Feb 06 2013

Denise Levertov – Looking, Walking, Being

Published by at 10:20 am under Poetry

Looking, Walking, Being
by Denise Levertov

“The World is not something to
look at, it is something to be in.”
— Mark Rudman

I look and look.
Looking’s a way of being: one becomes,
sometimes, a pair of eyes walking.
Walking wherever looking takes one.

The eyes
dig and burrow into the world.
They touch
fanfare, howl, madrigal, clamor.
World and the past of it,
not only
visible present, solid and shadow
that looks at one looking.

And language? Rhythms
of echo and interruption?
a way of breathing.

breathing to sustain
walking and looking,
through the world,
in it.

— from Poems: 1960-1967, by Denise Levertov

/ Photo by Amizyolaroid /

Okay, let’s start off with those wonderful lines:

Looking’s a way of being: one becomes,
sometimes, a pair of eyes walking.

This poem is a response to the Mark Rudman quote, “The World is not something to / look at, it is something to be in.” Denise Levertov answers that looking IS being.

The eyes
dig and burrow into the world.
They touch…

I suspect that Rudman was discouraging passivity and lack of presence, but Levertov, I think, is getting at something deeper still. Humans, all beings, in fact, are fundamentally beings of awareness. Each individual is a point of perception, a viewpoint in the universe. We are, each of us, “a pair of eyes walking.”

We are present through perception, not action. Yes, action and interaction can be a powerful way to force us to pay attention, but it is also common to use action to shut down the awareness. Whether in movement or in stillness, the real goal is to keep the eyes open and feel fully with the heart and with the gut. We want to do more than look, but to see, see deeply, to see what is ignored and glossed over, to “dig and burrow in the world.”

Even in complete stillness, truly seeing is one of the most profound actions we can engage in. I’ve seen people brought to tears by a gentle gaze in the eyes. This is what the soul craves, to be seen, to be recognized, to be truly acknowledged. This is true not just of the human soul, but of the world soul. I think of this when Denise Levertov writes of how the world “looks at one looking.”

And language? Rhythms
of echo and interruption?
a way of breathing.

We forget that language is built of breath. We see the written word and we read it silently. Words become mental concepts, tools of the intellect. But words are not fundamentally discrete units of meaning. They flow and stop and flow again, as the breath does. Words aren’t inherently meaningful; they are the ornaments that accompany the flow of awareness.

Words affect breath. Thoughts affect breath. Breath guides awareness.

…breathing to sustain

Breath, too, is communion. Through the breath, we bring the outside world inside us, inside the body, inside the awareness. The boundary between self and the world is bridged by the breath. Through breath, we touch, we feel, we internalize, we connect, we participate, we come alive. Through breath we move and we see.

…walking and looking,
through the world,
in it.

Denise Levertov, Denise Levertov poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Denise Levertov

US (1923 – 1997) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic : Beat

More poetry by Denise Levertov

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Denise Levertov – Looking, Walking, Being”

  1. Stephanie Dowrickon 06 Feb 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Deep appreciation for today’s post, Ivan. Some readers may like to explore “deep looking” further in John O’Donohue’s Divine Beauty, a book I used on a recent writing retreat I gave in Kyoto, Japan. Whenever I teach writing I am really teaching “deep looking” and of course it need not be solemn! You capture that so well also. Thank you for all your faithful attendance to life and hope and beauty. Blessings.

  2. Aparrna (Sonam Chodron)on 06 Feb 2013 at 9:59 pm

    possible that Mark Rudman was practicing walking meditation at that time
    and possible that Denise Levertov was practicing walking meditation at that time!! 🙂

  3. jagon 07 Feb 2013 at 3:26 am

    Breath also known as ‘praan’ in Hindi and perhaps Sanskrit, literaly means life. Life starts and ends with breathing. It is so natural that generally one does’nt even think about it and takes it for granted. However if done with awareness and knowledge the intake of breath can draw in large ammounts of positive energy and exahalation can take out negativity. The subject is vast. Perhaps more later.

    Looking is one thing seeing is another.

  4. ebrahimon 07 Feb 2013 at 8:54 am

    what is she doing with eyes closed?
    listening, sensing, feeling, thinking, dreaming…. just looking – in another way?
    can we say that she is not participating in life?
    basically what Rudman is saying, is that instead of observing life, be part and parcel of it. that is, life is meant to be lived. knowledge and looking, in a way, a barriers to living.
    and loving is in itself an act that love denies.
    look, when you approach your love, more than intimately, how could you your love see.
    when the eyes reach the face of god – what can they than know?

    the past three thoughts of the day are truly excellent, Ivan.

  5. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 08 Feb 2013 at 8:32 am

    Thank you, Ivan, for your beautiful reflection on Denise Lervertov’s provocative
    poem. I thought of Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging. Like his father who dug the turf in a bog in Northern Ireland, he digs,too, with his pen between his two fingers…I also thought of Cesloz Miloz’s
    poem: Conversation with Jeanne–He starts off with saying–no more words and ends with: “I roll on a wave and look at the white clouds…the sea will breathe from its depths..I disappear in the immense more and more free” to see words as action in the world and the power of breathing undeneath all.

  6. Deb Atkinsonon 03 Apr 2015 at 8:57 am

    A beautiful poem and lovely insight! For about 10 years now I have been “living in the moment”- which is a learning process with extraordinary results! Seeing is indeed one of the things you learn to do on a deeper level – but it doesn’t end there! Each of the senses is engaged, so that each moment is a tapestry of experiences and life becomes so rich and full. My first conscious effort of this I will never forget – my little dog had his warm loving paw on my foot, reminding me it was time for his breakfast; at the same time, I was peeling an orange with that wonderful smell filling the air; a neighbour was mowing his lawn which also filled the air with a summery feeling and also the smell of newly cut grass; and also I was watching the news which was reporting that a woman in Ireland had just lost 2 of her sons ( red haired, freckled cheeky little faces that were now dead) in some attack – And tears were pouring down my cheeks at her monumental loss. So – layers of things all going on at once! It taught me that both joy and pain go hand in hand with other experiences – and that life is always so complex and layered.

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