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Denise Levertov's Life and Career

Joan F. Hallisey

Denise Levertov, one of the twentieth-century’s foremost American poets, was born in Ilford, Essex, England, in 1923. She was privately educated and served as a nurse in London during World War II. She emigrated to America in 1948 after she married Mitchell Goodman. They had one son Nikolai Goodman who is an artist and writer.

Levertov lived in Somerville, Massachusetts, for a number of years while teaching at Brandeis, MIT, and Tufts. She moved to Seattle in 1989 and settled close to Lake Washington in the shadow of Mt. Rainier. She taught part-time at the University of Washington and continued as a full professor at Stanford University for the first quarter of each year as she had been doing since 1982. She brought her own distinctive spirit and goals to the English Department, especially to her students in the Creative Writing program. After her retirement from Stanford in 1993, she did several benefits and poetry readings a year in both the United States and Europe. She endeavored, in spite of declining health, to keep up her correspondence with other poets and her many friends. She died of complications due to lymphoma on December 20, 1997.

Levertov strongly believed that inherited tendencies and the cultural ambiance of her own family were strong factors in her own development as a person and as a poet. She tells us in The Poet in the World that she believes her early poem "Illustrious Ancestors" reveals a "definite and peculiar destiny" she and her sister Olga shared by having among their ancestors two men who were living during the same period (late 1700s and 1800s) but in very different cultures. They had "preoccupations which gave them a basic kinship had they known one another and had [they] been able to cross the barriers of religious prejudice" (70).

The poet’s father, Paul Levertoff, was a descendant of Schneour Zalman, "The Rav of Northern White Russia" who founded the Habad branch of Hasidism. Another ancestor in her mother’s line was Angell Jones of Mold, a tailor, teacher, and preacher to whom Daniel Owens, the "Welsh Dickens," was apprenticed. The shop of Angell Jones’s son (the poet’s great uncle) served as a kind of literary and intellectual salon in the 1870s (PW 70).

Paul Levertoff was a Russian Jewish scholar who converted and later became an Anglican priest. He wrote throughout his life about connections between Judaism and Christianity and welcomed Jews at liturgies at St. George’s, Bloomsbury, and helped Jewish refugees in London during World War II.

Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, the poet’s mother, was raised a Congregationalist and was, like her husband, involved with political and human rights issues. She canvassed on behalf of the League of Nations Union and supported the rights of German and Austrian refugees from 1933 onward. An interest in humanitarian politics came early into Levertov’s consciousness, so the fact that she was a long-time activist for peace and justice is not surprising. While some critics regarded poetry and politics as conflicting spheres, she tells us in "‘Invocations of Humanity’: Denise Levertov’s Poetry of Emotion and Belief" that she regarded them as organically and necessarily connected (32).

Copyright © 2000 by Joan F. Hallisey

R. W. Butterfield

Levertov was born in Ilford, Essex, her mother being 'descended from the Welsh tailor and mystic Angel Jones of Mold' and her father 'from the noted Hasid, Schneour Zaiman, "the Rav of Northern White Russia"', although he himself had converted to Christianity and become an Anglican priest. Levertov's own heterogeneous spirituality is, therefore, in the first instance very much an ancestral inheritance. She was educated privately in a bookish home enlivened by many and diverse visitors. A nurse in wartime London, in 1946 she published her first volume of poems in thoroughly English, neo-Romantic vein. In 1948 she emigrated to the United States, where by her husband, Mitchell Goodman, she was introduced to Robert Creeley, Cid Corman, who published her poems in Origin, the organicist and objectivist poetics of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson, and to Robert Duncan, to whom, because of his mystical and mythic way of perceiving, she felt an especial affinity. By 1955, when she became an American citizen, she was already a distinctly American poet, on her way to becoming one of the significant voices of the age. Levertov has published some fifteen volumes of poetry, including the broadly representative Selected Poems (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1986) and Breathing the Water (New York, 1987; Newcastle upon Tyne, 1988). Her prose is gathered in The Poet in the World (New York 1973) and Light Up the Cave (New York, 1981). She has taught at numerous universities and since 1982 has been professor of English at Stanford University.

