Denise Levertov, “Keeping Track”

On the one hand, I don’t want to write on this poem. I feel miserable. My efforts have been scattered; scattered efforts produce lackluster results; I have no one to blame but myself.

On the other hand, what does it mean to “keep track” when trying to master a craft? If I fail, I can say what came before was doomed to failure. That answer is a bit too easy—can it possibly account for how success is achieved? Is “keeping track” simply matching “success” to whatever preceded it, and “failure” likewise? That sounds outrageously stupid, but then again, watch how we talk about leadership and good habits.

Keeping Track (h/t @KelliAgodon)
Denise Levertov

Between chores—
               hulling strawberries,
               answering letters—
or between poems,

returning to the mirror
to see if I’m there.

Levertov divides life into three parts: chores, poems, the mirror. Her lines about chores do keep track of time, but in the most whimsical way. Between chores— / hulling strawberries, / answering letters—she does not bother to list any true chores, skipping instead to what we assume pleasures. Those pleasures seem to combine sensuality and grace, as good letters don’t only speak to one emotionally charged moment, but are crafted so they can be reread.

The chores, the necessitated, are perhaps broken up by a higher sense of pleasure. What, then, of poems? She holds poems directly analogous to chores, and I confess this makes me feel better about my own failures. I keep thinking it is a luxury to be able to read and write and study, and I know that’s true. But this logic tends to create a powerful sense of guilt. E.g. if my work is a luxury, then I should indulge it continually; if my work is a luxury, that means failure is not acceptable.

I feel like Levertov has gone through something similar. Between poems, / returning to the mirror / to see if I’m there—what’s lost between poems is a sense of one’s very self. This initially sounds, to my guilty ears, overblown. Some people have to work 60-70 hours of manual labor a week, some are enduring prison. Shouldn’t we save the notion that the self could be blotted out for them?

It is possible that there are gross injustices which hurt people dearly and things that are not quite gross injustices which also cause pain. The price of craft is, to be blunt, forgetting who you are. A writer often has to write to figure out what she’s feeling. This isn’t just a therapeutic exercise, as some part of authenticity has been alienated when one strives to engage an audience or get the words exactly right. Good habits come at a cost: they’re still habits, and they may have to be questioned or undone in certain circumstances. As a writer’s material is her own life, her own process can be in tension with life.

On my reading, the notion of a mirror holding a reflection becomes crucial. It really helps to have an object do that work, as opposed to a set of techniques or expectations. However, as you’ve probably guessed, the object in question—the object holding yourself—would be poetry itself. It’s almost as if one is completely beholden to the finished product. Levertov’s use of space in this poem emphasizes “between,” which she uses twice to refer to returning to the mirror.

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