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Denise Levertov The Dead Butterfly

Denise Levertov The Dead Butterfly

Monday, August 27th, 2007

“Levertov’s poetry is a poetry of the eye in that it is concerned
with seeing into experience and discovering the order and significance
that her poet’s faith tells her is really there behind the surface chaos” (James
F. Mersmann). Discuss.

This essay will critically consider the assertion made by Mersmann in the
context of an analysis of the meanings, form and poetic devices present in
two of Levertov’s Poems: ‘The Dead Butterfly’ (1961) and ‘Life
at War’ (1966). The first of these is concerned with themes of nature
and urbanisation. The evocative imagery that Levertov deploys to juxtapose
the energy and beauty of nature against the power and order of industry confirms
that her poetry is “of the eye” and shows, through the device of
a dead butterfly, the delicate balance that exists between nature and technology.
The second poem is overtly political and protests against the Vietnam War.
The newspapers and TV covered the Vietnam War like none before. Levertov never
actually saw the war first hand and it is her faith in the accurate portrayal
of it that facilitates her writing about it and “discovering the order
and significance…behind the surface chaos.”

The construction of ‘The Dead Butterfly’ is precise; in her essay
published in The Poet in the World ‘Some Notes On Organic Form’ Levertov(1973)
explains the theory behind organic construction. An “inscape”,
or sequence of experiences that flow from one experience, is created within
which tension, energy and balance are present and then a narrative voice is
woven through and around the inscape. Instress is the experience the reader
has when perceiving the poem or experiencing the inscape. For Levertov a poem
forms organically and, like Mersmann, Levertov believes it depends upon the
poet’s eye,

“of recognizing what we perceive, and is based upon 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.” (Levertov 1973)

Levertov’s central theory of poetic construction is the idea that form
is discoverable and becomes visible to a poet willing to explore. The form
grows organically from the inscape. The instress or appreciation of the inscape
allows a poet to see the essential characteristics of her own environment.
In this way Levertov is able to “see into” experience
with an organic and developing vision; the final apperception of the inscape
becomes the poem. Levertov is associated by some critics with the Beat movement
and has been categorised as a Black Mountain College poet by others, however
these associations have more to do with accidents of timing and publication
than substance. Because there is no consensus as to which school her poetry
belongs suggests that it stands apart from both. Of course being contemporary
to both movements she will share common influences of events and cultural development
with the Beat and Black Mountain College schools of literature.

In ‘The Dead Butterfly’ part of the inscape is colour white and
green for example in the first two lines of the poem an inscape of white, whiteness
and green is created

“Now I see its whiteness
is not white but green, traced with green,”

The colours symbolise purity and nature. The first person narrative lends
an intimacy to the voice. “I” is aurally the same as “eye” which
sees and first person heightens the sense of examination. The repetition of “white” provides
echo that begins in the first two lines and is echoed in the second stanza.
The same device is used with green; used twice in the second line and then
echoing in the second stanza in the word “rockgreen”. The inscape
of nature and animate life are words such as “marigold”, “stones”,
and “mountains”; examples of what Mersmann calls “seeing
into experience” revealing “order and significance”.

The echoing provides a sense of space. Dynamism and movement is present in
the use of phrases like “rainblown roses” and “constant tremulous
movement”. The inscape of cities and industry overlays the others; the
use of numbers at the beginning of each stanza symbolises science and technology.
The fact that a number begins the second stanza suggests a subtext of environmental
concern: that order being imposed on nature will kill it, this being symbolised
by the dead butterfly. The fact that it is white when living but green when
dead is a transformation attached to the juxtaposition of “constant tremulous
movement” with an image of death underscored by the expansive atmosphere
created by the echoes.

The careful use of an inscape of words that conveys an entire image of industrialization
and destruction of nature is evoked by Levertov’s use of the words:
“stone”, “city”, “built” and “quarried”.
All of these words are found in the first stanza. The second stanza reflects
this atmosphere of urban destruction by the subtle use of a number “2” to
impose order from above. Levertov strikes a delicate balance between
all of the binaries of the inscape that gives the poem its internal energy.
This idea of balance and equilibrium is evident in ‘Life at War’ which
acknowledges Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s influence. For Mersmann
she facilitates the discovery of “order and significance” from “behind
the surface chaos”. She does this with the inscape of energy, balance
and tension.

