Home > Interviews > An Interview with Christopher Levenson

by Rob Taylor

An die Musik (excerpt from “Vox Humana”) – Christopher Levenson

On the overnight express from Helsinki to Rovaniemi
the engine’s smoke tangled in moonlight, billowing over
half-seen forests and  meadows,
the train’s steady sway and shudder accompanied by
a crescendo of women’s voices  from the next coach,
singing hymns to ward off the darkness. A church choir maybe,
or some evangelical group. I never saw them
but this, my first night  in Finland, not knowing the language
I let their harmonies bear me along
to my unknown destination.
So too, near Sarajevo,
sitting alone under shade trees in a beer garden
with a sucking pig roasting over an open pit and a tankard to hand,
I heard a folk singer, her voice rising above
the hubbub of traffic, small talk at the neighbouring tables
with sounds I had never imagined before,
a voice distilled
from mute centuries of hidden suffering
and hints of  a darkness about to begin again.
And fifteen years back in Jaiselmer, at the edge
of the Thar desert, a wizened  cross-legged man
coaxed from his one-string fiddle for me, sole auditor,
a far, unheard of music, his cracked voice singing along.

Wherever I go, Romania, Hungary
the music follows. These moments lodge
in unexplored  reaches of memory, mingle with
the citizens’ choruses in Boris Gudonov,
plainchant at Tewkesbury Abbey, campfire songs
after the floods in Zeeland, everywhere
we sense them, these subterranean wells.
It is the human voice claims us, world music telling us
we are one beyond language,  and for  a while at least,
can  abandon our sadness for joy.

from Night Vision
(Quattro Books, 2014).
Reprinted with permission.

Christopher Levenson, giving you some privacy while you drool over his exquisite library.

You know you’ve made it as a poet when T.S. Eliot, Henry Moore, and Bonamy Dobrée award a prize to your first book. That’s what happened to Christopher Levenson’s debut In Transit (Eyre & Spottiswoode), which won the Eric Gregory Award in 1959. At 25, still living in his homeland of England, Christopher’s career was officially launched, and he hasn’t slowed down since.

In the intervening 65 years, Christopher has published ten more books, including Archibald Lampman award winner Arriving at Night (Mosaic Press, 1986), and two chapbooks. He’s also studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, moved to Canada, taught at Carleton University in Ottawa, founded the Harbinger Poetry Series (an imprint of Carleton University Press), and published poems in just about every magazine on god’s green earth.

Oh, and in 1978 he co-founded a little magazine called Arc Poetry Magazine. Ever heard of it? If not, I can show you a few dozen rejection slips sent straight from the CanPo mothership to my mailbox.

Christopher’s latest (eleventh) book is Night Vision, which was published earlier this year by Quattro Books. His launch in May including a fascinating Q+A with Ken Klonsky, from whom I stole a number of top-notch questions for this interview.

I electronically sat down with Christopher and we chatted about Night Vision, political poetry, place names, and why continental Europe is way more interesting than England. I hope you enjoy!

“An die Musik,” titled after the Schubert song of the same name, is one of four parts of the long poem, “Vox Humana”, which is one of my favourite poems in Night Vision. The poem in its entirety feels like a world tour of song, and through that, an exploration of our common human voice (hence the title, I suspect!). Could you speak a bit about the composition of the poem? Had you always envisioned it as one poem in four parts, or did you stitch the four parts together later in the process, or? Did you widen the scope of the poem as you wrote it out?
I’m glad you like “Vox Humana”: it’s one of the most positive poems in a book that my publishers decided was ‘too dark’ to be released, as originally planned, before Christmas. The title originated many years ago when I saw a stop on an organ named Vox Humana because that pipe allegedly sounds like the human voice.

As for the four parts, I wrote the first, “The Rehearsal,” after the League of Canadian Poets AGM in Winnipeg, where one of the League’s founders, Gerald Lampert, died of a massive heart attack during the weekend. A friend, the originally-US poet, Claude Liman, who lived at that time in Thunder Bay and taught at Lakehead U., drove myself and two others back from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay where I stayed with him for another day or two. The second section, “Venasque”, was also originally a separate poem. It was written after a visit (from Bristol, England) to Blauvac, a tiny village in Provence, either in 1962 or ’63. The third section,”Fado” was originally a separate poem, written long after a visit (from Germany, where I was then working) to Portugal in 1960.

