In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem "The Danger Moments" by Denise Levertov.

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Poetry to the Brim - Episode 7: “The Danger Moments” by Denise Levertov
In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem “The Danger Moments” by Denise Levertov. --- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/poetrytothebrim/support

Transcript

Hello everyone. You're listening to Poetry to the Brim.

Today I'll be reading the poem "The Danger Moments" by the British-American poet Denise Levertov. This one is from her exquisite collection Sands of the Well, published in 1996, the year before her death. I'll be leaving a link of Levertov herself reading the poem in the show notes section at the bottom of the episode transcript. For this episode, I highly recommend you have the poem text visible, since I'll be talking quite a bit about its form.

--

"The Danger Moments" by Denise Levertov

Some days, some moments
shiver in extreme fragility.
A trembling brittleness
of oak and iron. Splinterings, glassy shatterings,
threaten.
Evaporations of granite.
These are the danger moments:

different from fear of what we do, have done,
may do. Different from apprehension
of mortality, the closing cadence
of lived phrases, a continuum.

These are outside the pattern.

You’ve heard the way infant and ancient sleepers
stop sometimes between
one breath and the next?
You know the terror
of watching them.
It’s like that.

As if the world were a thought
God was thinking and then
not thinking. Divine attention
turned away. Will breath and thought
resume?
They do, for now.

--

So I think this is a model poem in terms of how much one can accomplish via the form of a poem. As I mentioned in the intro, I'll mostly be discussing what I noticed about the form, and then end with a few words about what I gather to be its meaning and significance.

Before going into the poem's form, I wanted to quote Levertov from her book of prose called The Poet in the World where she goes beyond the typical understanding of form as you know the number of lines and stanzas, the common formal types (sonnets, sestinas, and so on). She says, "Form is the total interactive functioning of content and language, including every contributing element" [2, p. 60]. She states elsewhere that the form is revealed by the demands of the content, and yet the content "can only be discovered in form" [2, p. 3]. In other words, form is spoken into existence by what is being said. I really recommend that book by the way, for both readers and writers of poetry.

Alright, so now I'll speak a bit about the poem's form, analyzing it from top to bottom mostly.

In the first stanza, the first thing to notice is all the susurration, or those s-sounds, those whisperings: "some days, some moments," "brittleness", "Splinterings, glassy shatterings", "evaporations," "moments" in the phrase "the danger moments." All these seemingly dangerous whispering sounds help to set the emotional tone of the poem. Then there's the enjambment after "A trembling brittleness" into "of oak and iron." In poetry, enjambment is where a line runs over into the next line without a comma or period stopping it. In this case, the "brittleness" just seems to hang there for the slightest of moments before resolving in the next line with the material metaphors of the nature of the brittleness, as like "oak and iron." "Splinterings, glassy shatterings" is enjambed and then resolved into the single-word line "threaten." And then in contrast, there's a few end-stopped lines with periods that have t-sounds. The lines that end with "fragility," "threaten," and "granite." These t-sounds are unvoiced, meaning they don't use the larynx when sounded out. The larynx is the muscular organ that contains our vocal cords; and it's almost as if the larynx can't be used as it were to stop the "danger" spoken about in the poem.

Also, I like how the first stanza ends with what's essentially the thesis of the poem: "These are the danger moments." This placement is kind of like we were taught in school: where the final sentence of the first paragraph of an essay or a paper should be the thesis.

And then I love how the second stanza begins with the word "different" and continues to explain the thesis a bit more. In the second stanza, there's the alliteration in "closing cadence" which enjambs into the next line that continues the alliteration with "continuum."

Also of course, a visual scan of the poem's form on the page without even reading it will suggest something special about the third stanza. It's just a single line, a powerful stanza: "These are outside the pattern." The line itself is outside the pattern of the stanzas the rest of the poem abides by. This is a pristine example of form enacting the content.

So I won't go through the rest of the poem's form in detail, but perhaps you dear listener can if you're interested as a sort of exercise. Consider where the lines are breaking, if the lines are end-stopped or enjambed; and whether those choices make sense and enhance what the poem is trying to say.

Regarding the meaning and significance of the poem, I think it considers the particular danger that's apparent when we humans, as pattern-sensing animals, cannot square a phenomenon or experience within a pattern we know. We might know so many significant things such as the fact of mortality (i.e. "the closing cadence of lived phrases") which are themselves part of the "continuum" of life; but Levertov is considering those moments of uncertainty that do not bend to our minds' inclination to try to make sense of things. Our bodies and minds intuit and know when something fits a pattern, but the more we can live in "the danger moments," those moments of complete uncertainty, the more we will move through life with acceptance, with permeability, gratitude, and enough space for its grace. This is precisely what it would mean to have what John Keats called negative capability, the capacity to dwell in mystery, doubt, and the unknown "without irritable grasping after fact or reason" [3].

There's an intensity and beautifully strange quality to life when we realize the patterns we know can be broken at any moment. The poem leaves us with a ponderous question to contemplate: how will we live in "the danger moments?" I'd say that to live into those moments with negative capability and a sort of levity that seems tonally absent from the poem might be the answer.

--

"The Danger Moments" by Denise Levertov

Some days, some moments
shiver in extreme fragility.
A trembling brittleness
of oak and iron. Splinterings, glassy shatterings,
threaten.
Evaporations of granite.
These are the danger moments:

different from fear of what we do, have done,
may do. Different from apprehension
of mortality, the closing cadence
of lived phrases, a continuum.

These are outside the pattern.

You’ve heard the way infant and ancient sleepers
stop sometimes between
one breath and the next?
You know the terror
of watching them.
It’s like that.

As if the world were a thought
God was thinking and then
not thinking. Divine attention
turned away. Will breath and thought
resume?
They do, for now.

--

Thanks for listening to Poetry to the Brim. If you enjoyed the show, please share it with a friend or two who might also enjoy it. If you read the poem differently and would like to share your thoughts with me or just have general suggestions about the show, I'd love to hear. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@acyanlight) or Instagram (@acyanlight), or email the show at poetrytothebrim@gmail.com.

Also, you can find a full transcript of the episode on the website at podcast.poetrytothebrim.com. There, you can also subscribe to stay up to date by email for when I release a new episode, as well as find ways to support the show.

Alright. Thanks again! Until next time.

--

Show Notes

Citations

  1. Levertov, Denise. “The Danger Moments.” Sands of the Well, New Directions Publishing, New York, 1996.
  2. Levertov, Denise. The Poet in the World. New Directions Books, 1973.
  3. negative capability