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Levertov, Denise

LEVERTOV, Denise

Nationality: American (originally British: immigrated to the United States, 1948, naturalized citizen, 1955). Born: Ilford, Essex, 24 October 1923. Education: Privately educated; also studied ballet. Family: Married the writer Mitchell Goodman in 1947 (divorced 1972); one son. Career: Worked in several London hospitals during World War II; worked in an antique store and bookstore, London, 1946; teacher of poetry craft, Young Men and Women's Christian Assocation (YM-YWCA), New York, 1964; professor, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, 1973-79; professor emeritus of English, Stanford University, California, beginning in 1981. Visiting lecturer, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, 1965; writer-in-residence, City College of the City University of New York, 1965-66; visiting lecturer, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1966-67; visiting professor, University of California, Berkeley, 1969; visiting professor and poet-in-residence, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1969-70; visiting professor, Kirkland College, Clinton, New York, 1970-71; Elliston Lecturer, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, 1973; Fannie Hurst Professor (poet-in-residence), Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1981-83. Poetry editor, Nation, 1961-62, and Mother Jones, 1976-78. Also contributor to poetry anthologies. Co-initiator, Writers and Artists Protest against the War in Vietnam, 1965; active in the anti-nuclear movement. Awards: Bess Hokin prize from Poetry, 1959, for poem "With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads"; Longview award, 1961; Guggenheim fellowship, 1962; Harriet Monroe memorial prize, 1964; Inez Boulton prize, 1964; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1965; Morton Dauwen Zabel memorial prize from Poetry, 1965; Lenore Marshall Poetry prize, 1976; Elmer Holmes Bobst award in poetry, 1983; Shelley memorial award, Poetry Society of America, 1984; National Endowment for the Arts senior fellowship, 1990; Robert Frost medal, 1990; Lannan award, 1993. D.Litt.: Colby College, 1970, University of Cincinnati, 1973, Bates College, 1984, Saint Lawrence University, 1984, Allegheny College, 1987, St. Michael's College, 1987, Massachusetts College of Art, 1989, University of Santa Clara, 1993. Member: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Died: 20 December 1997.

Publication

Poetry

The Double Image. 1946.

Here and Now. 1957.

Overland to the Islands. 1958.

Five Poems. 1958.

With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads. 1959.

The Jacob's Ladder. 1961.

O Taste and SEE: New Poems. 1964.

City Psalm. 1964.

Psalm Concerning the Castle. 1966.

The Sorrow Dance. 1967.

Penguin Modern Poets 9, with Kenneth Rexroth and William Carlos Williams. 1967.

A Tree Telling of Orpheus. 1968.

A Marigold from North Vietnam. 1968.

Three Poems. 1968.

The Cold Spring and Other Poems. 1969.

Embroideries. 1969.

Relearning the Alphabet. 1970.

Summer Poems 1969. 1970.

A New Year's Garland for My Students, MIT 1969-1970. 1970.

To Stay Alive. 1971.

Footprints. 1972.

The Freeing of the Dust. 1975.

Chekhov on the West Heath. 1977.

Modulations for Solo Voice. 1977.

Life in the Forest. 1978.

Collected Earlier Poems, 1940-1960. 1979.

Pig Dreams: Scenes from the Life of Sylvia. 1981.

Wanderer's Daysong. 1981.

Candles in Babylon. 1982.

Poems, 1960-1967. 1983.

Oblique Prayers: New Poems with Fourteen Translations from Jean Joubert. 1984.

El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation. 1984.

The Menaced World. 1984.

Selected Poems. 1986.

Breathing the Water. 1987.

Poems, 1968-1972. 1987.

A Door in the Hive. 1989.

Evening Train. 1992.

Sands of the Well. 1996.

Batterers. 1996.

The Life around Us: Selected Poems on Nature. 1997.

The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes. 1997.

This Great Unknowing: Last Poems. 1999.

Recordings: Today's Poets 3, with others; The Acolyte, 1985.

Short Story

In the Night: A Story. 1968.

Other

The Poet in the World (essays). 1973.

Light up the Cave (essays). 1981.

Lake, Mountain, Moon. 1990.

New & Selected Essays. 1992.

Tesserae: Memories and Suppositions (autobiographical essays). 1995.

Conversations with Denise Levertov, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker. 1998.

The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams, edited by Christopher MacGowan. 1998.

Editor and translator, with Edward C. Dimock, Jr., In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali. 1967.

Editor, Out of the War Shadow: An Anthology of Current Poetry. 1967.

Translator, with others, Selected Writings, by Jules Supervielle. 1968.

Translator, Selected Poems, by Eugene Guillevic. 1969.

Translator, with others, Poets of Bulgaria, edited by William Meredith. 1985.

Translator, Black Iris, by Jean Joubert. 1988.

Translator, White Owl and Blue Mouse, by Jean Joubert. 1990.

*

Bibliographies:

A Bibliography of Denise Levertov by Robert A. Wilson, 1972; Denise Levertov: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography by Liana Sakelliou-Schulz, 1989.

