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Pivoting Toward Peace: The Engaged Poetics of Thomas Merton and Denise Levertov

Essay by Susan McCaslin

In what ways is poetry transformative; how and to what extent can it pivot us toward peace? Both Denise Levertov (1923-1997) and Thomas Merton (1915-1968) grappled with these questions in their art and lives. I embraced these writers as an undergraduate in the late sixties, first reading Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (first published in1948), his bestselling spiritual autobiography, and then Levertov’s The Sorrow Dance (1967), packed with poems of outrage against the Vietnam War. On their respective journeys, neither poet abandoned the longing for an integral vision in which contemplation and action are unified. Both gifted us with a legacy of poetry that includes overtly political poems, as well as more subtle ones that enact peace by offering glimpses of a world in which self and other are so deeply intertwined that war makes no sense. In many of their most contemplative poems, the poem itself becomes an incarnation of the longing for justice and peace, a microcosm of ecological balance between the inner and outer worlds. Another way of putting it is that the poem, poised between the interiority of the poet and the turmoil of the outer world, creates an alternative order, a place of high energy discharge that can bring about both individual and social transformation. A third way of saying it is that poetry matters.

Though Merton found his religious vocation in monasticism early in life, and Levertov found her way to an ecumenical Catholic Christianity in the last decade of hers, they share striking commonalities. Levertov was born in England, and Merton in France, but both eventually became Americans. Both were prolific in prose and poetry and drawn to the political poets of Latin America, though the influences on Merton’s writing were more European and Levertov’s more American. In addition, they eventually shared the same publisher in James Laughlin at New Directions.

Since the 1950’s, Levertov had been associated with the Black Mountain school of poetics, American poets of the avant-garde that included Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, and Robert Duncan, all grounded in the free verse movement inspired by William Carlos Williams. Her early neo-Romanticism evolved into a poetry and poetics of political and social engagement by the time she published her collection of essays, The Poet in the World (1960). Merton, who originally sought escape from the world by entering a Trappist monastery in Kentucky in 1941, gradually moved beyond his early renunciation of society and began to integrate the political into a more holistic vision.
Both writers were enriched by their culturally eclectic heritages. Levertov’s father was a Hasidic Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest, and her mother a Welsh woman, steeped in Celtic lore. Merton’s parents were artists who roved from place to place during his childhood. Both poets were liminal souls, people with an outsider’s sense of living at the margins. Levertov writes of herself:

Among Jews a Goy, among Gentiles a Jew,…among school children a strange exception whom they did not know whether to envy or mistrust—all of those anomalies predicated my later experience.1

Merton, whose father was from New Zealand and his mother from the United States, lost both parents when young. In his twenties in 1938, he sought stability in monasticism, but remained intellectually expansive, as is evident in his far-ranging correspondence and self-revelatory journals. Levertov shifted from an early focus on mythopoetic interiority to poems of more public concern. Like Merton, she came to argue in the 60’s that poets especially, as guardians of language, must take responsibility for the ethical impact of their words in the public sphere. In fact, her break with her mentor, poet Robert Duncan, was due largely to his resistance to the emerging political element in her work. Both Merton and Levertov, then, stood as witnesses to injustice, speaking out publicly, whether through Merton’s Cold War letters in underground newsletters, or Levertov’s involvement in rallies and protests against the Vietnam War, nuclear testing in New Mexico, and more recently, the first Gulf War in Iraq. “Picket and pray” became her motto in her later years.

In addition, both artists explored throughout their lives a mystical-contemplative spirituality. Merton’s dramatic conversion to Catholic Christianity occurred in his late twenties, and his faith passed through many metamorphoses, while Levertov’s non-dogmatic Christian orientation emerged gradually and flowered much later in life. In her last essays, Levertov begins to speak of her journey as a pilgrimage, for she carved a longer trajectory than Merton toward Catholicism in its most universal sense. In 1991, she writes,

But more and more, what I have sought as a reading writer, is a poetry that, while it does not attempt to ignore or deny the ocean of crisis in which we swim, is itself “on Pilgrimage,”… in search of significance underneath and beyond the succession of temporal events: a poetry which attests to [a] deep spiritual longing.2

In fact, while writing the poem, “On the Feast of St. Thomas Didymus” (the doubting saint), she discovered she had moved unconsciously from observer to worshipper, for she states, “The experience of writing the poem—that long swim through waters of unknown depth—had been also a conversion process….”3
Given their shared commitments and milieu, it seems inevitable that the lives of two such poets would intersect. Merton was reading Levertov in 1961, when he wrote his friend, Latin American poet Ernesto Cardenal:

There is a very fine new poet, Denise Levertov. I forget whether you translated some of her work or not. She is splendid, one of the most promising.4

In 1967, Levertov sent a letter to Merton asking for his support in a Vietnam War protest, and he responded positively.

