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Levertov, Hopkins, and Portraiture in Photography

Denise Levertov’s poem ‘Come into Animal Presence’ praises animals, bringing out the dignity of their natures, employing a sacramental approach to them. The poem shows marked similarities with G. M. Hopkins’ ‘When kingfishers catch fire’. Both poems list categories of creature, and celebrate their characteristic features – especially their actions or motions, and how they strike the senses of the observer. Levertov and Hopkins both imply an underlying theological worldview. Hopkins’ poem is a sonnet, and, in the first octet, lists things in the world, animate and inanimate (kingfishers, dragonflies, stones, bells), with their ways of expressing themselves – catching light, or ringing, explaining that they were created to do this. In the second of the two stanzas (the concluding sextet of the sonnet) he both moves the focus onto human beings, and raises the theoretical level from philosophy of natural kinds to theology of what human ends should be (‘the just man justices’), and of the human relationship to the divine (Christ is in human faces, and thus in ‘God’s eye’ through human faces and just acts).  

            Levertov’s poem (not a sonnet) lacks the hierarchy between its two stanzas, in the sense of a focus moving explicitly from one level of creatures to another, but she keeps the same transition Hopkins’ poem shows from a natural to a theological perspective. Her poem is about animals, and their characteristics as types – the serpent, the rabbit, the llama, etc. – but what interests her about them is their contrasts to humans (who are thus brought in to the poem, negatively), and especially their lack of concern with humans. They are ‘guileless’ and ‘insouciant’. The second stanza explains that animals have kept their innocence (without using the word ‘innocence’, but calling them ‘sacred’) – implying that they are free from Original Sin, unlike humans. Thus although the animal ‘disregards’ us, or ‘glances’ at us without concern, we, looking at the animal, may detect a revelation of the sacred – ‘An old joy returns in holy presence’, as the poem ends.

            I have an interest in photography, and when looking at portrait photographs, of people or animals, I notice that taking pictures of animals, and of young children, is easier to do successfully than photographing adults. This seems to me to be because the expression of the eyes, especially, but also of faces generally, in young children and animals, is unselfconscious, and straightforwardly fits the circumstances. The emotions are undisguised and there is no contradiction between surface and depth – which leads to a kind of beauty, and makes the picture cohere. In portraits of adult humans, the subject will often be posing – there will be a surface expression, a disguised emotional state, and a question of the relation between what the face expresses and what the portrait was meant to convey – or even should be meaning to convey, in terms of presenting a person’s dignity, that dignity which Levertov sees in the poise of animals (‘The llama / rests in dignity’). A possibility of the disproportionate or unfitting arises in a way that it does not in dogs, cats and babies – making the photographer’s task more taxing. It is as if ‘the Fall’ could be seen, by the eye, in the eye.

Disorienting Light

Why are poets drawn to sunset and sunrise? These fleeting periods of the day feature to a disproportionate extent in poetry, considering their brevity. Nevertheless, literature does often focus on specific, outstanding areas of experience, as if these contain, in a concentrated way, something attractive to writers, perhaps offering a window onto broader perspectives. 

Just as the extraordinary cannot be constantly apparent without becoming ordinary, a heightened state of poetic inspiration will stand out from the usual run of life. It seems not to be part of the human condition to live in a state of continuous clarity in relation to cosmic dimensions, and perhaps the psyche could not tolerate the weight of such a condition. 

Light is pervasive in our world of experience (imagined light in our dreamt experience), and if we become used to general daylight (as well as regular daylight-replicating artificial indoor light), a light apart from the ordinary, in its intensity, dimness, or colour, will cast its exceptional character on everything around, and may cause us to feel, in a way, removed from our environment, not recognising it, momentarily. This experience can encourage a sense that one is stepping back, and reassessing the given, and one’s relationship to everything – a kind of all-inclusive ostranenie (defamiliarisation). 

Special light conditions occur most obviously at sunset and sunrise, but can be produced by a coming storm or its aftermath, the midday sun in a hot climate, and even simply being out at night can call up a feeling of estrangement and inspire a reflective state of mind. This state might be compared with the experience of being on a boat, looking out while standing on the deck, and seeing everything around made unfamiliar by one’s own undulating ground. Something different in the conditions of the whole view leads to a questioning of the vantage point, and the subject can feel temporarily removed before settling back in as the moment of inspiration fades. A dimly lit café can artificially create a similar effect, and the grate affinity of writers for cafés may be owing to this circumstance, in part.

            A poem as a specially concentrated, notice attracting piece of language can, like other works of art, be a kind of icon for these disorienting moments, which, when encountered fruitfully, offer a renewed orientation, or at least plant the hope of one.

Urban Nature

In Borges’s story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, a secret society, with enlightenment origins, invents a world (an imaginary planet, Tlön). Once the new imagined world has been dreamt up in detail, it starts to become real and replace the contemporary world. An important feature of the invented world is that in it ideas are regarded by its inhabitants as more real than physical objects, and that physical objects can be replicated and physically found, if someone mentally projects their existence – mind-products known in Tlön as hrönir. Borges recounts himself/the narrator finding, in Argentina, an impossible phantasy object from the fictional planet – a small and implausibly heavy metal cone, of a kind which had begun to turn up randomly during the early stages of the transformation of this world into Tlön.

            The idea of things conceived first by human reason and then becoming physical reality has struck me as related to the question the poet faces, in contemporary life, of how to engage artistically with the modern city as a lived environment, or habitat. Traditionally poets treated the rural world as the scene of the ideal life, and regarded urban places as fallen – perhaps stimulating, but hazardous, and ultimately best withdrawn from in favour of retirement to a natural setting. Given a world in which a constantly increasing proportion of the population never experience life in the country, and urban living has become the norm, the question arises, for the contemporary poet, as to whether there can be an idyll, or even mysticism, of the modern urban experience. 

            Any city is a man-made environment, but walking round an older city, such as York, reveals shades of an organic quality, the sometimes unplanned shapes, seen in houses, lanes and yards, sharing in aspects of the character of phenomena like wasps’ nests, or beavers’ lodges, for example, animal constructions, which are generally thought of as natural, although not products of random chance, in the way that cliffs or sand dunes are. Traditional urbanism will involve degree of rational engagement and self-consciousness beyond the activity of animals, of course, and there is also a specifically human impulse to adorn (as David Jones noticed). At the same time, perhaps less than fully self-conscious elements play their part in the shaping of the buildings and streetscape, such as a complex relation to ‘how things have been done before’, both imitative and developing – that is, tradition. Compared with this kind of partly planned, partly spontaneously grown city environment, the consistent parallel lines, right angles and processed materials characteristic of a pre-planned modern urban environment constitute a higher-order break with life on the land. So the different kinds of city scene, in terms of the degree of through-rationalisation at work in them, may differ in the challenges they pose their inhabitants looking for ways of being at home in them, as well as those seeking to lyricise life lived in them. 

            Many twentieth-century poets have accorded the city a central place in their poetic worlds, but have varied widely in terms of what the city has meant to them: while Eliot’s city tends to the dystopic, and David Jones separates out the archaeology of the ancient City and the historic trade of the Port of London, where he finds significance, Chesterton (in his prose as well as his poetry) discovers romance in the spreading patchwork of suburbs, and, even, a touch of mysticism in the rhythms of the bus journey. The contemporary city’s built-in utilitarianism may challenge anyone seeking other kinds of meaning in its patterns: banality may repel even as familiarity and habit lead to affection. The more the city of today becomes a concretisation of abstractions, the more oblique the urban poet’s search has to be for significance in its particulars.