In the US, we have a long holiday weekend coming up. Memorial Day signifies, for many of us, two things. First, the holiday itself is about remembering all those who have, in the service of the country, laid down their lives so that the rest of us may live on. It also heralds the start of the always-welcome summer season.
So, in honor of both sentiments, today’s poem selection, rather than simply exhorting the beauty of summer or life, reminds us to enjoy every minute of our existence as if it is the last minute. For, after all, it is the only thing that we can lay claim to — this single, present moment. The past is gone and the future is not ours yet.
First, a bit about the poet. Born in pre-war England to a Welsh mother and a Russian Hasidic Jew father, Levertov had a rather unconventional working-class upbringing. Her father converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest after he emigrated to England from Germany. Educated at home by a literary mother, she was drawn to writing from the age of five. At age twelve, she sent some of her poems to T S Eliot and, reportedly, he sent back an encouraging two-page response (although, the length of this response continues to be debated as the original copy was lost by Levertov.) At age seventeen, she had her first poem published. During WWII, she served as a civilian nurse in London. Soon after, there was a book, which had her labeled as one of the “New Romantics”.
Marriage to an American writer, Mitchell Goodman, brought Levertov to the US. And, this is where she really blossomed due to her exposure to various literary influences: the Transcendentalists (e.g. Emerson, Thoreau), the Post-Modernists (e.g. Ezra Pound), the Black Mountain poets (e.g. Creeley, Olson, Duncan) and so on. Of course, she developed her own style and became known as one of the leading American poets of her time. Activism, religion, and feminism became predominant themes, along with her strong anti-war stance during the Vietnam years. She edited various magazines and anthologies and taught at various universities. During her seventy-four years, she published well over twenty volumes of her own poetry. There were also prose collections: essays, letters, etc. And, she had a deep interest in poetry from other cultures, working with collaborators to translate at least three works of French poetry and one of Bengali poetry.
Levertov was a searcher. Many of her poems were about exploration and identity. Today’s poem is slightly different in that it gives us a simple philosophy about living life as if each minute is the last one. No doubt, this is a popular literary trope. Yet, it is popular because we all need to be reminded of it often almost every day.
The poem starts with an invocation of summer by giving us the images of grass, wind, and foliage. And, the way the speaker describes all of these — as burning, blowing and shivering — gives them an urgency and immediacy. The imagery is also effective because of how she repeats the idea of their transience through phrases like “last summer” and “last day” in the first two verses.
From all this seemingly frenetic activity, the poem’s speaker turns our attention to something else that might be found in these natural environs: the red salamander. And here, in the third verse, she directs our attention in a more direct and sensual way as she describes this creature to us: how cold it feels to the touch and how it appears to move in a dream-like, lazy manner, not rushing anywhere, having nothing else on its mind. She’s got it in her hands, but she lets it go. And, in that letting go, she gives us her parting shot with “Each minute the last minute” — a reflection that all of this natural summer beauty with its varied flora and fauna has surfaced for her.
And we, too, as we go about our daily enjoyment of the seasons and the constant, pulsing life that is all around us, might do well to pause a bit to consider this: how, other than human beings, practically every other living thing does live every moment with complete attention — as if that’s all it has.
While it would be impossible, even impractical, for us to do something similar for any sustained length of time, perhaps it is feasible to allow ourselves the odd moment of such mindfulness. To live entirely in the present, without any thought to the next minute, the next day, or the next summer.
The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.
The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.
A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily
moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.
Each minute the last minute.
~ Denise Levertov, ‘The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov‘
— A biography of Denise Levertov from Poetry Foundation
— Video of Denise Levertov reading her poems