Merton and Levertov’s crucial meeting occurred on December 10, 1967, where she joined him and Kentucky poet Wendell Berry at Merton’s monastery at Gethsemani, Kentucky for informal discussion. After her first and only visit, he wrote in his journal:

September 10, 1967. Second Sunday of Advent. Rainy. Denise Levertov was here with Wendell Berry…They came up to the hermitage and spent the afternoon. I like Denise very much. A good warm person. She left a good poem (“Tenebrae”) and we talked a little about Sister Norbert in San Francisco who is in trouble about protesting against the war.5

Merton’s premature death in Bangkok exactly one year later must have shocked Levertov, cutting short a friendship that would surely have developed further. It is certain from her poems and writings that Merton remained a continuing influence, and was a seminal factor in her movement toward Christianity. Her poem “On a Theme by Thomas Merton” reflects her ongoing respect for his work.6 And her remarks as late as 1984 suggest his continuing impact:

I see nothing detrimental to my own poetry in the fact that I participate in the Eucharist or that I read Julian of Norwich, Bonhoeffer, or Thomas Merton without skepticism. I am ecumenical to a degree no doubt scandalous to the more orthodox….[I]f I discover spiritual fellowship and an active commitment to my political values I take it where I find it.7

Again, as late as 1990, she invokes Merton as a model and inspiration for her growing faith:

If…a Thomas Merton…could believe, who was I to squirm and fret, as if I required more refined mental nourishment than theirs?8

Before Levertov embraced the Christian mystical tradition and a spiritual practice of her own, she struggled with the question of whether or not a poetry of peace is even possible in times of violence. In her essay “Poetry and Peace” at a conference at Stanford on the theme of “Women, War and Peace (1989),” Levertov was confronted with a question from the audience proposing that poets should bring images of peace to the world.9 Her continuing rumination over this question led to the following poem:

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid…

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
a mighty pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.10

Peace is “not there ahead of itself” because for Levertov it must be forged in the alembic of our lives. True peace is not a quietist state but one that emerges from inner silence that leads to action, and discovers its form in the world. And if a poet writes words that call for transformation, the poet herself must be willing to get involved and put herself, not just her work, on the line. She writes:

When words penetrate deep into us they change the chemistry of the soul, of the imagination. We have no right to do that to people if we don’t share the consequences.11

Poets who forge what Levertov called “engaged” poems and enter the arena of activism, however, must also be careful, according to Levertov, not to fall into the didactic. She was aware of how taking on a public voice can often lead poets into polemic and propaganda:

Good poets write bad political poems only if they let themselves write deliberate, opinionated, rhetoric, misusing their art as propaganda. The poet does not use poetry, but is at the service of poetry. To use it is to misuse it. A poet driven to speak to himself, to maintain a dialogue with himself, concerning politics, can expect to write as well upon that theme as upon any other. He can not separate it from everything else in his life. But it is not whether or not good “political” poems are a possibility that is in question. What is in question is the role of the poet as observer or as participant in the life of his time.12

In answer to the question of whether political poetry can be truly poetic she writes in “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival” (early 1980’s):

A poetry of anguish, a poetry of anger, of rage, a poetry that, from literal or deeply imagined experience, depicts and denounces perennial injustice and cruelty in their current forms, and in our peculiar time warns of the unprecedented perils that confront us, can be truly a high poetry, as well wrought as any other.13

Her response is that poetry that rages against injustice is a “high poetry” if it is highly evocative, well crafted, and emerges from the life experience of the artist. Levertov also remarks on why poetry, as opposed to ordinary discursive prose, is particularly effective as a catalyst for peace in her essay “Paradox and Equilibrium” (1988):

We humans cannot absorb the bitter truths of our own history, the revelation of our destructive potential, except through the mediation of art (the manifestation of our other, our constructive, potential). Presented raw, the facts are rejected: perhaps not by the intellect, which accommodates them as statistics, but by the emotions—which hold the key to conscience and resolve.14

Here she argues that poetry can be, in fact, more effective than prose because it emerges from the depths of the soul, transforming raw emotions through the fires of the creative imagination.

