Goodbye to Tolerance

Denise Levertov’s poem, “Goodbye to Tolerance,” begins:

Genial poets, pink-faced
earnest wits—
you have given the world
some choice morsels,
gobbets of language presented
as one presents T-bone steak
and Cherries Jubilee.
Goodbye, goodbye,
I don’t care
if I never taste your fine food again,
neutral fellows, seers of every side.
Tolerance, what crimes
are committed in your name.

I don’t know when Levertov wrote this poem, nor do I know what might have been in her mind at the time. One reviewer posited:

An active part of the anti-war scene in Berkeley, California, Levertov was jailed on several occasions for civil disobedience. These confrontations awakened her to the dangers of “innocence,” by which she meant an unwillingness to bear reality. “Goodbye to Tolerance” is addressed to “Genial poets,” whom she advises to leave behind “the cherished worms of your dispassion, / your pallid ironies”: [cite]

I don’t know. All I can say is it caught my attention as bearing upon today.

Listening List

Britten Suite for Cello No. 3 (1971)

Three of the four themes utilised in the suite are folk songs, as arranged by Tchaikovsky – Under the apple tree, Autumn and The grey eagle. The fourth, which comes to the fore in a final passacaglia that lasts almost as long as all the other sections put together, is a hymn tune, Kontakion. [cite]

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With thanks to Mandana for the poem and to Curt for the music. For the photographs of Innisfree Garden, I have only myself to blame.

11 thoughts on “Goodbye to Tolerance

  1. shoreacres

    I’m not much of a fan of Levertov, but I’m a great fan of your photos and your musical selections. Inisfree is glorious at this time of year; what a spot to visit. I always look forward to seeing it — thanks for sharing its beauty again.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Haha, yes, I’m sure she’s not everyone’s taste. I don’t really know her work, just have one volume from long ago, but this poem I enjoyed, for whatever reason. Innisfree was particularly beautiful, even for it, that day. Pleased you enjoyed it, too!

  2. David Nice

    What a very odd poem, but compelling. Admire the expression, detest the sentiment (why should everything be either/or and not both/all?) I look forward to listening to the Lisney performance of Britten when I can concentratre.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Yes, I think you’ve hit upon something central to Levertov’s trajectory as a poet during the period in which she wrote this poem. I’m now reunited with the book of hers I own, which is The Freeing of the Dust. This was written in 1972 and includes Goodbye to Tolerance. What I see as I start to read poems in the book is that Levertov is in the midst of a dialectic struggle. She started off as a lyric poet, then became deeply involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement, including traveling to Vietnam. (A striking poem in the same volume that demonstrates vividly this same struggle is May Our Right Hands Lose Their Cunning.,_Denise-1923/May_Our_Right_Hands_Lose_Their_Cunning.) Ultimately, it might be said that Levertov arrives at a new poetic synthesis. Here’s how it’s described in a review of “The Poetry of Engagement:

      This study is concerned with both Denise Levertov’s social consciousness as manifested in her earliest poetry and with her growth as a “poet in the world.” Early in her career, Levertov was highly praised as a lyric poet of considerable sensitivity whose poems were succinct (at times mystical, at times sensuous) and whose technical gifts were impeccable. During the height of her emergence as a political dissident during the Vietnam War, the “Orphic” poet was seen as having traded aesthetics for polemics. Audrey T. Rodgers works to disprove the assumption that art and politics are mutually exclusive entities in Levertov’s work. Through careful analysis of Levertov’s social verse, she demonstrates that there is a consistency and pattern in what the artist herself has termed the “poems of engagement.”

      Denise Levertov began her career in England as a lyric poet in the Romantic mode, but even then was touched by the reductive nature of war, revealed in her first published poem, “Listening to Distant Guns.” During the mid-1960s Levertov’s social conscience, notably her strong antiwar sentiment, was reawakened by the Vietnam War. This reawakening resulted in several volumes of poetry that mirrored her concerns with the war (and political activism at home) and her perplexity at the nature of human beings – often great and compassionate, but at times cruel and insensitive.

