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The Journey from Poetry to Faith

Although there are several different ways a person can come to believe in Christianity, the way Denise Levertov found her faith was rather unconventional—she found it through poetry. Levertov explains in her essay “Work That Enfaiths” that “it was through poetry—through images given me by creative imagination while pondering this matter—that I worked through to a theological explanation which satisfied me” (153). The theological explanation she found was the belief that God exists, and that He cares deeply about us. But we as readers are often still left questioning what about Levertov’s act of writing poetry seemed to lead her to faith. Levertov explains how this worked in the introduction to her book, The Stream and the Sapphire, “This enterprise in what I think of as do-it-yourself theology seemed at the time of writing to risk presumption, but I later discovered it was much like what Ignacius of Loyola recommended in the ‘Exercises’” (vii). While reading The Stream and the Sapphire, I was able to better understand how the very act of writing poems could lead someone to Christ. I am also sure that learning about the characters of the Bible and other heroes of our faith, as Levertov did when she was writing about them, inspired her to have a life-changing belief like they did. In summary, I believe that writing poetry led Levertov to faith in God by answering her philosophical questions, by showing her she did not need to understand God fully, and by using St. Ignacius’s Exercises. 


Denise Levertov was born in England in 1923 to a Welsh immigrant and a Russian immigrant of Jewish heritage (Hollenberg 10). Although both of her parents were pious and devout Christians, Levertov abandoned formal religion of any kind at the age of 13 (Greene 12). The reason she chose not to participate in religion is unknown, but it may have been the influence of her older sister who also preferred intellect to faith (Greene 12). Her first book of poems, The Double Image, was published in 1946, though she had been writing poems since a very young age (Hollenberg 83). At the age of twenty-five, Levertov moved to the United States with her American husband Mitchell Goodman in tow (Greene 35). While in America, Levertov continued to write poetry, and she also gave birth to her son, Nikolai (Hollenberg 115). By the time she was thirty-eight she had published six books of poetry and had been named one of the “new American poets” (Greene 50). Her writing continually mirrored the world around her, especially during times of great confusion or change (Greene 94). By the time the early 1980s came around, Levertov had been through a lot in her life. She and her husband had divorced, and her son, whom she had not seen for several years, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Nonetheless, it was during this tumultuous period that Levertov found her faith in God. In 1983 she wrote, “I have a degree of faith I have never had before, and a wish to try to earn some of the goodness I receive” (Greene 157). This shift in her personal life affected her poetry, too. But what was it that prompted this sudden change? 


First, writing her poems helped Levertov find answers to her philosophical questions. One of Levertov’s serious problems with Christianity early on was the fact that innocent beings suffer and that Christians claim God is just and merciful, as she could not see how both could be true (Hollenberg 336). This inability to reconcile these two opposing sides is expressed in a poem written by Levertov in her book The Stream and the Sapphire, in which she wrote, “Children and animals who cannot learn anything from suffering, suffer, are tortured, die in incomprehension” (3-4). She simply could not believe that a good God would allow this to happen. Even so, she eventually solved this seeming dissonance by realizing that God is love, and that He has given us freedom to choose to either do what is right or do what is wrong. When people decide to do evil, people will get hurt—even people who have done nothing sinful. However, she explains that God had to give us this freedom to choose in her essay “Work That Enfaiths” when she writes, “the very nature of God as Love would be violated by taking back the gift of choice which is our very nature” (153). Here, she expresses her belief that God had to give us a choice out of love. Levertov’s other concern was that being a Christian would mean she would have to change her political beliefs or lessen her artistic freedom (Greene 149). Fortunately for her, this was not the case. While writing her poetry, she learned that trivial things like politics and the arts did not have to keep her from her faith. She realized that what was important in Christianity was belief in a God who loves and protects us, as expressed in a poem from her book, The Stream and the Sapphire, “though your soul felt darkened, heavy, worthless, yet God, you discovered, never abandoned you but walked at your side keeping pace as comrades had on the long hard roads of war” (46). Here, she expresses her thankfulness to God for never leaving her, even when she was doubting Him. Writing these poems helped Levertov learn that Christianity was not as confining and cold as she had first believed. 


Prior to this gradual conversion, Levertov had been practicing agnosticism (Greene 144). The term agnosticism was first coined in the 1860s by a man named Thomas Henry Huxley, a firm supporter of Darwinism, but the idea had existed since long before then (Poidevin 19). Technically speaking, an agnostic is a person who either admits that they do not know whether God exists or argues that a person cannot know whether a God exists (Poidevin 9). Often, people become agnostics when they are faced with two opposing sides and they do not believe the evidence is strong enough for them to pick either case as being true, and this is called evidential agnosticism (Poidevin 15). Levertov expresses her own confusion about God in one of her early poems in The Stream and the Sapphire, in which she considers the analogy of God as a lamb. “God then, encompassing all things, is defenseless? Omnipotence has been tossed away, reduced to a wisp of damp wool? (13)” With these words, Levertov shows her agnosticism, as she ponders how God can be both an innocent, ignorant lamb, and an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator. At this point, Levertov failed to have the faith to see a God who has depth of character and has a Triune nature that consists of both the Son, who is the innocent lamb, and the Father, who has all power and all knowledge. Levertov did not see God as personal or loving before her gradual conversion to Christianity because she had not yet felt His presence in her life. 