Both Merton and Levertov craft poems within the prophetic tradition that resist injustice, many of which are commentaries on particular historical events. Such poems draw on the devices of irony, satire, and parody often associated with the Hebraic prophetic voice of rage and denunciation. Levertov’s poem “An Interim” is a call for imaginative attention, empathy with the suffering of others. That which is witnessed compels moral response:

But we need
the few who could bear no more,
who would try anything,
who would take the chance
that their deaths among the uncountable
masses of dead might be real to those who
don’t dare imagine death.
Might burn through the veil that blinds
those who do not imagine the burned bodies
of other people’s children.15

She associates this stance with that of the prophets of ancient Israel:

And this brings one to a very important factor which is shared by poets and prophets: prophetic utterance, like poetic utterance, transforms experience and moves the received to new attitudes….We also need direct images in our art that will waken, warn, stir their hearers to action; images that will both appall and empower.16

Merton’s powerful poem “Chant to Be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces” (from Emblems of a Season of Fury, 1963) is an example of a political poem that both “appall[s] and empower[s]” in Levertov’s sense. It uses corrosive irony, startling juxtapositions, understatement, and a flat, dehumanized tone, to lay open the inner workings of the bureaucratic mind and its complicity with systemic evil:

How we made them sleep and purified them
How we perfectly cleaned up the people and worked a big heater
I was the commander I made improvements and installed a guar
anteed system taking account of human weakness I purified
and I remained decent

How I commanded

I made cleaning appointments and then I made the travelers sleep
and after that I made soap…17

Merton’s poem is chilling because of its use of an Adolph Eichmann war criminal persona, the language of mechanization and abstraction, passive voice, and euphemism (“sleep” for “die”). The speaker’s self-absorption (repeated use of “I”) and delusional thinking (“I did my rightful duty as commanded”) plunges the reader into a clinical hell. The poem reminds us how easily we can become dehumanized if we give ourselves over to a system that would dehumanize others. Yet the poem simultaneously empowers us to maintain an inner vigilance against such a moral descent. Interestingly enough, Levertov too, a few years earlier, wrote a poem called “During the Eichmann Trial” (from The Jacob’s Ladder, 1961), which uses the figure of Eichmann to speak to the potential in each of us for betrayal of our common humanity: “He stands isolate in a bulletproof/ witness-stand of glass, / a cage, where we may view/ ourselves, an apparition….”18

Demonstrating another strategy, Levertov’s “Witnessing from Afar the New Escalation of Savage Power,” offers a poetic-political experience of the effects of the first Gulf War. The poem depicts devastation in one woman’s life due to a bombing raid that compels engagement with her suffering. Its well-wrought lines shock the reader, yet avoid mere rant:

There was a crash and throb
of harsh sound audible
always, but distant.
She believed
she had it in her
to fend for herself and hold
despair at bay.
Now when she came to the ridge and saw
the world’s raw gash
reopened, the whole world
a valley of steaming blood,
her small wisdom
guttered in the uprush;
rubbledust, meatpulse—
darkness and the blast
levelled her….19

We are told that the elderly woman had “tended a small altar, / kept a candle shielded there,” but could not ward off through her simple faith things brought about by human powers of destruction. The stunning image of the “world’s raw gash” reminds us that “the whole world” is affected by the “leveling” that crushes the spirit in us all.
Such poems open new ways of witnessing, imagining others’ pain. Seeing deeply can lead to empathy or compassion, compassion to transformed ways of being in the world and, hopefully, action. If this is so, then Merton and Levertov’s explicitly political poems need to be revived, chanted, and even used in our liturgies. Their engaged political poems disturb us, while the more contemplative poems gently pivot us toward peace by pointing to another way of being in the world that, if enacted in many, could lead to social transformation.

