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Levertov, Denise


LEVERTOV, DENISE (1923–1997), U.S./British poet and essayist. Levertov was born in England of Russian-Jewish and Welsh parents, and her life and writings reflect her paradoxical nature. She was greatly influenced by her Russian-born expatriate father, Paul Levertoff, a descendant of *Shneur Zalman of Lyady (founder of the Chabad movement) who, while studying for the rabbinate, converted to Anglicanism. Her parents later became passionately involved in helping refugees escape from Austria and Germany. Her Welsh mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones, was a teacher, singer, painter, and writer. Denise's parents and sister Olga, nine years her senior, would read aloud to her the poems of Tennyson, Keats, Wordsworth, Donne, and Herbert as well as the Bible. Although Levertov never attended school, she taught poetry in many American universities, and received eight honorary doctorates.

Levertov began writing poetry at the age of five, knew her future vocation by age 10, and sent her poems to T.S. Eliot at age 12. From 12 on, she received lessons in ballet, piano, French, and art. During World War ii she served as a civilian nurse during the London Blitz. Her first book of poetry, The Double Image, was published in 1946. She married American writer Mitchell Goodman in 1947, immigrated to the United States in 1948, gave birth to her only child, Nikolai, and, in 1955 became a naturalized citizen.

Her poetic style continued to develop with the literary influences of William Carlos Williams, the Old Testament, Book of Psalms, Song of Songs, Buber's Tales of the Hasidim, H.D., Rilke, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson of the Black Mountain School. Although her writing styles and themes have been described as free verse, non-metrical, psychological, organic, lyrical, objectivist, allegorical, mystical, mythical, and spiritual, Levertov dismisses these labels and calls her works a "mishmash."

In the title poem of her fifth book, Jacob's Ladder (1958), Levertov achieves poetic maturity. In an interview she reveals, "I do think arguing with God (or God wrestling) is a delightful Jewish characteristic." The true prophet must painfully climb a wall of doubt as is expressed in the lines "behind the sky is a doubtful, a doubting night gray" and "a man must scrape his knees" in the joining of the poet's mystical ascendance with earthly concerns.

In "During the Eichmann Trial," also in Jacob's Ladder, Levertov asserts in section I of the poem, "When We Look Up," that Eichmann's banal exterior is part of evil's human condition. In the second part, "The Peachtree," Eichmann murders a young child, and Levertov metonymously indicts the whole world for failing to stop the Holocaust. In part iii, "Crystal Night," she advocates that the hatefulness of racial differences must be replaced by empathy as a way to prevent future conflict.

Levertov's papers are housed in the Green Library at Stanford University, California.


G. Pacernick, "Interview with Denise Levertov," and E. Sterling, "The Eye as Mirror of Humanity: Social Responsibility and the Nature of Evil in Denise Levertov's 'During the Eichmann Trial,'" in: Denise Levertov: New Perspectives (2000); Marquis Who's Who on the Web (2005); W. Doreski, American Writers (1991); L. Wagner-Martin, Denise Levertov (1967); L. Smith, "Songs of Experience: Denise Levertov's Political Poetry," in: Contemporary Literature, vol. 27, no. 2 (Summer 1986).

[David Koenigstein (2nd ed.)]

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