It was years later that I thought of combining these three poems under its present title and wrote the concluding section, “An die Musik,” tying them together. So yes, I did widen the scope of the poem as I realized what they all had in common. For the record, I cannot, alas, read music or play a musical instrument, though since coming to Vancouver I have joined two choirs and, as one or two other poems in the book (e.g. “Tafelmusik” and the basic reference in “One Fine Day”) suggest, music, especially classical and folk music, has become increasingly important to me as an emotional resource.

Ha! I wouldn’t classify the book as “too dark”, but I can see how a few of the poems might not mesh with “Christmas cheer”. Most of these would be the “political” poems from the first two sections of Night Vision (poems on war, our current environmental destruction, the state of our modern media, etc.). I’ve found, speaking very generally here, that such themes are out of fashion these days among lyric poets (though the number of poets grappling with climate change does seem to be rising sharply with the sea level), and it was refreshing to see you taking them on here. Would you classify many of the poems in Night Vision as “political poems”?
I have long been interested in the whole concept of political poetry, and I would certainly agree that many of the poems, especially in the first two sections of Night Vision, are what I would call political poems. And yes, these poems do attempt subjects that have fallen out of favour either with poets or with editors, or maybe both. Two at least of my three favourite poets, Yeats and Robert Lowell, wrote many poems that could be called political, and the third, Andrew Marvell, in his Horatian Ode on Cromwell, wrote one of the best political poems ever.

I am intermittently in the throes of writing an article on “political” poetry which, I agree with you, involves war, environmental destruction, privacy vs security, etc. – in short all those issues in which an individual is reacting as an individual not to another single individual but to some sort of collective body: a tribe, a village, a government (though as Margaret Atwood shows in her early book Power Politics, the term can of course be extended also to personal relations).

What do you think that it takes to make a political poem successful? A successful environmental poem?
For me the crux of the matter is in Yeats’ dictum “Out of my argument with others, I create rhetoric; out of my argument with myself, poetry.” When you argue with others, it is in order to persuade them of the rightness of your own views, judgements, etc. You know at the start what you believe or “know.” But, to quote my other favourite dictum from Roethke, “I learn by going where I have to go.” Poetry implies searching, discovery, and the problem with most would-be political poetry is that it is politics before it is poetry: the poet knows in advance where s/he wants to go, so there is no discovery, no surprise.

There is tremendous pressure on poets at times like, say, the Vietnam war, to speak out, in favour of, or against certain policies, but these should be resisted. Poetry does not comment. Sometimes in the context of the whole poem, it can affirm something, as the result of a personal individualized experience. This is what Auden does in “Refugee Blues” (where he adopts the persona of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany) or “September 1st, 1939” or best of all in “The Shield of Achilles”. He describes, evokes a situation, but lets the facts speak for themselves.

So here, as in Yeats’ “Easter 1916” and in the later Yeats, poems such as “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, “A Prayer for my Daughter“, or “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, it all starts from, and carries conviction because of, the personal experience, the individual perspective. And the same is true of Lowell’s “For the Union Dead“.

Poetry precludes slogans and any kind of formula, so that what emerges from the poems are not opinions but conclusions, “findings”, arrived at over the course of a lifetime and thus carrying more weight than an opinion, which could be just a momentary thing.

As for the environment, I am reminded of a cartoon I once saw: two politicians gazing out of a window at a political rally, being addressed by a candidate, with a banner behind him saying “Save the Planet”. One of the politicians is saying “I can’t stand these single issue candidates.” We have enough photojournalists and political commentators. The destruction of our habitat, our world, cannot simply be catalogued and condemned, it must be imagined if worthwhile poetry is to result.

