Levertov, Denise (1923–1997)
Levertov, Denise (1923–1997)
Major English-born poet, essayist, teacher and translator known for her attention to craft, sense of aesthetic ethics, weaving of a woman's private and public spheres of experience, and political activism. Pronunciation: Lev-er-TOFF. Born on October 24, 1923, in Ilford, Essex, a suburb outside London; died from complications of lymphoma in Seattle, Washington, on December 20, 1997; daughter of Phillip Paul Levertoff (an Anglican cleric) and Beatrice Adelaide (Spooner-Jones) Levertoff; educated at home, along with her sister Olga, by her mother, and by a library of her father's books; studied ballet formally; married Mitchell Goodman (an American novelist), on December 2, 1947 (divorced 1972); children: son, Nikolai (b. 1949).
Besshokin 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); American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters grant (1965); D. Litt., Colby College (1970), University of Cincinnati (1973), Bates College (1984), Saint Lawrence University (1984); Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize (1976); Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in poetry (1983); Shelley Memorial Award from Poetry Society of America (1984).
During World War II served as a nurse; published first book of poems, The Double Image (1946); met and married American novelist Mitchell Goodman (1947); after brief hiatus in Europe, came to America (1948); naturalized U.S. citizen (1955); had teaching residencies at City College of the City University of New York (1965–66), Vassar College (1966–67), University of California, Berkeley (1969), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1969–70), Kirkland College (1971), University of Cincinnati (1973), Tufts University (1973–79), Brandeis University (1981–83), and Stanford University (1981); cofounded Writers and Artists Protest against the War in Vietnam (1965); was active in anti-nuclear and human-rights movements.
The Double Image (Cresset, 1946); Here and Now (City Lights, 1957); Overland to the Islands (Jargon, 1958); Five Poems(White Rabbit, 1958); With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (New Directions, 1959); The Jacob's Ladder (New Directions, 1961); O Taste and See: New Poems (New Directions, 1964); The Sorrow Dance (New Directions, 1967); A Tree Telling Orpheus (Black Sparrow, 1968); Relearning the Alphabet (New Directions, 1970); To Stay Alive (New Directions, 1971); Footprints (New Directions, 1972); The Freeing of the Dust (New Directions, 1975); Life in the Forest (New Directions, 1978); Collected Earlier Poems, 1940–1960 (New Directions, 1979); Wanderer's Daysong (Copper Canyon, 1981); Candles in Babylon (New Directions, 1982); Poems, 1960–1967 (New Directions, 1983); Requiem and Invocation (William B. Ewert, 1984); Breathing the Water (New Directions, 1987); Poems, 1968–1972 (New Directions, 1987); Sands of the Well (New Directions, 1996).
(translator and editor with Edward C. Dimock, Jr.) In Praise of Krishna; Songs from the Bengali (Doubleday, 1967); (translator from French) Eugene Guilevic, Selected Poems (New Directions, 1969); (essays) The Poet in the World (New Directions, 1973); (essays) Light Up the Cave (New Directions, 1981); (translator with others from Bulgarian) William Meredith, editor, Poets of Bulgaria (Unicorn, 1985); (translator from French) Jean Joubert (Black Iris, Copper Canyon, 1988); (memoirs) Tesserae (New Directions, 1995).
In Denise Levertov's book of prose memoirs, Tesserae (1995), she begins with a story about her father, as a little boy, who sees an old peddlar carrying a large sack through the streets of his Russian town. Levertov recalls that her father (a descendent of "The Rav of Northern White Russia" who understood the language of birds) "believed that he knew" what the sack contained: "wings, many wings, that would enable people to fly like birds." This very same peddlar was also depicted in Chagall's paintings, where he is seen "flying, though not with wings." The peddlar's constant burden of such a "concentration of wings" might have been "transmuted into his ability" to levitate himself. Such an ability is a prospect for both mystics and poets.
In Levertov's "A Poet's View" (in Religion and Intellectual Life 1, Summer 1984), she wrote that the core of her work lies in acknowledging "mystery" and celebrating it, and that mystery is "probably … the most consistent theme." Mystery forms the locus of the two metaphorical worlds the poet inhabits: the everyday realities of the "here-and-now" and the imaginative, unworldly realm of the dream and its secrets. Accordingly, Levertov accounted for two realms of female experience. One is made of dailiness, domestic duties and physical pleasures, open and direct. The other is lit by moonlight, passions, a romantic spirit of dance and music. Together, they comprise the total woman, although they are often in conflict. Levertov attributed these complementary but opposing qualities to what she inherited from her mother (an educator) and her father (an Anglican priest). She remarked in her autobiographical account, "Denise Levertov Writes" (The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets), that her parents seemed to be "exotic birds … in the plain English coppice of Ilford, Essex." Her mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones , a Welshwoman who had grown up in a mining town and later in a north Wales country town and subsequently had traveled widely, had a love for "seeking out and exploring" the small and commonplace nature around her. Her father Phillip Paul Levertoff, a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity. He was more mystical and theological than her mother, meditating on unearthly, spiritual worlds.
