Writer in Residence

Poetry School: Denise Levertov on form as a revelation

By Deanna Young

After reading poet Denise Levertov’s 1965 essay “Some Notes on Organic Form,” I had a revelation: I write poetry mainly in organic form. Given that the notion of the work of art as a self-germinating organism has been around in English poetry since at least Coleridge, it may seem rather thick of me to only understand this now, but I’m giving myself a break here and I hope you will too. There is a high degree of unconsciousness involved in art-making—no?—and that can extend to being unconscious of how and why one is making it. I’ve long said (to myself) that, for me, writing poetry is not an intellectual exercise. It is, rather, a spiritual practice, and it’s the trance-state that I covet, as opposed to approaching each poem with a blueprint in hand. But then comes the craft, of course. Revision requires engagement of the intellect, facing head-on the mountains of discernment to be hiked over in the quest to fulfill the poem’s promise. So while I’ve long understood, at some level, that I approach form organically, I’ve rarely had to articulate this approach. In her essay on organic form, Levertov gives crystalline expression to what I think I do, and her words mentor me.

Denise Levertov

Levertov begins her essay with the premise that there is a form to everything, including our experience, which a poet can discover and reveal. She acknowledges that some poets, due to their temperaments, prefer to work in received forms (haiku, just as an example), but contends that their conception of content or reality is what’s important, or at play, in this preference. She extends Gerard Manley Hopkins’s concepts of “inscape” (intrinsic form) and “instress” (the apperception of inscape) to intellectual and emotional experience, leading her to describe organic poetry as “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.” Essentially, she uses this concept of form to ask the marvelous question, What sparks a poem? 

First, “there must be an experience,” she writes, “a sequence or constellation of perceptions of sufficient interest, felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him their equivalent in words: he is brought to speech.” She gives an example of a constellation of perceptions, feelings, memories and ideas involving birds, clouds and other material, that might wake in a poet a “demand” for a poem. This strikes a chord in me, as it must do in anyone who has felt the imperative to write a poem, or to initiate any creative act. As the poet stands “open-mouthed in the temple of life, contemplating his experience” then, “there comes to him the first words of the poem.” We might also call this inspiration. It is in that moment of crystallization, and in faithful attention to it, that words rise to the surface. The poet now has a responsibility to “follow through, letting the experience lead him through the world of the poem, its unique inscape revealing itself as he goes.” When you put it that way, it is easy to see form as integral to an experience and therefore to a poem about that experience. Form is a natural element that may be discerned, and that must not be coerced into being. The poet’s job is to communicate the form of the experience, not to overwrite it. “Form,” Levertov writes, “is never more than a revelation of content.”

Though I write poems mainly in organic form, I have questioned myself on this. Why do the forms of my poems vary so much, I have wondered (like it’s a bad thing). Backstory: Many years ago a reviewer of my book Drunkard’s Path commented on the shifting forms within the book, suggesting that this inconsistency was a problem, that maybe I was confused and didn’t know how I wanted to write. It being my first book after 17 years of wandering in the fear-of-writing wilderness, running every time I stepped out from behind a tree and came face-to-face with a poem demanding to be written, I took this rather hard. I doubted myself: Why short lines here and long lines there; why couplets and then quatrains; why structural patterns today and irregular, free verse tomorrow? What’s wrong with you?! If only I had read Levertov’s essay then, it would have given me the confidence to trust my instincts.

I’ve looked at the work of poets who write a whole book or even several books in one form; long-lined couplets, for example. They seem to know what they’re doing, I say to myself. And isn’t such consistency superior to the flip-flopping around that I do with form? I’ve tried to mimic forms natural to others poets. I made myself psychically sick, once, trying to force a poem that wanted to be in quatrains into a block form because I wanted to write a block poem à la Jack Gilbert. What a painful experience for all of us: me, my poem, and my muse, all watching this absurd struggle. It was years before I got it: that particular form is part of that other poet's experience. It's part of their voice, their vision. You, Deanna, tend toward organic form. Embrace it.

Later in her essay, Levertov considers the difference between organic form and free verse, concluding that “free verse isolates the ‘rightness’ of each line or cadence—” while in organic poetry, the peculiar rhythms of the parts may be modified in order to discover the rhythm of the whole. She uses analogies in the fields of painting, theatre, helicopter-flying, and in the “horizon note” (the extended drone) of traditional Indian music to illuminate this idea. In a poem, she proposes, such a note “interacts with the nuances or forces of feeling which determine the emphasis on one word or another, and decides to a great extent what belongs to a given line.” While this concept might not be quite at the introductory, poetry-101 level, I think I will use it—and the entire essay—the next time I look at free verse with any group of students. If anything, the discussion will help separate the genuine poetry geeks (wheat) from those who thought they signed up for a bird course (chaff). 

Levertov concludes her essay with a another truth understood instinctively by most writers and readers of poems, even before they become conscious of it—and that is the need within any poem for a rift (or rifts), the breaking of the order, the surprise. The ecstasy happens in a poem, she writes, when we come to those “undreamed abysses and…find ourselves sailing slowly over them and landing on the other side.” 

Poets: trust your instincts, especially when it comes to form. That is the best advice about writing poetry I have ever received and the best, today, that I can offer up. And whatever your formal instincts, take some time to read Levertov’s essay on organic form. In writing as in other endeavors, it can be as valuable to understand what we are not doing as well as what we are; maybe these are two sides of the same leaf.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Deanna Young’s previous books include House Dreams, nominated for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, the Ottawa Book Award, the Archibald Lampman Award and the ReLit Award, and Drunkard’s Path. Young grew up in southwestern Ontario during the 1970s and ’80s. Reunion, her fourth collection, belongs to that place and time. She now lives in Ottawa, where she works as an editor and teaches poetry privately.