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Take a Look at this Denise Levertov Poem
Posted by: frederic (
Date: December 25, 2003 08:47PM

  Hi, all.   Take a look at this poem by Denise Levertov.  I have an interpretation, and I'm curious what other poetry people have to say about it.  I like poems on "friendship," by the way, a fun theme.<br />

An Old Friend's Self-Portrait

Somber, the mouth pinched and twisted,
eyes half-fierce, half-sad,
the portrait of my old friend stares at me
or at the world; that face
I remember as it laughed
twenty years ago, not untroubled but
more certain, face of an artist who
now with a master's hand paints
the image of his own


Strong, the brow
revealed in volume, the ears
the eyes
watching time purse the
gentle smiling lips I remember,
this face
writes itself on triple-S board,
signs itself in thick
ridges of paint,
breaks through the mirror.

Clearly the speaker is a sensitive person who is half-mourning the supposed "loss" of her friend. Her old friend seems to have been more real, more vibrant to her twenty years ago, but is now little more than an imaged individual too toughened by the passage of time. One wonders what has happened in the friend's life to estrange him like that. His memory is captured on a triple-S board. The female speaker discusses no hope for the future, so time is arrested. The remembrance of the friend is inspired by the self-portrait. He is not there in person, but is thought about by means of the picture. It is sad to realize that the speaker's sense of friendship is not continued. The portrait somehow puts a stop to the continuity of his presence, and by extension, his friendship. The poem's ironic tension inheres in the contrast of the then and now set up in the poem. What Ms. Levertov leaves the reader to reflect on is the nature of the troubling experience the friend has underwent and the question of why he is no longer the genial person she once knew and admired.

Re: Take a Look at this Poem
Posted by: marian2 (
Date: December 26, 2003 07:36AM

Very interesting poem, but I'm afraid on first reading I don't share your interpretation. I see it as gently nostalgic, basically a poem about the ageing process - the subject's artistic skills have improved but because the person has aged the image he produces is less overtly pleasing than had he painted himself as he appeared twenty years ago (or someone else 20 years younger) - in other words ageing/ maturing has some good and some bad effects on all of us.

I find your interpretation interesting, but I don't think it's the only possible one. Thanks for posting the poem.

Re: Take a Look at this Poem
Posted by: frederic (
Date: December 27, 2003 11:01PM

Dear Marian:

I quite agree with your viewpoint. It's always fun to listen to other persons' interpretations. I'll just tell you why I disagree. I don't think the language of the poem supports the sense of nostalgia. Recall, the speaker says the lips "I remember"--which is a time span of 20 years ago. Why aren't the friend's lips still smiling? The image "breaks" through the mirror. Which implies something has gotten out of control. What? And, in asking "what," I take you full circle back to my written-out interpretation. Put another way, Marian, "there's a fierce look on my old pal" just doesn't seem nostalgic to me, gentle or otherwise.



Re: Take a Look at this Poem
Posted by: Marian-NYC (
Date: February 12, 2004 01:15PM

Yes, and/but ...

"breaks through the mirror" is (I think) about how this artist, knowing himself INSIDE, is able to paint a lot more than his appearance. She admires him for being WILLING to paint the person he FEELS LIKE, not merely the person he looks like -- though she may also wish he were happier.

Re: Take a Look at this Poem
Posted by: Saurabh Madaan (
Date: February 17, 2004 06:53AM

I agree with Marian, too.
The poem seems to be about the loss of cheerfullness and enthusiasm with ageing. And the 'friend' seems to be the poet's way to address himself when he was twenty years younger.
Nice poem, though!

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