Levertov's ancestry was important to her because both of her parents were especially interested in language and books. Her father came from a learned family in Russia and studied the Talmud, and would have become a rabbi if he had not discovered the New Testament while studying at the university. (A story of the young boy finding and reading a fragment from the scriptures which he found on a scrap of paper is included in Tesserae.) He met her mother Beatrice in Constantinople, where the Welsh woman had gone to teach in a Scottish school for girls. They lived in Warsaw and Leipzig, coming to England after World War I. Her father then converted to Christianity and was ordained an Anglican priest. Educated at home, Levertov received religious training from her father, who was a prolific writer in Hebrew, Russian, German, and English, and from her mother, who read the great works of the 19th century, notably the poetry of Tennyson. The only formal lessons Levertov received were in ballet. She served as a nurse during World War II and wrote poems in the evenings, culminating in The Double Image (1946), a book that favors elaborate rhetorical adornments (with its extreme ellipses and literary allusions) that some critics have attributed to an academic style from which she never departed. Yet, this first volume also anticipates many of the themes Levertov would develop through a lifetime of writing. Although she said that she was, for a period, "embarrassed" by her first book, Levertov also came to accept it for its "intuitive signs" that linked it with her mature works. During the time of its publication, she met and married American novelist Mitchell Goodman, and, after traveling in Europe, they came to the United States, where their son Nikolai was born in 1949.
In 1950, the family returned to Europe and lived two years in Provence, France, where Levertov became acquainted with the American poet Robert Creeley. She began to read more American poets and was particularly impressed by the writings of William Carlos Williams. Harry Martin in Understanding Denise Levertov quotes her discussion of the influence of American voices and subjects on her poems. Marrying an American and coming to New York City as a young woman stimulated her writing for "it necessitated the finding of new rhythms in which to write" in accordance with her new surroundings and speech. Willams, Charles Olson's essay "Projectivist Verse," conversations with Robert Duncan, and a renewed interest in Hasidic ideas were other influences on her. Struck by Williams' simple, concrete imagery and language, and by the immediacy of his form, Levertov discovered her own distinctive American style. When her first American book, Here and Now (1957), was subsequently published, it found favor among critics who had complained about romantic excesses in Levertov's earlier poems. For example, Kenneth Rexroth wrote in his 1961 book, Assays, that "the Schwarmerei and lassitude" of her former book was gone and replaced by "a kind of wedding of form and content" that was fulfillment for the reader. Also, Ralph J. Mills, Jr. observes in Poets in Progress that Levertov's poems "revel in, [and carve] into lyric poems of precise beauty" the "quotidian reality" most people try to ignore. Mills' emphasis on Levertov's "persistent investigation of the events of her own life—inner and outer—in the language of her own time and place" provides a focus for thinking about the poet's developing social and political consciousness which became extremely significant in her works of the 1960s and 1970s.
While being influenced by American writers, Levertov became associated with the Black Mountain poets and published in Origin and Black Mountain Review. She advocated the poetics of projectivist verse, whereby the form manifests itself as the poet "projects" himself or herself into its field without any metrical constraints. In later years, Levertov continued to expound on the value of process, writing essays on craft, line breaks, and stanza forms, and presenting nonmetrical and organic poetry as an exploratory alternative to the certitudes of formal verse. Eyes in the Back of Our Heads, published in 1959, demonstrates her mastery of the open form and extends the theme of a double vision of commonplace and mystical experience. Here, a woman's sensual reality is set into meaningful balance with her deeper comprehension of spiritual forms. Revelations, self-disclosures, mythic awakenings are all part of the fabric of the poet's life as it is lived in the actual, and in the moment—fusing together inner and outer impressions. In the poem "Pleasures," Levertov invents her own poetics: "I like to find/ what's not found/ at once, but lies/ … within something of another nature,/ in repose, distinct." And in "The Goddess," an attending silence is to be filled by the poem's solitude: "the silence was answering my silence."
With the turbulent 1960s, Levertov composed the major works of her middle years, including The Sorrow Dance, Jacob's Ladder, Relearning the Alphabet, O Taste and See, as well as collections of her poetry, all of which, to some extent, address socio-political topics and themes. As
a result of her commitment to pacifism and world peace, Levertov became involved in protest against the war in Vietnam, participating in several antiwar demonstrations, and was arrested and jailed at least once. Although she delved into a socio-political action and poetry, she never forfeited her artistic integrity, insisting that the poem be allowed to grow and develop on its own, and not be forced in any way that would prove to be too mechanistic or dogmatic. Jacob's Ladder extends Levertov's theme of the examined life, a theme that intertwines with her observations of natural process. According to Levertov, living authentically means having acute awareness of life's inextricability with death: "always/ a recognition, the known/ appearing fully itself." This strand of thinking also weaves itself into the "Olga Poems" of The Sorrow Dance, as an elegiac, lyrical thread. As a river flowing towards death, Olga is ultimately resurrected by the poems from the double death of a denied life and a painful dying.