To overcome this agnosticism, Levertov learned through her poetry that, yes, it is impossible to know everything about God, but she also discovered that did not need to keep her from having no faith in God at all. Previously, she had believed that faith in God was unnecessary and pointless, but then she found that the exact opposite was true. In The Stream and the Sapphire, Levertov expresses the beautiful mystery of God’s choice to come down and die for imperfect humans. She wrote, “It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do and shudder to know . . . to this creature vainly sure it and no other is god-like, God (out of compassion for our ugly failure to evolve) entrusts, as guest, as brother, the Word” (19). She does not know why God would want to become one of us, but she is glad that He did. She still has questions about Christianity, but they fuel her faith now to grow stronger instead of stamping it out entirely. She explores this chaos further in another poem that comes a little later in The Stream and the Sapphire when she wrote, “the mystery that there is anything, anything at all, let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything, rather than void . . . You still, hour by hour sustain it” (33). Levertov does not understand why God made this universe, or how He made it, but she knows that it had to come from somewhere. She sees the beauty and life around her, and she knows it can only come from a personal, loving God. Levertov expresses this realization so beautifully in the poem in The Stream and the Sapphire, in which she penned these words, “I witnessed all things quicken to color, to form, my question not answered but given its part in a vast unfolding design lit by a risen sun” (84). Here, she tells us that she does not need to know the answer, she simply needs to trust, to lean on God’s understanding instead of her own.  


Like Levertov, a man named St. Ignatius went from living a worldly life to living deeply spiritually (Gleason, Ignatius, and Mottola 11). When Ignacius decided to reform his life, he did so drastically, and he wrote down what he thought others would find useful—thus creating his Spiritual Exercises (Ignatius 13). Each Spiritual Exercise involved meditating on Scripture and considering the impact of Scripture on their life. His exercises were intended to be completed over the course of thirty days, and they consist of four phases (Skehan 1). The first phase is focused on purifying your soul and putting your life together, and the purpose is to make the person doing the exercises feel guilt and sadness over the disarray of their lives and the prevalence of their sins (Ignatius 14). During phase two, a person meditates on the life of Jesus Christ, and the goal is to get to know Jesus more fully and to love Him more passionately (Skehan 55). In the third phase, the exerciser must study the Passion of our Lord and Jesus’ sufferings, choose to follow Jesus more closely, and increase their love for Jesus and their lament over their own sins (Ignatius 15). During the fourth phase, a person should meditate on the Messiah’s resurrection, and that is supposed to help the person become more loving, more joyful, and more trusting in God (Ignatius 15). While a person is completing these exercises, he or she should leave all their regular, mundane practices behind, and instead focus solely on God, and let themselves be absorbed by His presence (Ignatius 31). A big focus of each phase is on prayer, and each prayer consists of both what a person does and what is done to the person each time he or she prays, and that sounds an awful lot like what Levertov does in each one of her poems (Skehan 8). Overall, the central message of the Spiritual Exercises is that human beings were created to praise, revere, and serve the Lord, and the exercises are meant to help you do that better (Ignatius 47). By spending time mourning your sins, contemplating the life and death of Jesus, and rejoicing in His resurrection, you should come out in the end more grateful and trusting of the Lord than ever before.  


