There’s in my mind a woman
of innocence, unadorned but
fair-featured and smelling of
apples or grass. She wears
a utopian smock or shift, her hair
is light brown and smooth, and she
is kind and very clean without
but she has
And there’s a
turbulent moon-ridden girl
or old woman, or both,
dressed in opals and rags, feathers
and torn taffeta,
who knows strange songs
but she is not kind.
Years ago when I raising little children, I spent very little time writing but a lot of time reading books about writing. One by novelist Rita Mae Brown made a particular impression. As I remember, Brown asserted that you can have children or you can have a writing career but not both. A writer needs to be selfish, focused and dedicated only to her work. Motherhood wasn’t compatible with an artistic career.
What I got out of that book, besides the inevitable overdue fine at the library, was that either you could be a very good writer or a very good person. This idea was discouraging, to say the least, but also a useful excuse for not writing. I’d rather be a good person, a good mother than a good writer.
My exposure to writers up to that point reinforced this dichotomy. For Pete’s sake I had been through an MFA program. MFA programs, for those who didn’t watch the most recent episode of Girls, tend to bring out the worst in everyone. At workshop tables I sat elbow to elbow with people who were competitive, needy, emotionally unstable, snarky, smarmy and sometimes downright nasty. With a few notable exceptions, they were people I may have admired but didn’t want to hang around.
In her poem “In Mind,” Denise Levertov sets up similar opposing forces: imagination and kindness seem to be mutually exclusive. The two sides are represented by three women. The “woman /of innocence” is a single being, a fully integrated person whose attention to hygiene alone would preclude her from being a writer. Levertov describes her with details that highlight her less-than-riveting personality. Her hair—light brown—is neither dark nor light; she’s dressed simply in a “utopian smock” like some vacant-headed worker from a collective or commune or organic apple farm; she wears no jewelry or presumably makeup. Dependable. Sweet. Angelic but dull.
The second persona, on the other hand, is bewitching and witch-like. She’s not even one person but two, and made up of contradictions: both old and young, bejeweled and in rags, interesting but not nice. I imagine her to be the opposite of the woman of innocence in every way: her hair dark, curly and unwashed, her air experienced.
So I’m back to this idea that good person equals bad writer. And also good writer equals bad person. But I wonder if an idea so reductionist is what Levertov had in mind. I don’t think so. And what she has in mind is important in a literal way, since the poem is titled such and begins the same. In her mind are these three women. Multiple personas in one mind. That’s a good start on a description of a writer, of any artist. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said (and I quote from a tweet by @JonWinokur), “There was never a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good.”
I chose to read the poem in reference to writers, but “In Mind” can refer to any artistic person, anyone whose imagination is her stock-in-trade, anyone who feels pulled this way by art and that way by the people in her life, anyone who feels her dark creative leanings at odds with civilized society and her kinder nature.
I left the poem in the writing section of the library. Just as the coast was clear and I was about to tape the poem to some writing guides and take the picture, a young woman plopped herself on a library stool beside me. I didn’t want to wait for her to leave, so I explained what I was doing and asked if she’d be in the picture. She agreed as if my request was perfectly normal. Library Girl, if you ever read this, thank you for your openness to the abnormal.
Here’s a short bio of Levertov from a past post.
Denise Levertov was born in a suburb of London in 1923 to politically active parents. Her mother was Welsh and her father was from a Russian Hassidic Jewish family. Levertov was homeschooled and she began writing early. From age five she had a strong sense of her destiny to be an artist, and when she was 12 she sent T.S. Eliot some of her poems. He responded with two pages of encouragement and advice.
During the London Blitz, she served as a civilian nurse. She married an American writer and eventually became an American citizen. She was poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones and taught at Stanford, among other universities.
Later in life she converted to Catholicism and became a political poet, speaking out against Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the Gulf War.
Levertov died in 1997 at age 75.
In light of the poem and my earlier musings, it seems important to add that Levertov had a son, Nikolai. From whom she was sometimes estranged. And then reconciled with on her deathbed. And that she is often described as “complicated” (read “difficult”). For those truly interested, link here for a good summary of two recent biographies on Levertov.
Really beautiful , keep it up.
