River, by Denise Levertov, Stripped of Proper Spacing by the Web

A singular consequence of the modern age of font-elasticity and many-sized screens is its effect on the ability of poets to reliably communicate how their lines are meant to indent and break. I taught myself how to type by writing poetry on an Apple IIe computer, before Steve Jobs stole the idea of GUIs and computer mice from a Xerox research lab in Palo Alto, California. Levertov (and e.e. cummings before her) most likely relied on a typewriter for idiosyncratic line spacing — spacing which is often intrinsic to the meaning of the poem. Neither Levertov nor cummings face the particular challenge of a poet caught in the crux of the major technological shifts of the late 20th and early 21st century. On the whole though, I find the ways in which form and content affect one another fascinating and try not to complain too bitterly when my pocket-sized computer can’t accurately reflect the line spacing of a poem designed to be read on the printed page.

In other words, Levertov’s poem looks completely different when you see it printed on the page. The lines are broken and indented in way that affect their meaning, and which don’t translate in straight-up HTML unless I cheat and use the PRE tag. And if I do that, the poem becomes unreadable on smaller screens. Levertov and cummings never had to worry about responsive design.

Levertov’s poem captured me in part because I glossed over the title on initial reading. Without the word “river” in mind, the more human — and perhaps spiritual — elements of the poem spring to the fore. Plus, I’m a sucker for water imagery. As with many modern poets, Levertov’s spare use of language can be deceptively hard to replicate. Think of this poem like a zen garden, artful in its minimalism.

I recommend seeking out Levertov’s book Evening Train, where you can find the poem in its original incarnation.


Dreaming the sea that
lies beyond me
I have enough depth
to know I am shallow.

I have my bowls, my pools
of rock I flow
into and fill, but I must
brim my own banks, persist,
vanish at last in greater flood
yet still within it
follow my task,
dreaming towards
the calling sea.

– Denise Levertov
From Evening Train
New Directions, New York:1992

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