      There exists a common thread in Levertov’s pilgrimage from her beginning as a lyric poet to her status as an artist definitively in the world: she has always responded to everything within the compass of her experience. From To Stay Alive to The Jacob’s Ladder and The Sorrow Dance – from Relearning the Alphabet to O Taste and See, Footprints, and Life in the Forest – Levertov covers a wide range of emotion. Sorrow, joy and celebration, empathy, perplexity, rage, and despair are treated to be sure, but overriding is a hope and profound sensitivity to beauty amid chaos. This appreciation of beauty is central to her later volumes – Candles in Babylon, Oblique Prayers, Breathing the Water, and A Door in the Hive – as well. In these, Levertov does not ignore social injustice, yet manages to inspire through images of nature, a search for a transcendent faith, and an exploration of human potential, love, and friendship.

      1. David Nice

        Thanks so much for spending the time on that fascinating analysis. So she, too, is as subject to inconsistency and the willingness to change her mind as the rest of us. What it all comes down to, again, is that it’s rarely either/or. An inspirational academic and lecturer I shared a Carnegie Hall symposium on Shostakovich with, Caryl Emerson, spoke of ‘bad binaries’ about the position of Soviet composers. It sounds a bit jargony – the talk wasn’t – and so J always refers to her as ‘the bad binaries woman’.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          “The bad binaries woman” is a moniker to die for! Yes, rarely either/or–and too much commentary on whatever topic one might choose uses that frame, which is nothing more than lazy thinking. But now, I am back to less lofty stuff, like finishing another Peter Lovesey mystery . . .

  3. Mark Kerstetter

    I’ve been thinking about this poem since you posted it. Am familiar with Levertov (have her collected poems on my wish list, a pricey book) but not this one. I appreciate your comments about this, about the struggle. My thoughts on this as a poet are so complicated that they come close to feeling at times like a struggle. This particular poem still reads (speaks or sings) syntactically its simple, clear music that I find it satisfying, regardless of content. As for its content, my gut reaction responds in favor of it but then I instantly rebel against that gut reaction. As a poet I would not use the same words. Ultimately I think poetry can assist political discourse but stands apart from it. Oddly enough, I don’t feel quite the same way when it comes to prose fiction. I would like to see a fiction writer who can fume and rage at what’s going on today.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I’m so pleased to “see” you here, and, as always, with such acute observations. I’m very much inclined toward your view that “poetry can assist political discourse but stands apart from it.” I’m interested, also, in your revised response on reading the rest of the poem. On rereading the poem a couple times more myself, I see that the part I quoted speaks to me best. In thinking about why, I’m suspecting the lines “Tolerance, what crimes/are committed in your name” offered a fitting and sufficient open-ended close, and the rest of the poem lost force as it became more didactic (if that makes any sense at all). As for fiction, I agree with you that it stands in a different relationship with political discourse. I’m anticipating we’ll see some efforts in fiction to address these times, though it will be very, very tough to get it right.

      1. Mark Kerstetter

        The first section that you quoted works for me as a complete poem and I actually like it. I agree with your assessment of the poem as a whole. There’s enough left unsaid in the first section that it’s thought-provoking. But the whole poem is more of a polemic than a poem. It’s interesting to read though (however unpleasant) because it expresses pretty clearly what I hate about the position she is taking. It’s fanaticism, as she admits, but whether she intends to be sarcastic or not with the phrase “fanatic tears” is impossible to tell since there is no doubt she is sincere. The problem with fanaticism is right there in the poem–‘I’m done with you, I won’t listen to you, come to me and then I’ll love you.’ I’m disgusted by it. When you allow yourself to fall into the mindset of fanaticism (and your cause may be the best; I for example happen to think, following science, that the human race is hurtling toward extinction because we’re doing virtually nothing about climate change) you are convinced that survival itself is at stake and what happens is your emotions take over, your ability to make good decisions is damaged because your rational mind and your emotions aren’t in harmony. In this case it results in terrible poetry. The problem with the poem is we don’t really know who she’s addressing. The violent emotions of fanaticism take away the ability to see people as individuals. It would be better if she told us something about one of these “good” women baking bread. One thing’s for sure, none of these “good women” she refers to will respond favorably to this poem. Fanatics are their own worst enemy, they alienate the people they need to convince, sometimes they even become the monster they are fighting.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Mark: What you’ve written here is so smart, and so well said. You know, when I went back to reread the poem, I felt myself recoil as I read on, but didn’t have words to describe why. You have supplied them better than I would ever have done. Thank you.

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