Both Merton and Levertov composed more subtle peace poems by drawing from the natural world to enact a shift in perception. Their legacy meets our need for a poetry of praise through a contemplative vision of the world. In Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton writes:

The contemplative life should liberate and purify the imagination which passively absorbs all kinds of things without our realizing it; liberate and purify it from the influence of so much violence done by the bombardment of social images.20

Poetry can counter the bombardments of the culture, its abuses of language, its steady onslaught of advertising and propaganda that turns us into thoughtless consumers and makes us complicit in the machinery of war. Poetry is a contemplative act that evokes contemplative states in its hearers and readers. As Levertov insists, the more celebratory sort of peace poem offers a counterbalance to the poems of outrage:

But we need also the poetry of praise, of love for the world, the vision of the potential for good even in our species which has so messed up the rest of creation, so fouled its own nest. If we lose the sense of contrast, of the opposites to all the grime and gore, the torture, the banality of the computerized apocalypse, we lose the reason for trying to work for redemptive change…To sing awe—to breathe out praise and celebration—is as fundamental an impulse as to lament.21

In the end, these two poles of the prophetic and the celebratory must both be present in an authentic poetics of peace. Some poems emphasize the outrage and others the praise, while some encompass the two within a single poem.

The peace poetry of Levertov and Merton is in the end a poetry of ecological awareness in the largest sense. In one way, all poetry that raises consciousness past dualistic, either/or, them-us thinking is peace poetry. Such poetry is inherently ecological because it emerges from an experience of interconnectedness with the world that keeps us from seeing our fellow humans or the natural world as “other.” It grounds us in the cosmos and in community. True peace poetry leads to a de-centering of ego and an encounter with a more authentic and expansive self. Poetry is essential because it gives us more than notions, speaking to the heart. Peace poems can redirect us to lived experience where faith and doubt are held in a field of mystery.

In her last years when she lived near Seattle, Levertov spoke of Northwestern poetry of wilderness that “gives rise to a more conscious attentiveness to the non-human and to a more or less conscious desire to immerse the self in that larger whole.”22 She found herself drawn to poems which “approach spiritual longing and spiritual experience in a way that is more direct, since it is frankly about the quest for or the encounter with God.”23

Two astonishingly beautiful ecological/spiritual peace poems are Merton’s “Night-Flowering Cactus” and Levertov’s “To Live in the Mercy of God.” Both express identification with the flood of beauty and love that is the divine Oneness manifesting in and through both us and the natural world. Both poets recognize the complex mystery of nature, how it be an expression of clashing powers striving for survival, as well as a unified ground of Being. In their most mystical nature poems, they focus perception on this spiritual dimension of nature. In Merton’s poem, spirit manifests from a point of nothingness within a cactus that blooms only one night each year:

I know my time, which is obscure, silent and brief
For I am present without warning one night only….

When I come I lift my sudden Eucharist
Out of the earth’s unfathomable joy
Clean and total I obey the world’s body
I am intricate and whole, not art but wrought passion
Excellent deep pleasure of essential waters
Holiness of form and mineral mirth:

I am the extreme purity of virginal thirst….

…. He who sees my purity
Dares not speak of it.
When I open once for all my impeccable bell
No one questions my silence:
The all-knowing bird of night flies out of my mouth.

Have you seen it? Then though my mirth has quickly ended
You live forever in its echo:
You will never be the same again.24

This is one of Merton’s most deeply mystical poems, for it voices both the inner gnosis of the mortal, individual poet as well as the divine feminine presence and principle immanent in the world, Sophia or Holy Wisdom. The night-flowering cactus emerges from the virgin point of nothingness within the holy ground of being and utters her beauty from the depths, “clean and total.” To identify even for an instant with this momentous grace is to participate in a timeless unity where there is no more war within the self. The listener is not merely accosted by purity, but invited to be “the extreme purity of virginal thirst” which is longing for union with the Absolute. The sacramental emphasis on nature as “Eucharist” suggests that the human soul and the natural world, when perceived from this awareness, are a theophany or manifestation of the divine. Like Rilke’s famous poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends, “You must change your life,” the conclusion of Merton’s poem calls forth in the reader a transformation that is at once moral, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.