Levertov writes as both a maker and a seer, as a proponent of both scrupulous craftsmanship and organic form, whereby 'the poet can discover and reveal' the form that is in all things. Her poem 'September 1961' celebrates 'the old great ones', specifically Pound, Williams, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), whilst elsewhere she names Duncan and Creeley 'as the chief poets among my contemporaries'; and, very roughly to locate her, it might be said that, just as she is more etherially inclined than Williams or Creeley, so she is more materially grounded than H.D. or Duncan. 'The world is / not with us enough. / O taste and see', she writes in the title-poem of one of her volumes: 'bite, / savor, chew, swallow, transform. . .'. But though a poet possessed continually of spiritual curiosity, she is also a poet of personal experience and relationships, who has strenuously explored the conflicting claims of the domestic and the artistic; a poet of memory and commemoration, who, expatriated in the United States, recalls her Essex childhood in radiant detail, and who, many years later, celebrates her mother enduring, then dying, at great old age in Mexico; and a poet of public statement and witness, who is outraged by all forms of destruction but who came less precociously and self-tormentingly to political consciousness than her elder sister, Olga, whose premature death is hauntingly mourned in the 'Olga Poems' of 1967. However, Levertov's radical politics are always to be seen within the larger context of her fundamentally religious, sacramental sense of the holiness of all things: 'Blessed / be the dust. From dust the world / utters itself. We have no other / hope, no knowledge.'

Levertov's most industrious critical reader has been Linda Wagner, who published her study, Denise Levertov (New York), in 1967, edited Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province (New York, 1979), and, as Linda Wagner-Martin, edited Critical Essays on Denise Levertov (Boston, 1990). Bibliographies include Robert A. Wilson, A Bibliography of Denise Levertov (New York, 1972) and Liana Sakelliou-Schulz, Denise Levertov: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (New York, 1989).

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copyright 1994 by Oxford University Press.

Susan J. Zeuenbergen

In spite of the tremendous output and changing subject matter inevitable in a long career, Denise Levertov's newest poems are admired for the same reasons her early poems were. Levertov's poems combine the sacred and the everyday in a seamless whole, written with the cadences of everyday speech and the metaphors of a probing imagination. While Levertov has never called herself a feminist, her work insists on the place of politics in personal life (and in poetry); her volumes during the Vietnam War first opened her work to the ongoing controversy of whether or not politics can make good poems. Her latest concerns include the potential for nuclear devastation and the situation in El Salvador.

Meditative and evocative, Levertov's poetry concerns itself with the search for meaning. She sees the poet's role as a priestly one; the poet is the mediator between ordinary people and the divine mysteries. Her perspective, however, remains a female one, and her work has been a large factor in the acceptance of domestic life as a subject matter for poetry. Levertov celebrates female spirituality and sexuality in poems such as the "Pig Dreams," first published in Candles in Babylon, and her questioning of the status quo necessarily includes the place of women in both myth and culture.

From The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.

James F. Mersmann

Balanced and whole are words that have perhaps best characterized the work and the person of Denise Levertov--at least until the late sixties. The second line of her first volume of poetry speaks of the "systole and diastole marking miraculous hours," and it is inside just such a pulse of balanced polarities that her poetry finds its stable center. She knows that "Strength of feeling, reverence for mystery, and clarity of intellect must be kept in balance with one another. Neither the passive nor the active must dominate, they must work in conjunction as in a marriage." Her poems seek the middle way not because they are dull or timid, but because the eye that finds the poetry inside the flux is sane and confident. There are no excesses of ecstasy or despair, celebration or denigration, naļvete or cynicism; there is instead an acute ability to find simple beauties in the heart of squalor and something to relish even in negative experiences. While her poetry experiences the world with a finely honed and precise sensibility, it accepts necessary human suffering and the world's imperfection with a deep strength that marks it as "masculine" and Jewish (that spirit that moves in the Book of Job as well as in the novels of Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow). But it is more than just that--it is incomparable and unique poetry that tastes in the hard and difficult world a satisfying savor and at times a deep, if limited, joy.

[. . . .]

Levertov is concerned with an internal and natural mystery rather than a transcendent or metaphysical one (though at their deepest core or supreme circumference they are the same)

[. . . .]

Levertov's poetry is a poetry of the eye in that it is concerned with seeing into experience and discovering the order and significance that her poet's faith tells her is really there behind the surface chaos. Her poetry is of the mental and spiritual eye, however, and not primarily a poetry of phanopoeia or visual image. She dislikes Robert Bly's poetry, in fact, insofar as it relies too heavily on the sense of sight and not enough on melopoeia or sound. Her own work reminds us of Joseph Conrad's dictum that art is "to make you see," except that Levertov's intention hints less of indirect didacticism: her poetry is not so much to make someone else see as it is a process of seeing for the poet. Perhaps, "art is to make the artist see" or "art is the way an artist sees." Through poetry she reaches to the heart of things, finds out what their centers are. If the reader can follow, he is welcomed along, but although the poetry is mindful of communication and expression, its primary concern is discovery. Her poetry seeks instress or the apperception of inscape not only of natural objects but of emotional and intellectual experience as well. It seeks analogies, resemblances, natural allegories: "such a poetry is," as she has noted, "exploratory."

From Out of the Vietman Vortex: a study of poets and poetry against the war. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1974. Copyright © 1974 by The University Press of Kansas.

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