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.
What I love about this poem is the way it takes an idea – the idea that even to conceive of true peace, peace as something more than the absence of war, is a task that requires the kind of skill and imagination that goes into the making of a great poem – and proceeds to develop it so exquisitely. Levertov takes us deep into the heart of the way a poem is written – the uncertainty, the difficulty of knowing what you want to say until you’ve said it, the seemingly endless possibilities, none of them quite satisfactory, and then that inexpressible moment of fluency when the poem just flows and you know you’ve got it right. This would be a feat in itself, but Levertov turns this description into a metaphor for the painstaking process of constructing peace, turning an abstract idea into a tangible, living exercise, that ends with that luminous and delicate image of ‘vibrations of light’ shining from a crystal as it forms. What’s extraordinary about this poem is the way you can hear it coming together, can feel it, through all the pauses and hesitations, starting to gain momentum. So that even though some of the metaphors Levertov uses early on are a little raw (“restructured the sentence our lives are making” Really?) that only adds to the sense of a force slowly gathering, preparing to pulse “stanza by stanza into the world”.
Note: The phrase “imagination of disaster” comes from Henry James.