"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
Variation on a Theme by Rilke
A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
The best thing – the very best thing – about reading poetry widely and deeply is that when you need it, it finds you. Time and again, in moments of grief or love or political upheaval, my subconscious has rifled through the files and come up with something helpful. What do we have on marriage – Auden, or Edwin Muir? What do we have on cancer? Myra Schneider, Jo Shapcott….? Yesterday, hearing news of the impending UK election I felt a mighty need for something to give me a sense of purpose and positivity in the coming weeks.
I punched that into my subconscious, and this is what arrived. ‘I can’, it said. Levertov herself certainly believed that she could: at the age of twelve she sent some poems for comment to T S Eliot, who was good enough to reply with two pages of advice. I don’t know much about Levertov or about Rainier Maria Rilke whose mystical poetry inspired this piece – you don’t have to, poetry is not some kind of ghastly intellectual test – but both were interested in matters of the spirit.
Religious imagery is stitched into the fabric of this poem. We all have registers of language – professional jargon, baby talk, pillow talk. This poem has the rhythms and language of faith. That rather archaic phrase ‘a certain day’ sounds as if it came from a parable. The ‘presence’ or ‘being’ descending from a height is distinctly angelic. If you’re from a Western background you’re probably thinking of the Annunciation.
It’s not an angel, but the day itself which becomes ‘a presence’ and it isn’t descending from heaven, but from its own noonday zenith. It strikes not with a sword, but ‘as if with/ the flat of a sword’. It is a forceful presence but a benevolent one: it confronts her, but that confrontation is immediately lessened with the impression of ‘a sky, air, light’. It strikes her shoulder, but only to grant her ‘honor and a task’. She takes a blow, but only the kind of blow a bell needs to give it voice. The poem is full of interruptions and clauses. There are colons, semicolons, dashes and full stops breaking up the sentences; the poet sounds dazed, overcome.
Levertov’s father was a polyglot Russian Jew who became an Anglican minister, and her mother was Welsh, so she had many registers of sound, language and visionary tradition to draw on as well as Rilke’s mystical poetry. She uses the grand, oracular language of religion, of which we all have a folk memory even if we weren’t raised with it. The poem that results is innocent, visionary and moving. This special day has given her purpose, but her particular epiphany may be completely secular. It’s only God if you want it to be. Whatever we believe in, let’s believe that we can.
If you feel a powerful need to thank me for the work I put into these blogs, you can make a donation of any sum at all by clicking here to make a donation via PayPal. Thank you!