Finally, writing poetry helped Levertov find faith in God by leading her through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignacius. As stated above, the first phase, or “week” of the exercises involves dwelling on the sorrow of our sins, and Levertov does that in a poem in The Stream and the Sapphire. She admitted, “Lord, not you, it is I who am absent” (15). She realizes God is not the one who has done wrong, God has not abandoned her, she has done wrong, she has abandoned the Lord. She wishes she could focus on God, but she does not know how to do that. She focuses more of week two and the life of Jesus a little later in The Stream and the Sapphire. She wrote, “Surely those hands were his, taking the platter of bread from hers just now? Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well” (43)? She wrote several poems about people Jesus encountered during His life and ministry, wondering how they felt, what they thought. She used those poems to increase her knowledge about Jesus, and they also helped her come closer to feeling love for Him because of the goodness He had radiated to those around Him. Eventually, she moved on to Jesus’ passion and suffering, and week three. In The Stream and the Sapphire, she shares her thoughts with us, “He could taste also the humiliation on dread, cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go” (73). She imagines how Jesus must have felt as God turned His face away, and she wonders if He wanted to step away from His responsibilities, to cease being God. I believe that, in this poem, it is evident that she had come to faith in God by this point. In this poem, Levertov expresses love for Christ and empathy as she imagines the depth of His pain. This is a big step in moving Levertov toward full-on faith. At the end of The Stream and the Sapphire, Levertov considers Christ’s resurrection, and she experiences joy in the life He brings. She wrote, “We must feel the pulse in the wound to believe that ‘with God all things are possible,’ taste bread at Emmaus that warm hands broke and blessed” (80). Thawing Levertov’s cold heart toward religion most certainly felt like a miracle, something only God could accomplish. She has come to feel God’s love for her, and she in turn has come to trust Him. After all these years of struggling, she has finally realized that she must revere and serve her Lord and give Him all the glory. Levertov concludes The Stream and the Sapphire, in much the same way as the Spiritual Exercises end, and that is with a focus on Jesus’ triumphant victory over death and the grave. In the last poem of the book she wrote, “He again Mothering His birth: torture and bliss” (86). From this poem, we can clearly see that, the way Levertov saw it, the resurrection was effortful and difficult, but that it was worth it because of the great love Christ has for us, no matter how long it takes us to find Him.  


Now, I know that some people might still be skeptical. They will doubt that it is possible to come to believe in God through only writing poetry. I understand that the idea sounds crazy, but it has happened. Authoring poems, journaling, or doing another related activity has brought many lost souls to Christ. God can use anything to bring people nearer to Himself if He so chooses. Writing down your thoughts, feelings, or questions is just another way of praying, and, of course, no Christian would argue that praying cannot lead to salvation. I believe Levertov’s poems were a prayer. She used them to talk to God, and He answered her. An example of a poem as a prayer can be found in The Stream and the Sapphire, when Levertov writes, “Yet You hold me minute by minute from falling. Lord, You provide” (23). In this poem, it is obvious that Levertov is speaking to God, thanking Him for what He has done for her, even when she does not deserve His mercy and grace. In the essay “Work that Enfaiths” she put it this way, “They are poems written on the road to an imagined destination of faith” (158). Levertov felt that each of her poems was a step on the journey to salvation, each one bringing her a little closer to her Savior. Her poems seem a lot like Psalms, each expressing different emotions toward God. Although the way she came to believe seems unconventional, or even unbelievable, it makes perfect sense when we think of her poems as more like prayers.  


In conclusion, Levertov came to faith in God through her poems because they gave her answers to her questions, taught her she did not need to have all the answers, and because, with them, she experienced St. Ignacius’s Spiritual Exercises. The reason this matters is because, if we have doubts, or if we know someone who does, we can journal or even write our own poetry to find peace. Sometimes talking to God through writing is easier than speaking aloud. We might not find all the answers, but we might find something even better. Levertov found that putting her questions and concerns into an artistic form helped her arrive at her destination, even before she knew what that destination would be. Levertov suggests that all people have the ability to believe hidden inside them, that they just will not let it come out, in The Stream and the Sapphire, when she says, “He cursed not me, not them, but (ears that hear not, eyes that see not) their dullness, that withholds gifts unimagined (68). This poem is given from the perspective of the fig tree that had been cursed by Jesus, explaining why it was cursed. Not even Levertov, or the apostles who saw the withered fig tree, knew what they had inside of them at first. It was not until Levertov started writing that she discovered what she believed. So, all people, whether they are Christians, atheists, or have any other set of beliefs, can benefit from laying our thoughts down in an organized, constructive way, just like Levertov. Levertov explained what she found very well in The Stream and the Sapphire, when she wrote, “He must return, first, in Divine patience, and know hunger again, and give to humble friends the joy of giving Him food—fish and a honeycomb” (78). What Levertov is saying here is that Jesus did not have His disciples feed Him because He needed to be nourished, He did it because they needed to experience that joy. In the same way, God does not need us to pray to Him, or to journal to Him, or even to write poems to Him for His benefit. He desires us to follow Him because it will bring us joy everlasting. 

 

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Works Cited 


Greene, Dana. Denise Levertov : A Poet’s Life. University of Illinois Press, 2012. EBSCOhost.


Hollenberg, Donna. A Poet’s Revolution : The Life of Denise Levertov. University of California Press, 2013. EBSCOhost. 


Ignatius, et al. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Doubleday, 1989. 


Levertov, Denise. The Stream & the Sapphire Selected Poems on Religious Themes. New Directions, 1997. 


Levertov, Denise. “Work That Enfaiths.” Cross Currents, vol. 1, no. 1 – vol. 69, no. 4, pp. 150 – 159. JSTORE.


Poidevin, Robin Le. Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010. 


Skehan, James W. Place Me With Your Son : Ignatian Spirituality in Everyday Life, Third Edition. Georgetown University Press, 1991. EBSCOhost.

 

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