Denise Levertov – posted 3/28/2015
Americans have a too casual attitude toward war. It is often attributed to the fact no war has been fought on American soil for a very long time. Without first hand experience, Americans lack knowledge of the awfulness of war.
In my lifetime, the Vietnam war was the big war. It was a monument to pointlessness. More recently, we have had the Iraq War which started in 2003. That war was based on lies and falsehoods cooked up by the George W. Bush – Dick Cheney administration.
How many lives have been snuffed out or irreparably damaged by these stupid wars? The mind reels thinking about that. The numbers are vast.
Now we have war-mongering politicians talking about a new war with Iran, not to mention the war against the Islamic State. Have these politicians learned anything from our wars over the last 50 years (and I am leaving smaller wars out)? It would appear not. There is the same blindness, the same uncritical acquiesence and a new generation of young and innocent soldiers to be sacrificed to the gods of war.
But not everybody is so naive.
I first became aware of the poet Denise Levertov because of her opposition to the war in Vietnam. She was outspoken and a fierce critic of American intervention in Vietnam. Levertov’s husband at the time, Mitchell Goodman, was also an activist against the war. Levertov used to speak and read her poems at anti-Vietnam war rallies. I saw her do that. I also saw her read when she visited my old school, Trinity College, in Hartford, Ct. in the early 1970’s.
I thought of Levertov when I was reading Seymour Hersh’s new article in the March 30, 2015 New Yorker about his return visit to My Lai, the scene of the most famous Vietnam massacre. Levertov did see the horror. She did not sugarcoat or lie or look away as was all too common. She would have appreciated Hersh’s piece.
Reading Hersh, I was struck by the lack of American reckoning and remorse for the crimes committed. As Hersh reported, American troops cold-bloodedly murdered 504 victims from 247 families. Among the dead were 182 women. American troops executed 173 children including 56 infants. Although an army jury convicted Lieutenant William Calley of mass murder and sentenced him to life and hard labor, President Nixon intervened and Calley was released from jail. Three months after Nixon left office, Calley was freed altogether. As Hersh points out, he was the only officer ever convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre. Where was the American price paid for this enormous atrocity?
While Levertov is much more than an anti-war poet, I wanted to recognize her for courageous and honorable opposition to the war. She used her poetry to speak out. Poets are ignored in America but I would ask where are the poets now? Where are the Denise Levertovs’ of our day? Our society is lacking moral compass.
To honor and remember Levertov, I wanted to print two of her poems.
What Were They Like? by Denise Levertov
Did the people of Vietnam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?
Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
it is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight,
Who can say? It is silent now.
Living by Denise Levertov
The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer
The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day
A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily
moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.
Each minute the last minute.