Dana Greene, a former history colleague at St. Mary’s, sent out a Denise Levertov poem with her Christmas letter that seems appropriate in this wintry season. Dana has written beautifully about the relationship between imagination and faith in the poet’s work. To enhance your appreciation of the poem, I quote below from an article that Dana published in the January 2007 issue of The Way, an international journal of contemporary Christian spirituality published by British Jesuits. (You can read it in its entirety here.)
By Dana Greene, Dean Emerita, Oxford College
The role of the poet is to awaken and engage the reader. In [Levertov’s] poem “Taste and See” she reverses a famous line from Wordsworth:
The world is
not with us—enough.
O taste and see.
This tasting and seeing meant not only revealing what was hidden, but holding oneself open to the experience of the transcendent, the numinous. The key was imagination, the chief of human faculties, the perceptive organ which synergized intellect, emotion and instinct and made it possible to experience God. And it was to that numinous,transcendent mystery that Levertov turned increasingly.
For most of her adult life Levertov considered herself an agnostic, suspecting that belief was irrelevant, an embarrassment, and potentially incompatible with her political and aesthetic values. After the war and the end of her marriage, she returned to her earlier pacifism and to a gradual re-evaluation of her faith. It was in 1979, while writing her long poem “Mass for the Day of St Thomas Didymus,” that she came to a new understanding of faith. For months she worked on the poem, and when she completed the Agnus Dei portion she realised that she had begun to resolve the questions she had wrestled with for years: how can the love of God and the suffering of humanity be reconciled? How can joy and sorrow co-exist? In writing the poem she came to understand the incarnation as the supreme relinquishment of God’s self. By it, God, “an innocence,” was made “defenseless,” so that human freedom could be honoured. It was humanity which caused suffering, and it was humanity which needed to keep “the spark of remote light” alive in a suffering world. Suffering did not annihilate joy; in the process of writing she came to an incipient reconciliation of the two.
Here’s the excerpt that Dana sent from “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” (unfortunately all justified to the left margin):
By Denise Levertov
Praise the wet snow
Praise the shadow
my neighor’s chimney casts on the tile roof
even this gray October day that should, they say,
have been golden.
the invisible sun burning beyond
the white cold sky, giving us
light and the chimney’s shadow.
god or the gods, the unknown,
that which imagined us, which stays
our murderous hand,
and gives us
in the shadow of death,
our daily life,
and the dream still
of goodwill, of peace on earth.
flow and change, night and
the pulse of day.
Note on the artist: Other works by Wisconsin painter Kyle Martin can be found at kyle-martin.blogspot.com/2008_12_01_archive.html.