Both ‘The Dead Butterfly’ and ‘Life at War’ are aligned
to the left and the result is that the enjambment keeps the eye of the reader
moving swiftly from line to line so as to read the entire sentence that makes
up the stanzas. In ‘The Dead Butterfly’ the first is ended with
a full stop and this ending is given further symbolic significance by the use
of a listing number “2” that begins the second stanza. The effect
is to dramatise inscape of the city and urbanisation, which provides an ominous
sub text. The use of the word “high” is significant as being suggestive
of the possibility of a fall. It also shows the city as being created from
a mountain and thus ecological concern at the mountain’s implied destruction.

Dorothy Neilsen (1993) suggests that Levertov is a “visionary…one
who can hear and transcribe the “voices of nature.” suggesting
correctly that such poems, of which ‘The Dead Butterfly’ would
be an example, are “ecological advocacy” that “rely on prosopopoeia” she
further explains that these personifying tropes give nature a voice that the “visionary-poet
hears.” Nielsen (1993) argues that Levertov is attempting to be that
voice of nature; that she is, as Mersmann argues, “seeing into experience” and
discovering and showing an order from within an apparent disorder. The order
is reflected in the underlying complex structure of ‘The Dead Butterfly’ by
using devices such as enjambment and numbering. Nielsen argues that in so doing
Levertov attempts to avoid anthropocentrism entirely. An alternative more accurate
view may be that Levertov is a poet of vision, but from an anthropocentric
standpoint. She views the subject with a sense of newness and wonder. Mersmann’s “poetry
of the eye” is the poetry of wonder, of seeing an object as something
fresh: “seeing into” it, looking beyond the surface chaos
of tangible form towards meaning.

A butterfly is delicate and in the poem associated with darkness and light,
white and green as well as erratic and unpredictable movement and stillness
(when dead). Levertov’s eye sees into the butterfly’s experience
and discovers what Mersmann describes as “order and significance”.
Her use of opposites and the juxtaposition of delicate wings against “rocks”, “mountains” and “quarried” provide
a delicate balance of energy. This energy is given form and a pattern. Levertov’s
task is to detect and create the inscape and then to attach an organic form
of narrative to it in order to create the instress. The contrast of colours,
life and death, movement and stillness create a tension and conflict within
the poem that is constrained by the subtle use of numbers and the implication
that science, symbolised by the order intrinsic to numbering, is attempting
to stifle the wonder, energy and freedom of nature. Levertov shows the delicate
state of balance the world is in through the metaphor of a butterfly. Hallisey
(1982) makes the point that Levertov’s poetry shows an interest in the
wonder of all things, influences that Hallisey ascribes to Emersonian ideas
of Transcendentalism together with Hassidism. (Hallisey J F 1982) Hassidism
celebrates the wonder of creation and the joy of being: the wonder and joy
evident in the sight of even a dead butterfly. Mermann’s intuitive observation
encapsulates both the creative process behind ‘The Dead Butterfly’ as
well as aptly describes the form, themes and energy within it. The “surface
chaos” that Mersmann refers to, of a fluttering butterfly is shown against
an inscape of “order and significance”.

To write poems that convey a personal political message is to concede that
the eye has shifted from an exterior visionary perspective, seen in ‘The
Dead Butterfly’, to an interior viewpoint. The visionary eye “seeing
experience and discovering…” has altered in Levertov’s
Vietnam protest poem ‘Life at War’. The lyricism and sharp inscapes
of her earlier work are present, but the sense of wonder less so. Because Levertov
did not experience the war first hand her poet’s eye cannot see into
experience other than through the eye of television and the media. For this
reason she is seeing what many others saw of the war: black and white images
of death and destruction, political rallies, body bags and so on. She is therefore
seeing through the eyes of others and sharing in a more general experience
but still with a poet’s eye. She still, as Mersmann says, “sees
into experience” and in ‘Life at War’ discovers the way
to “order and significance” from “the surface chaos” Merssmann

The inscape of war cannot be uplifting; the ideas of wonder and joy out of
place unless ironic. The images that make up the inscape are precise and sharp
as one would expect from Levertov but the purpose behind them now political.
As Lorrie Smith (1986) rightly points out “Levertov’s…poetics
is initially shaken by the demands of radical activism, she is faced with the
need to speak didactically without sacrificing her earlier lyricism.”. If
a poem is political can it be poetic? This is the question posed by Smith.
Smith believes rightly that Levertov’s poetic technique altered little
throughout her career that “Levertov’s maturation as a political
poet shows in increasingly complex and refined…poetic practice.” (Smith
L 1986 p. 214). War has its own energy, so much so that as a concept
it can overcome the dynamic energy of subtle binaries and precise enjambment;
the possibility of “seeing into experience” may be clouded by overwrought
imagery of “entrails of still-alive babies” or “formless