I often think that poets who are women suffer from this dichotomy a whole lot more often and more deeply than men who are poets. It seems women are often viewed only two ways . . . sinner or saint, that there is no vast territory in between where the rest of us live and work. I understand the perception, when I often go to write something deeply, to explore something painful, or from a perspective that is not ordinary, I find myself thinking about people who will read it, especially family or friends who may find out something about me I had never shared in any other way. When I was younger, it was very . . . inhibiting, now that I am older, not so much. So maybe the three women in “In Mind” are, as you point out, just aspects of the same mind, the same person. I know that as the old woman in opals and feathers, that I am a lot more . . .willing to speak my mind than I was as the young, clean, non-descript woman. I have more . . . experience to share and more willingness to do it!
And . . . kindness, I wish it was looked on as essential, as a foundation of civilization. I do not think that art precludes kindness, rather includes it as an aspect of heart, a pillar of the soul. It is the impulse to share that drives all art, and . . . is not sharing a particular kind of . . . kindness?
What you describe has been one of the struggles of my writing life (along with discipline)….nice to know that this inner censor pipes down as we age. But I wouldn’t want to lose it entirely. There’s always the danger of writing something as mean-spirited as Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast”–his “memoir” in which he trashed the people around him in the name of art. Speaking of Hemingway, he’s a good example of the double standard you talk about. Lillian Hellman had a similar difficult and outsize personality and was vilified for it. Hemingway was adored for his. (For the record, I adore Hemingway’s writing, but not his character.)
I love what you write about kindness being essential to art. The instinct to share, yes, but also the empathy necessary to inhabit a character.
To me the key word in Levertov’s poem is “mind.”
The poem didn’t come across as being necessarily about human kindness vs unkindness or good writer vs bad writer, etc, but about the mind’s general tendency, and maybe even need, to organize reality.
I used to often, often, and yet again OFTEN envy people I thought were, compared to me, living uncomplicated lives, content to spend their days following simple, usually pleasant routines, while I struggled to get through my own. “She doesn’t have an imagination,” I’d think to myself, “but she probably sleeps well at night.”
But of course no one lives this way. None of us float on the surface or dog-paddle through life. We all have a deep. Usually not, but sometimes some of us stop and dive into it and bring up things. But, expressed or suppressed, it’s there.
But why did I cling to this unreal reality? Maybe because it was a way to organize the myriad states-of-being and ways-of-being that confused me, a habit I’d developed to make reality more understandable, a simplistic solution to meet the lack of simplicity in my life.
To me it’s telling that Levertov uses the word “or” so often–“apples or grass,”
“smock or shift,” “girl or old woman.” This signals to me that these are fluid mental constructs conjured in a languid, day-dreamy state, like archetypes of Levertov’s collective unconscious, to be Jungian about it. They are real only in that they are really in, and of, her mind.
A much more sophisticated reading than my own. Your last two sentences really nail it for me.
Maybe because the poem hits those archetypes you mention (the witch, the maiden), it becomes an inkblot kind of poem…we each read into it our own struggles….I myself am often torn between the nastiness of my imagination (which, really, is beyond judgements like that, springing as it does from the unconscious) and how I see myself as a human being.
Levertov uses “kind” in the sense of “kindness” as often as she uses “mind,” so I do think kindness is relevant and central to the poem.
And I hope you recognized yourself as one of the Notable Exceptions!
Hah! I was hoping I was one of the lucky ones. Thanks! I include you on my own NE list.
I’ve re-read this rich little poem several times, each reading adding a new, nuanced layer.
Kind–what a powerful word. I agree it’s central. Coming at the end like that, where it makes such a great impact, it hit me like a grenade.
And that other little repeated word “but.”
But she has no imagination.
But she is not kind.
What is the value of her unwrinkled smock if all it conceals is shallowness?
What is the good of her taffeta if it’s been torn by a hurt, discarded lover?
A super poem to have chosen, Poem Elf. It reminds me of Emily Dickinson–whom I seldom “get”–and her beguilingly simple-appearing-but-in-reality-no-such-thing-almost-entirely-single syllable-word poems.
For me it comes back to the fact that she has these women “in mind”. She really does have them in her mind. She is both of them, but the essence of her, quite inexpressible, is something else walking between them
Well said, thank you!