Beginners

by Denise Levertov


Original Language English

Dedicated to the memory of Karen Silkwood and Eliot Gralla

“From too much love of living,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea--“



But we have only begun
To love the earth.

We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
-- so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
-- we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet--
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.

-- from Candles in Babylon, by Denise Levertov

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/ Photo by Wonderlane /


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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

A beautiful, questioning poem by the American poet Denise Levertov. She is holding the Buddhist ideals of compassion and awareness up against the realization of the nature of nonbeing. She asks, how can we let go into nirvana when there is so much undone, and so much cruelty done, and so much beauty we're disconnected from? How can we leave the living world when there is there is so much yet unlived?

I think Denise Levertov wants us to struggle and to strive, and discover the communion we share with each other in the process. She wants us to recognize the heaven, or the potential heaven, we already inhabit, before we rush off to vague spiritual realms.

Rather than try to offer a simple answer to the questions she is raising, let me ask what you think... How are compassion, service, respect for each other and the natural world in conflict with the pursuit of spiritual liberation and freedom from the pains of the world? How are they served by it? Does our history of imperfections make the spiritual quest irresponsible? Is the ideal of desirelessness and the awareness of nonbeing just an attempt to escape? Is it appropriate for "beginners," greatly stumbling beginners, to rush to the end point?

Important questions... The way we answer these questions colors our path to deep awakening.



Recommended Books: Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov: Selected Poems Poems: 1960-1967 Breathing the Water The Great Unknowing: Last Poems Candles in Babylon
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Beginners