to acknowledge their potential influence on the lives of others. The obligation of teachers and critics is: not to block the dynamic consequences of the words they try to bring close to students and readers. And the obligation of readers is: not to indulge in the hypocrisy of merely vicarious experience, thereby reducing literature to the concept of “just words,” ultimately a frivolity, an irrelevance when the chips are down…When words penetrate deep into us they change the chemistry of the soul, of the imagination. We have no right to do that to people if we don’t share the consequences.

* * * * *

When I was seven or eight and my sister sixteen or seventeen, she described the mind to me as a room full of boxes, in aisles like the shelves of a library, each box with its label. I had heard the term “gray matter,” and so I visualized room and boxes as gray, dust-gray. Her confident description impressed me, but I am glad to say I felt an immediate doubt of its authenticity. Yet I have since seen lovers of poetry, lovers of literature, behave as if it were indeed so, and allow no fruitful reciprocity between poem and action.

O Taste and See

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

“No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams. This does not mean “no ideas.” It means that “language [and here I quote Wordsworth] is not the dress, but the incarnation of thoughts.” “No ideas but in things,” means essentially, “Only connect.” And it is therefore not only a craft-statement, not only an aesthetic statement (though it is these things also, and importantly), but a moral statement. Only connect. No ideas but in things. The words reverberate through the poet’s life, through my life, and I hope through your lives, joining us with other knowledge in the mind, that place that is not a gray room full of little boxes…