Thursday, April 14, 2016

Denotative and Connotative Meaning in the Poetry of Denise Levertov

From "Of Being" by Denise Levertov


Both the denotative and connotative meanings of words are of the utmost importance to poets, most of whom dedicate their lives to finding not just the right words, but the exact words to express their ideas as specifically and concretely as possible.  


Denise Levertov is no exception. In fact, her poetry relies upon her readers' dedication to investigating each carefully chosen word's definitions and associations.

Murray Bodo speaks of her use of words in the essay, "Denise Levertov: A Memoir and Appreciation." Bodo states, "She seldom spoke glibly. It was as if she were searching for the right word to emerge as she went along, much as she said a poem proceeds—organically word by word, image by image, line by line" (n.d.).  Armed with this knowledge of her proficiency with words and the expectations she has of her readers, those readers can begin the process of analyzing her poems one word at a time.


Analysis of Denise Levertov's "Of Being"

Denotation


In "Of Being," there is one word in particular that requires an exploration of its denotative meaning, its dictionary definition: "ineluctable."  Although it is similar in meaning to "inevitable," "inexorable," "unavoidable," or "unpreventable," its very subtle difference in meaning opens up the poem for better interpretation.


Diagram a poem for a better understanding of its grammatical structure.
"Inevitable" implies that future consequences, results, or effects cannot be avoided.  "Inexorable" implies there is, much like the continuous tense, something happening in the continuous present, an action that cannot be stopped or prevented.

"Ineluctable," the word Levertov chooses in "Of Being," implies there is a fact that cannot be denied. 

If readers replace, much like in algebraic equations, "a fact that cannot be denied" for "ineluctable" in the poem, the truncated clause, with each subject paired with the predicate, reads:

This shimmering of wind in the blue leaves is a fact that cannot be denied.
This flood of stillness widening the lake of sky is a fact that cannot be denied.
This need to dance is a fact that cannot be denied.
This need to kneel is a fact that cannot be denied.
This mystery is a fact that cannot be denied.

These are undeniable facts, she says.  She doesn't say they are effects, consequences, results, or actions.  Because of the exact use of the exact word "ineluctable," she refers to this list as facts, undeniable facts.

Connotation


Review patterns of words to review connotations.
In addition to carefully examining denotative meanings of words in poems, like "ineluctable," readers should also examine connotative meanings, or the culturally or socially defined emotional associations of words.

Connotative word associations or feelings often appear in patterns. In "Of Being," such a pattern appears with the words "looming," "suffering," and "fear."

When analyzing word connotations, which are generally either in some way positive or in some way negative, some are difficult to interpret, and some are quite obvious.  In this instance, the negative emotions associated with "looming," "suffering," and "fear," are easy to notice.  This doesn't mean, however, that they were not carefully chosen.  When we think of "looming," we may feel a sort of oppression from above or from around a corner, just out of sight. We think of a predator, while we are the prey.  This connotative meaning reiterates the idea of "peripheral vision" that appears later in the clause.  The idea that suffering and fear wait just out of sight, ready to pounce like predators, is exceptionally important; important enough to be indicated twice.

Yet, she tells us, even though these predators wait for us, for a moment there is beauty:

This shimmering of wind in the blue leaves is a fact that cannot be denied.
This flood of stillness widening the lake of sky is a fact that cannot be denied.
This need to dance is a fact that cannot be denied.
This need to kneel is a fact that cannot be denied.
This mystery is a fact that cannot be denied.

In the face of "fear" and "suffering," "happiness" appears, even if "provisional," as she states in the first lines of the poem.  In the face of "looming presences," "happiness" appears.

Conclusion


In poetry, using the exact words matters.  It is the task of a careful reader to scrutinize and research the meanings of words while formulating an interpretation.


References

Bodo, M. (n.d.). Denise Levertov: A memoir and appreciation. Image, 27. Retrieved from http://www.imagejournal.org/article/denise-levertov-a-memoir-and-appreciation/


Levertov, D. (1997). Of Being. In E.V. Roberts & H. E. Jacobs (Eds.), Literature: an introduction to reading and writing (8th ed.), (pp. 480). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.



Want to read more about analyzing poetry?  Try

Diagramming Mina Loy's "Letters of the Unliving"
Ars Poetica: When a Poet's Fly is More Than a Fly
The Shoe as Image in the Poetry of Amy Lowell and Charles Simic




Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.


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