Levertov: “Misnomer”

This next poem in the series of anti-war poetry by Denise Levertov attacks the romanticizing of warfare. She refers implicitly to the famous work by Sun Tzu, The Art of War, and attacks the very idea that war can be a kind of art form. And, of course, there is a great difference between the true aesthetics of games like Chess and Go, and the corrupt “aesthetics” of actual warfare, in which innocent people are slaughtered for the sake of political and economic gain. At the end of her poem, he vividly compares the “life of art” to a child: both are full of life, peace-loving, and innocent of any destruction of life. In this negative critique of the so-called “art of war,” Levertov is preparing the ground for the positive development of an “art of peace.”


They speak of the art of war,
but the arts
draw their light from the soul’s well,
and warfare
dries up the soul and draws its power
from a dark and burning wasteland.
When Leonardo
set his genius to devising
machines of destruction he was not
acting in the service of art,
he was suspending
the life of art
over an abyss,
as if one were to hold
a living child out of an airplane window
at thirty thousand feet.