Manuscript Collections:

Green Library, Stanford University, Sanford, California; Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin; Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri; Indiana University, Bloomington; Fales Library, New York University, New York; Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island; University of Connecticut, Storrs; Columbia University, New York; State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Critical Studies:

Denise Levertov by Linda W. Wagner, 1967; Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province, edited by Linda W. Wagner, 1979; The Imagination's Tongue: Denise Levertov's Poetic by William Slaughter, 1981; Understanding Denise Levertov by Harry Marten, 1988; Critical Essays on Denise Levertov, edited by Linda W. Wagner-Martin, 1990; Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement by Audrey T. Rodgers, 1993; Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism, edited by Albert Gelpi, 1993; Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser by Lina A. Kinnahan, 1994.

* * *

Denise Levertov was a daughter of Paul Levertoff, a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and became an Anglican clergyman, and Beatrice Spooner-Jones, a Welshwoman. Both sides of her family were very important to her and helped construct her personality, her views on spiritual and political issues, and her method of creating poetry. Her father, who had been an Orthodox Jewish rabbi of Hasidic heritage, taught her a great deal about Judaism, specifically Hasidism and mysticism, as well as about Christianity. Levertov was, for instance, clearly influenced by Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidism: The Early Masters. The poet's mother endowed her with a love of history. Levertov's poem "During the Eichmann Trial" suggests to readers that she realized that the trial of Adolf Eichmann was history in progress, that the event possessed historical—as well as spiritual—significance. Her poem "Illustrious Ancestors" points to an ancestor—Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the famous rav of northern White Russia (now Belarus) who taught the importance of listening, observation, and communication, all of which proved important in Levertov's poetry.

Levertov was profoundly affected by the outbreak of World War II. She aspired to be a ballet dancer, but at the onset of war altered her plans. In an essay with Sybil Estess, which is an important source of biographical information on Levertov, she mentioned that she became a member of the "land army," working on a farm in order to avoid the draft. (In England there was conscription of women.) She later studied to become a nurse but quit because she did not like the pressure of having to take the nursing exam. Levertov has said that she heard the bombing in London and still remembers it vividly. She has recalled England as a drab place because of the war and its destruction. When the war began, she had already been writing poetry. Nonetheless, in her poetry of the time she barely alludes to the devastation of the war or to the Holocaust. (She has referred to the poetry being written in England during this period as "new romanticism" and has claimed that it was rather poor.) Levertov has said that, although she was keenly aware of it, she did not experience anti-Semitism personally. In the interview with Estess she confessed that the war was not the subject of her poetry at the time because she was too immature as a person and as a poet to write about such an overwhelming topic. She wrote her first political poem, "During the Eichmann Trial," long after the war had ended.

Although Levertov was living in England, not Germany, and was merely nine years old when Adolf Hitler assumed power, she was keenly aware of the evil nature of the German leader and of the dangers of Nazism. Her parents sheltered German and Austrian refugees in their home, and she knew of the concentration camps. Her parents took in Mischlinge (those of mixed marriages in which one member was Jewish, the other not), in part because they could relate to the situation, Levertov's mother being Roman Catholic and her father a Jew who had converted to Christianity. Levertov's parents primarily took in people who had been raised as, and who thought of themselves as, Christians but who were nonetheless persecuted by the Nazis.

"During the Eichmann Trial," from Levertov's collection of poetry entitled The Jacob's Ladder, embodies the author's belief that the poet is endowed with a responsibility to write about ethical and social problems and situations. The poem is considered to be her first political poem. The tone that pervades the tripartite poem is intense, passionate, and emotional, illustrating that the trial was quite significant to Levertov. The poet employs several references to the eye and employs the pronoun "I," suggesting that those following the trial—and reading "During the Eichmann Trial"—need to look not only at Eichmann but also within. Levertov uses the word "we" in the subheading for the first section ("When We Look Up") to suggest that looking within is essential for everyone, including Jews and even herself. The word "when" implies that the poet considers such introspection to be rare, not an everyday occurrence.

According to Levertov's poem, the actions of the Nazis manifested a moral and social breakdown in humanity, not merely within the ranks of the Nazi regime. The guilty included not only the perpetrators but also the bystanders: those who witnessed the atrocities but refused to look within, those who refused to help because they perceived the Jews, but not themselves, as the victims. Levertov suggests that, if a segment of the human population was targeted and attacked, all of humanity was victimized. Just as the poet reconciles her interest in Judaism and Christianity, she attempts to reconcile all people rather than demarcating human beings into various classifications. She also refuses to demonize Eichmann. Unlike other Holocaust writers who have characterized Eichmann as a monster, Levertov believes that he was merely a human being, amoral but nevertheless a person like anyone else. Human beings who fail to look within and see themselves tend to consider those people unlike themselves to be "the other" and consequently lose their ability to empathize and sympathize with them. When people consider others to be alien and inferior, it becomes easier to commit atrocities or to refrain from helping the victims.

—Eric Sterling

See the essay on "During the Eichmann Trial."

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