Levenson, Christopher

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LEVENSON, Christopher

Nationality: Canadian. Born: London, England, 13 February 1934; naturalized Canadian citizen, 1973. Education: Harrow Grammar School for Boys, graduated 1952; Downing College, Cambridge, 1954–57, B.A. 1957; University of Bristol, Dip.Ed. 1962; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.A. 1970. Military Service: Conscientious Objector: worked with the Friends Ambulance Unit International Service, 1952–54. Family: Married Ursula Frieda Lina Fischer in 1958, four sons (divorced, then remarried in 1977, 1986). Career: Taught at the International Quaker School, Eerde, Holland, 1957–58; English Lektor, University of Munster, West Germany, 1958–61; taught at Rodway Technical High School, Mangotsfield, Gloucestershire, 1962–64. Since 1968 member of the department of English, currently associate professor, Carleton University, Ottawa. Editor, Delta magazine, two years; editor and co-founder, ARC magazine. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1960. Address: Department of English, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario K1S 5B6, Canada.



New Poets 1959, with Iain Crichton Smith and Karen Gershon. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1959.

Cairns. London, Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1969.

Stills. London, Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1972.

Into the Open. Ottawa, Golden Dog Press, 1977.

The Journey Back and Other Poems. Windsor, Ontario, Sesame Press, 1978.

No-Man's-Land. Toronto, League of Canadian Poets, 1980.

Arriving at Night. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press, 1986.

The Return. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1986.

Half-Truths. Don Mills, Ontario, Wolsak and Wynn, 1990.

Duplicities: New and Selected Poems. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press, 1993.


Editor, Poetry from Cambridge. London, Fortune Press, 1958.

Editor and translator, Seeking Heart's Solace: An Anthology of 16th-and 17th-Century Dutch Love Poems. Toronto, Aliquando Press, 1981.

Editor, Light of the World: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Religious and Occasional Poetry. Windsor, Ontario, Netherlandic Press, 1982.

Editor, Coming to Canada: Poems, by Carol Shields. Ottawa, Carleton University Press, 1992.

Editor, Reconcilable Differences: The Changing Face of Poetry by Canadian Men Since 1970: An Anthology. Calgary, Bayeux Arts, 1994.

Translator, Van Gogh, by Abraham M.W.J. Hammacher. London, Spring, 1961.

Translator, The Leavetaking, by Peter Weiss. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1962; with Vanishing Point, London, Calder and Boyars, 1966.

Translator, The Golden Casket: Chinese Novellas of Two Millennia (translation from the German version by Wolfgang Bauer). London, Allen and Unwin, 1965; Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1978.


Critical Study: "Four Poets" by Ivan Boldizsar, in New Hungarian Quarterly (Budapest), 22(82), summer 1981.

*  *  *

A considerable body of verse by the British-born Canadian poet Christopher Levenson was published in volume form as long ago as 1959. His works may be found in Edwin Muir's compilation New Poets. But nobody took sufficient notice of his distinctive voice at the time:

   Exiled ambassadors of their heart's country, refugees
   Carry their futures in one attache case …
   In the distorting mirrors of my travels,
   Where is tomorrow, now that yesterday
   Is bartered for snapshots …?
   Past the last city, on to the great plain,
   The fevered air grows still, the lights behind us,
   Thrown from a thousand scattered windows, blur:
   We are alone …

It was no accident that the author called this early collection "In Transit," and the word "transit" recurs throughout his work. The characteristic persona is that of an exile observing the scenes through which he passes:

   They came here in transit, would not learn the language
   Their children gabble, had not meant to stay,
   But gradually drained of will, subsided into
   The institutional gray …

This is a later poem—"Transit Camp"—and the rhymes, though rather insistent, seem an attempt to variegate the Audenism of Levenson's basic verse structure.

There is, in other words, a characteristic cadence in these poems, and it is evoked mainly when the author considers the plight of the wanderer. The cadence is a genuine contribution to contemporary poetry:

   I stand, tenebral, gazing down on a city
   lost under smoke but luminous, to overhear
   its many baffled night sounds, catch its drift
   of hasty farewells, and sift through memory
   a half-heard language I no longer know
   in a remote country …

This is a strain dominant in Levenson's later poetry. Into the Open, published in 1977, shows the characteristic style, but it is quarrying a deeper vein. The central facts of topography are being allegorized. "Domestic Flight" begins,

   From above, the imposed civility
   of maps, undeflected straight lines
   of concession roads, and farms'
   Foursquare geometry excised from wilderness …

But the poem dilates on that wilderness—"great gashes of the wolfish dark, /snow-muzzled tundra." The allegory continues through the book. A patient is wired to an encephalograph, and his dreams are explored—"the frenzied writing on the drum descends /to a scrawl of slow valleys."

Most ambitious of all is "The Journey Back," in the book of the same name, which is a long poem of some twenty pages related to the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók's native terrain. It is particularly moving on the subject of Bartók collecting folk songs. An old woman refuses to sing to order:

            but he was no sooner gone,
   not yet out of earshot, than she started, the melodies
   bubbling back like a salt flat spring that the tides had covered,
   restored, woven from silence, for herself only …

Levenson does not forget the regime that, at least until the political transformations of the early 1990s in eastern Europe, was hostile to Bartók and, by implication, to all art. The artist cannot sing to order, whether the order is issued by a collector or by the "dark-suited commissars /at the Ministry of Culture."

The poem is a more impressive performance than could have been predicted from the earlier work. In this union of geography, art, and compassion, Levenson seems to have reached a greater linguistic richness and a surer understanding of human motivation in what turned out to be his unexpectedly fertile middle age.

—Philip Hobsbaum