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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 feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                              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,
might 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.

—Denise Levertov

Juan Felipe Herrera reads and discusses Denise Levertov’s “Making Peace”

Transcription of Commentary

Hello, this is Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of the United States 2015 to 2017. I want to read you a poem by one of favorite poets, Denise Levertov. It is titled “Making Peace” from her book Breathing the Water, published in 1997 by New Directions Press.

So now we look at the poem a little bit. Think about it a little bit. I’ve always loved Denise Levertov, her writing, her position as a poet, her relentless giving of her poems to the people, to this thing we call “social reality” that many have struggled with, to deal with. Is it real? Is it perception? Is it just atomic particles? Denise, maybe she includes all that in here. But really, she’s in it. Let me just say that. Even though she was called, her poetry was called sentimentalist, her poetry was called not poetry. But it was something like, the term “pamphleteering.” It’s a pamphlet, it’s a small broadside, it’s a piece of a newspaper. So she received a lot of criticism. Kind of literary bullying. But you know that’s what Denise is made of, she responds to a bigger picture. She continued talking about, writing about the Detroit riots, about Vietnam, about women’s position in society, writing essays, writing about poetry and writing about everything that’s in this poem. The indescribable. What is that voice? What is that darkness? What is that absence of war? Do we know what that is? It sounds easy. Four words: the absence of war.

I don’t think we need any ornamentalist layering and refiguring and emulsifying – that in itself is a key question that this poem offers. And she converts it to a poem. That piece like a poem is “not there ahead of itself,” she says. Ahead of itself. Peace is not ahead of itself. That’s another insight, that is another insight. You and I, the reader, has to deal with that. What is this thing called that not be ahead of itself? Can we be not ahead of ourselves? Can our life be not ahead of itself? And when we are that, we are closer to peace. We are closer to the raw, full imagination of what peace is. If we are conjuring forward, it’s fantasy perhaps. It’s a plan perhaps. It’s an agenda perhaps. But it is not now where peace happens, can’t happen and most of all can be made. And I really enjoy how she speaks about the poem, its materials, its elements and how peace is like that. And most of all, how it’s all threaded and structured as, she says, in our lives, in our life, stuff. She talks about rhythm, she talks about restructuring “the sentence our lives are making,” she says, “Revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power.” That is something that we can do, that we must do in this poem called peace, in making this poem called peace making, “Making Peace” as she talks about loooong pauses, “until we begin to utter its metaphors, / learning them as we speak,” she says. And then later on, allowing the long pauses.

And that’s another key in this poem – there is the making of things and then there is the long pause and pauses, inside and perhaps outside the making. And that is a paradox – making and not-making, being and not-being, being ahead and being here in the now and the cadence of it and the balance of it. And the energy of it. She says, “an energy field more intense than war,” the cadence of peace. You tell me if this is simplistic. You tell me if this is sentimentalist. And she goes on stanza by stanza into the world. As we make peace, as we make our lives in the present, outside profit and power, outside the “imagination of disaster,” as she says. We are in the act of living. And I think this was Denise Levertov, writing about Vietnam, writing about the Detroit riots, writing about women’s life in society and the power grid, writing about the inside and the outside. And herself being kind of an outsider, born in England and growing up becoming a bigger poet here in the United States. An outsider and an insider. She spoke in her essays Light up the Cave, around the same decade or so when Breathing the Water came out about the outscape and the inscape of the poem, writing about what’s out there and writing about our interiority and how they’re both related, interrelated. And in a way this poem does that too, talking about war and profit and power and talking about each act of living. And the ending of the poem, each word, she says, “a vibration of light—facets / of the forming crystal.” Here is this new universe and it begins with these crystals. And these crystals have facets and these facets are acts of living. I know this sounds like I’m reading these big pieces of thick wood or pasting them together and creating a statement about her writing, about this poem. That’s not really it. These are just the materials of this poem that you and I have to address and reflect on and find what being is, find what presence is, find what the absence of war is, find what making our lives is all about, and find what making peace is.

So let us thank Denise Levertov for a wonderful life, for incredible poetry and for being concerned with the big questions, of war and peace, being, humanity, and how it can be made with our own life.

Denise Levertov, “Making Peace” from Breathing the Water.

Copyright © 1987 by Denise Levertov.

Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

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Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera

Read “New Gardens” by Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera (1948- ) is the author of more than 30 books of poetry, novels for young adults, and collections for children. His many honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award, the International Latino Book Award, two Latino Hall of Fame Poetry Awards, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, and the PEN Beyond Margins Award. Elected a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets in 2011, Herrera served as the Poet Laureate of California from 2012-2015. In 2016, he was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the 36th L.A. Times Book Prizes. Herrera was the 21st Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress from 2015-2017. Photo credit: Blue Flower Arts.

Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov (1923-1997) is the author of 24 poetry collections, including With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959); Evening Train (1993); and The Freeing of the Dust (1975), winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. She also published several collections of short stories and essays, including The Poet in the World (1974) and Light up the Cave (1982). Levertov’s honors include a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as the 1990 Robert Frost Medal, the 1993 Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, and the Governor’s Award from the Washington State Commission for the Humanities. She was also among the first recipients of New York University’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Awards for Arts and Letters. Denise Levertov died in 1997.