Every so often, one comes across a poem that is not easily forgotten. Its music lingers long after it is read, and its message returns to you time and again, encouraging you to live better than you are doing. Denise Levertov’s “Witness” is one such poem. The poem is short – there are just ten lines – and it uses simple words throughout. Yet, the message is profound. It is ostensibly about a mountain that is hidden from the writer’s view, sometimes by clouds, at other times by our own neglect. Levertov uses the mountain as a metaphor for that which gives profound meaning and shape to our lives. This is reason why “Witness” is one of my favorite poem; you get the feeling that it is asking you a personal question without actual doing so. It reminds me of the deeper meanings I must seek as I navigate this hyper-digital world with all its seductive superficiality. It leaves you thinking: what is my mountain?
Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatique,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
that witnessing presence.
About the Poet
Despite not receiving any formal education, Denise Levertov became one of the greatest poet of the 20th century. Born in 1923 in Essex, England, Levertov grew up surrounded by books and people talking about them. Her earliest literary influences can be traced to her home life. Her mother read aloud to the family the great works of 19th-century fiction, and she read poetry, especially the lyrical poems of Tennyson. Levertov’s father, a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently became an Anglican minister, had a profound influence on Levertov, whose poems are suffused with her own Christian faith.
Levertov migrated to the US in 1948, a year after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman, and she began developing the style that was to make her an internationally respected poet. Here and Now (1957) displayed her newly formed American voice, one that showed the unmistakable influence of the Black Mountain poets, in particular William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) and his pithy, earthly free-form expressions. And for the rest of her prolific career, Levertov built on this fascination with the American idiom, creating a highly regarded body of work that embraced a wide range of themes – love poems, protest poems, and poems inspired by her faith in God, a body of poetry that, according to Amy Gerstler in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, possessed “a clear uncluttered voice, a voice committed to acute observations and engagement with the earthly, in all its attendant beauty, mystery and pain.”
Levertov died in Seattle, Washington, in 1997.