In Levertov’s “To Live in the Mercy of God,” a waterfall pouring through a west coast rain forest becomes a metaphor for the Divine Mercy:

To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
O or Ah
uninterrupted, voice
To breathe
spray. The smoke of it.
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?
Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
flung on resistance.25

This late poem establishes the Eros of the divine as it woos its recalcitrant human creation. The issue in both poems is whether we choose to open ourselves or resist the flow. Whether speaking out against injustice or opening silently to grace, the contemplative poems of Merton and Levertov can move us toward peace. Indeed, the simultaneous opening to the Spirit and resistance to injustice are twin aspects of a single motion.

Works Cited

Levertov, Denise. Denise Levertov: Poems 1968-1972. N.Y.: New Directions, 1987.
____________. Evening Train. N.Y.: New Directions, 1992.
____________. Denise Levertov: New and Selected Essays. NY: New Directions, 1992.
____________. Making Peace. Ed. Peggy Rosenthal. New York: New Directions, 2006.
____________. The Poet in the World. NY: New Directions, 1960.
____________. Sands of the Well. NY: New Directions, 1994.

Merton, Thomas. Contemplation in a World of Action. Foreword Robert Coles. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.
____________. The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers. Ed. Christine M. Bochen. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993.
_____________. In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton. Ed. Lynn Szabo. Preface Kathleen Norris. New York: New Directions, 2005.
_____________. The Other Side of the Mountain: The Journals of Thomas Merton. Ed. Patrick Hart. Vol. 7: 1967-1968. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998.


1 Levertov, Denise. “Autobiographical Sketch (1984)” in Denise Levertov: New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 260.
2 Levertov, Denise. “Some Affinities of Content (1991)” in Denise Levertov: New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 4.
3 Levertov, Denise. “Work That Enfaiths (1990)” in Denise Levertov: New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 249.
4 Merton, Thomas. “Letter to Ernesto Cardenal, Oct. 14, 1961 in The Courage for Truth: Letters to Writers. Ed. Christine M. Bochen. Harcourt, San Diego, 1993,127.
5 Merton, Thomas. The Other Side of the Mountain: The Journals of Thomas Merton. Vol. 7: 1967-1968. Ed. Patrick Hart, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998, 22.
6 Levertov, Denise. Evening Train. New York: New Directions, 1992, 113.
7 Levertov, Denise. “A Poet’s View (1984)” in Denise Levertov: New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 244.
8 Levertov, Denise. “Work that Enfaiths (1990),” in Denise Levertov: New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 250-251
9 Levertov, Denise. “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Definitions,” in Denise Levertov: New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 154.
10 Levertov, Denise. Making Peace. Ed. Peggy Rosenthal. New York: New Directions, 2006.
11 Levertov, Denise. “The Poet in the World (1967)” in Denise Levertov: New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 136.
12 Levertov, Denise. “The Poet in the World” (1968) in Denise Levertov: New & Selected Essays, New York: New Directions, 1992, 136-137.
13 Levertov, Denise. “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival,” in Denise Levertov: New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 143-144.
14 Levertov, Denise. “Paradox and Equilibrum (1988),” in Denise Levertov: New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 141.
15 Levertov, Denise. Denise Levertov: Poems 1968-1972. New York: New Directions, 1987, 26.
16 Levertov, Denise. “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival (early 1980’s)” in Denise Levertov: New & Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 148-149.
17 Szabo, Lynn R., ed. In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions, 1994, 119-120.
18 Levertov, Denise. Making Peace. Ed. Peggy Rosenthal. NY: New Directions, 1999, 52.
19 Levertov, Denise. Evening Train. New York: New Directions, 1992, 80.
20 Merton, Thomas. Contemplation in a World of Action. Foreword Robert Coles. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998, 230.
21 Levertov, Denise. “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival (early 1980’s) in Denise Levertov: New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 144.
22 Levertov, Denise. “Some Affinities of Content (1991),” in Denise Levertov: New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992, 6.
23 Levertov, Denise. “Some Affinities of Content (1991), 11.
24Szabo, Lynn R., ed. In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions, 2005, 98-99.
25 Levertov, Denise. Sands of the Well