In Relearning the Alphabet, language is relearned while hollowing itself out in the world with that which fills it up again; but it is also a culture-making language inclusive of political themes of resistance and protest. Levertov's overall insistence on the poem's vitality, as the seam that binds things together, allows the poet to collaborate with sensuous images that are spun into lines. With this end in mind, Levertov reaffirms the existence of an inner life to which she returns again and again, and to which she pays homage. And in writing the words that serve to edify the real, she must also acknowledge their direct influence on others, as in "Second Didactic Poem" from Sorrow:
The honey of man is
the task we're set to: to be
in the making….
The poet goes on to assert that in our individuating process, likened to that of the flowers' honey-making, we become the "honey of the human" (Sorrow 82–83) which, in turn, is redolent of the spirit.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Levertov continued to produce remarkable poetry, although some critics were not altogether receptive to the socio-political poems of To Stay Alive, Footprints, Candles in Babylon, and others. Resistant to the controversial topics of these poems, many readers complained that Levertov's political poetry had an agenda that was too ministerial and "confessional," exhibiting "presumptuousness" that swerved away from the pure directives of art-making. However, Levertov's admirers were equally strident. On the Vietnam poems, Kathleen Spivack remarked: "It is the disparity between the delicacy of Levertov's lines and the brute horror with which she—and we—must deal that is most poignant." John Martone, in World Literature Today, reviewed Candles in Babylon (1982) by praising Levertov's consciously "encyclopedic scope" and believed she remained "one of the most vitally innovative of contemporary poetry."
Levertov's life work paid close attention to a language that spoke to the poet's willingness to allow, and to rely upon, the music of verse to lift her into unanticipated realms of experience. The motive for any artist or writer is to visit a new "borderland" ("The Life of Art"), which is on the rim between the familiar and the unfamiliar and unworldly. In an essay in Light Up the Cave, for instance, she wrote that poetry is "a way of constructing autonomous existences out of words and silences." Poems (like the peddlar's sack of wings that enables people to fly) give form to words which stir and lift the life of those who experience them. The poems themselves are separate from their maker, not a reflection of the poet, because they have been nurtured by the poet's insights into the actual world.
Levertov's meditative essays and lyrics continually enunciated the importance of these inward experiences as a discipline for art and life. From the beginning of her career, she connected with the letters and poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. Edward Zlotkowski notes in a comparative analysis of the two poets how Levertov's passionate, "ecstatic" attention to things transported her beyond the world of objects into what Rilke calls "the center of the universe, something the angels serve that very day upon that matchless spot." It was to Rilke that Levertov looked in order to establish her own concept of the artist's task, a task of translating the visible into the invisible, "that glow from within" so that the tangible things of this world can find their correspondent "vibration and excitability" within our own natures.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Levertov continued to produce new volumes of writing. She addressed a wide range of subjects that encompassed her life as artist, woman, mother, and teacher. She wrote memoirs of her childhood and ancestral past, gave her female perspective on private and national events, charted the births and deaths of those people who touched her intimately, including her son Nikolai, her students, her sister Olga, and her poetic precursors. Levertov translated French and Bulgarian poetry and discussed her own process in numerous interviews. In Contemporary Authors (1988), Levertov recounted sending some of her poems to T.S. Eliot when she was just 12 years old. Eliot suggested that she learn to read poetry in a language other than her own, a piece of advice she valued and acted on. Although she traveled extensively, in the ordinary sense of the word, she also traversed the inner regions of memory and imagination. Levertov was a pilgrim of the creative process and a bearer of its fruits. Her importance was felt within the literary community for more than four decades and contributed to the registry and history of 20th-century women writers.
Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series. Vol. 29. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.
Critical Survey of Poets. Vol. 2. Edited by Frank Magill. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1984.
Levertov, Denise. Light Up the Cave. NY: New Directions, 1981.
Martin, Harry. Understanding Denise Levertov. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
Wagner, Linda Welshimer. Denise Levertov. NY: Twayne, 1967.
Zlotkowski, Edward. "Levertov and Rilke: A Sense of Aesthetic Ethics" in Contemporary Literature. Vol. 29, special edition on Denise Levertov.
Jansen, Ronald, guest ed. Twentieth Century Literature. Vol. 38. Fall 1992, special issue on Denise Levertov.
Levertov, Denise. Tesserae (autobiographical prose pieces). NY: New Directions, 1995.
MacGowan, Christopher, ed. The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams. NY: New Directions, 1998.
Rodgers, Audrey T. Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement. Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.
Levertov's manuscript collections are housed in the following locations: Humanities Research Center; University of Texas at Austin; Washington University; Indiana University; New York University; Yale University; Brown University; University of Connecticut; Columbia University; State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Judith Lynn Harris , Assistant Professor of English, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.