The eponymous first section of Night Vision deals with war, both past and present. A consistent theme throughout that section is a focus on saying and listing out place names: repeating and repeating and turning over the names of sites of violence. Could you speak a bit about what the names of these places mean for you? What is contained in the names? What isn’t?
The main point of the plethora of names, which are of course drawn from widely different periods of history and geographical regions, is to stress the pervasiveness and continuity of such violence, and so to give equal time to the atrocities we have committed against others (Hiroshima, Dresden, My Lai) as to the atrocities “we” have suffered.

In the third stanza of “Stations” the twelve stations mentioned could also be seen as the Stations of the Cross, which would then link up with the Ash Wednesday ash rising from the crematoria at Auschwitz in the last line. And I would like it if the occasional reader were to ask, “What happened at Sakriet? Or at Babi Yar?”

We tend to remember only our own wars. Maybe I overdo it? I don’t know. But I do feel strongly that poets need to be aware of such things even if they never write a poem about them or allude to them in imagery.

No, you don’t overdo it at all! As a poet with a BA in History and Geography, I found it to be a very valuable element of the book! Keeping on a geographic theme: a number of poems near the end of the book are about your returning to your childhood home of England after many years away (46, by my count, since you left England for Canada). During your most recent visit, what stood out for you as the most profound change the country has experienced during your absence? What most stayed the same?
Although I have a strong sense of attachment to Lancaster and to the countryside around it where I spent three crucial (for me) years during WWII, and likewise to Bristol, which is my favourite English city, where I lived also for three years (1961-1964), I don’t think I am sentimental about English life as such. Early on, perhaps because we had a number of foreign friends, some of them refugees, and because my father was born in France, I was painfully conscious of, and annoyed by, the insularity of most of my fellow countrymen. Thanks to the EU, the Channel Tunnel and easier, cheaper travel abroad this is much less true now. Anyway, what I miss most is Europe as a whole rather than specifically Britain. Ideally, if I had the money I would spend five months every year in Europe, probably based in Amsterdam or Berlin, and the remaining seven months in Canada, but that’s not going to happen.

What I miss is the haphazard way villages, towns and cities grew and acquired a patina over centuries. One finds this only very seldom in North America in places like Quebec City or Santa Fe: most North American cities did not just happen over time but were planned, organized, not organic – this is part of the point of the long poem “Habitat”. And although I would have been among the downtrodden peasants, I do like castles and Country Houses, as well as stone walls and old stone bridges. So, getting back to England, the aspects that have not changed are mainly rural, the villages and small towns, but with the advent of the motorways in the 1970s came a homogenization that I can’t relate to. The trouble is with the exception of three weeks in 2005, our visits to England nowadays are mostly brief stopovers en route to or from Europe, so it’s difficult to form more than fleeting impressions.

Similar to that last question, I wonder if your return to England, where you developed your original style as a writer and had early success, caused you to reflect on the development of your own poetry? How has your writing style (and subject matter) changed in the 46 years you’ve spent living in Canada? And how much of that do you attribute to your continental shift?
The main change to my poetry came not in Canada, but in the four years preceding (1964-68) when I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop. With people like Donald Justice as my mentors, my poetry gradually became less formal both metrically and in terms of diction. For the first time since adolescence, I was able to use “I” unselfconsciously and without Yeatsian posturing. I felt I could be myself in my poetry. This sense was increased but not initiated when I came to Canada and got to know the poetry of Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, Alden Nowlan, Miriam Waddington, John Thompson and Pat Lowther. Editing Arc, running the Arc reading series in Ottawa, and becoming series editor for the Harbinger imprint (for first books of poetry) of the late Carleton University Press also contributed to my sense of becoming a Canadian poet, not an ex-pat Brit.

I’ve always been concerned about the way a poem sounds, but recently I have become more conscious of assonance and internal rhymes and breaking away from the iambic line. As for thematic changes, the examples of Williams’ Paterson and Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies have focused my mind on ideas of what a city and being a citizen of a city mean, at least in part as a positive against the negative forces of chaos and violence. And then of course over the last ten years or so I have naturally become more conscious of what aging entails.

If you want to prove to Christopher that one of the things aging entails is increased book sales, you can pick up a copy of Night Vision from your local bookstore, or from the Quattro Books website or Amazon.