Janssen (1992) approaches Levertov’s political poetry from the perspective
of the organic form and correctly focuses on the inner form. He argues that
the poem’s energy pattern becomes the connection attaching the reader
to a cherished reality. In ‘The Dead Butterfly’ the cherished reality
being harmony and balance between man, nature and technology. He concedes that
the energy pattern exists in varying qualities in Levertov’s other poetry
but the important point is that the reader makes the connection. He is right
to argue that Levertov is using the reader’s imagined perception of reality
as persuasive of the viability of an alternative reality. This is why Levertov,
by showing disturbing images in ‘Life at War’, is asking the reader
to imagine the war and in doing so showing how to imagine no war at all. This
accords with Mersmann’s statement that Levertov is seeing into chaos
and discovering significance there. The significance is shown by the energy
pattern stimulating the appropriate imaginary response from the reader. But
a limitation of political poetry is that any questions asked of a reader are
no more than rhetorical.

Because of the limitation placed on the content or message it is in danger
of becoming clichéd and preaching in tone. Levertov avoids that in ‘Life
at War’ and shows disturbing images juxtaposed against a potential reality,
thereby creating internal energy and showing Mersmann’s “order
and significance” within the inscape. There is careful use of language,
repetition, alliteration, internal and half-rhyme; all are carefully accentuated
or understated by use of enjambment line breaks and white space. The constraints
placed on her by the subject matter of “Life at War” and her fervent
political beliefs that the Vietnam War should not be fought are apparent.

The poem is longer than ‘The Dead Butterfly’ because it is didactic
and offering a solution, that is political, rather than a lyric reaction.
It cannot show us the beauty of war as for Levertov there is none. Because
it conveys a message it needs to explain and show an alternative. In this way
her language is forced to be didactic to the point of self consciously explaining
itself by referring to the influence behind the poem.

“Or Rilke said it, ‘My heart…
I say of it, it overflows
bitterness…but no, as though”

Zlotkowski (1992) argues that Rilke influenced her writing by helping her
to achieve a balance between inner experience and a longing for the here and
now. Zlotkowkski believes that Rilke influenced the former by helping her feel
and experience what she saw and that William Carlos Williams influenced the
style and concision with which this way of seeing is rendered to a poem. This
idea of balance is again evident in ‘Life at War’ images of violence;
destruction and cruelty are mirrored by human potential:

music excels the music of birds
laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
understanding manifests designs
than the spiders most intricate web,”

The imagery used dictates the form, even the title is an oxymoron, the tone
and voice of the poem veer between hope and anguish and are informed by it.
The above stanzas patterned metre reflects the order of civilised life. The
irregular beat of lines dealing with war reflects the distorting nature of

Fragments and incomplete parts of images are reflected in the form: irregular
line breaks, irregular line length and enjambment. Repetition has echoes of
marching and militarism. The tone switches between hope and anger through speculation
towards a calm that offers an imaginary vision of peace. ‘Life at War’ is
not as visionary and thus not so much a poetry of the eye as is ‘The
Dead Butterfly’ but the artistic devices developed by Levertov in her
poetry are skilfully deployed; albeit in the a political form that offers explanation
and an alternative.

Mersmann’s statement accurately describes Levertov’s creative
process and the poetry produced. The process of seeing into experience is evoked
by the inscape: a list of objects or feelings that may occupy a semantic field
and possibly be metonymic but until ordered remain chaotic. The “surface
chaos” Mersmann describes is the range of images that may emerge from
an initial concept or idea. Once refined into an inscape the idea moves towards
a form which emerges from the organic artistic process. Mersmann is saying,
rightly, that Levertov’s confidence or faith in her own artistic ability
will allow her to see and show a reader what she recognises and perceives in
a carefully ordered way. Of course a poet’s vision may alter dependant
upon subject matter and the purpose behind the poem. That difference is evident
in the two poems discussed. However, Mersmann’s statement is applicable
to both poems; whether an ecological message as in ‘The Dead Butterfly’ or
a political message as in ‘Life at War’.