Levertov's Organic Form and a Theology of Presence/Absence

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Denise Levertov's approach to poetic form is often grouped with the "open field" or projectivist poetics of the Black Mountain School surrounding Charles Olson and Robert Creeley.  Creeley famously said, "Form is never more than an extension of content."  Olson propounded a form of poetic "objectivism," by which he meant a poetics that focused not on a poet's subjective state or ego but on the energy that the poem offers by an encounter with the objects of the world.  Levertov's own poetic theory can be found in an essay, "Some Notes on Organic Form."  She proposes that the poem's form arises naturally from the poet's discovery of an object, idea, or experience's natural shape.   Her theory includes the following:
  1. She follows Gerard Manley Hopkins' notion of inscape and instress.   Inscape is the idea that every object has an inner structure or nature, while instress is the force that communicates the structure to the observer (poet).   However, she stresses that an idea or experience can also have instress.
  2. "A partial definition, then, of organic poetry might be that it is a method of appreception, i.e. of recognizing what we perceive, and is based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man's creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories."  In other words, the act of writing the poem is a way of perceiving the inherent order that exists in an object, idea, or experience.
  3. This experience of perceptions is then "brought to speech" because a constellation of experiences demands a poem.
  4. The poem arises through a process of contemplation and meditation on the constellation and results in a "crystallization" or perception of the correspondences inside the constellation.
  5. Poetic form is an expression of the feeling of the experience.   Lines represent the breath that one line takes; stanzas represent units of awareness; rhythm, rhyme, etc. all arise out of the experiences, they are not pre-chosen.   "Form is never more than a revelation of content."
  6. "The X-factor, the magic, is when we come to those rifts and make those leaps.  A religious devotion to the truth, to the splendor of the authentic, involves the writer in a process rewarding in itself; but when that devotion brings us to undreamed abysses and we find ourselves sailing slowly over them and landing on the other side---that's ecstasy."

object, idea, experience (constellation)
+ poetic apperception (contemplation/meditation)
= crystallization/poetic form arising out of the content.

[From The Poet in the World (1973)]

Question: Test/apply Levertov's theory to her poems "Of Being," "Flickering Mind," and "A Calvary Path."

A Theology of Presence / Absence

The poems in Part One, "The Tide," of Levertov's The Stream & the Sapphire noticeably deal again and again with the question of God's presence and absence, as well as our own presence and absence.   Note some of the following ways this is experienced:

  • An experience of beauty vs. the shadow of "purposeless" suffering ("Human Being")

  • The losing ourselves in trust to grace ("The Avowal"  "Psalm Fragments" "To Live in the Mercy of God")

  • The kenosis of God's weakness vs. our human imaginings of spiritual experience ("Agnus Dei")

  • Our flickering absence before God's presence ("Flickering Mind' "Primary Wonder")

  • Our multiplicity and fragmentation blinding us to God's presence ("On A Theme by Thomas Merton")

  • God's sacrifice and our surly freedom ("Standoff")

  • The incarnation of God in our midst ("On the Mystery of the Incarnation")

  • We exist only in God's being  ("'In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being'") vs. God's silence being deeply present ("The Tide" "Altars").


  1. Try to summarize in your own words what Levertov is saying about absence and presence.

  2. How important is Levertov's poetic form to the things she is writing about in these poems?  Explain.

  3. Is is possible to experience what Levertov is writing about as you are reading about it?  Why or why not?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding