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Themes in Denise Levertov's Poetry

Joan F. Hallisey

Levertov recalled in her 1986 interview for Sojourners ("‘Invocations of Humanity’: Denise Levertov’s Poetry of Emotion and Belief") what she had also expressed in the introduction to her section in the Bloodaxe Anthology of Women Poets (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Press, 1985) that part of her was an "outsider":

Among Jews a Goy, among Gentiles (secular or Christian) a Jew or at least half Jew, (which was good or bad according to their degree of anti-Semitism), among Anglo-Saxons a Celt, in Wales a Londoner who not only did not speak Welsh, but was not imbued with Welsh attitudes; among school children a strange exception whom they did not know whether to envy or mistrust - all of these anomalies predicted my later experience: I so often feel English, or perhaps European, in the United States, while in England I sometimes feel American...
    But these feelings of not-belonging were positive for me, not negative... I was given such a sense of confidence by my family, in my family, that though I was often shy (and have remained so in certain respects) I nevertheless experienced the sense of difference as an honor, as part of knowing from an early age - perhaps by 7, certainly before I was 10 - that I was an artist-person and had a destiny (76-77).

Levertov’s pilgrimage as an "artist-person" was enriched in the United States by the poetry and poetic theory of William Carlos Williams. Though some critics considered her an "aesthetic compatriot" of some of the poets of the Black Mountain School, she did not consider herself part of any "school" of poetry. She brought her own distinctive voice to poems concerned with multiple aspects of the human experience: love, motherhood, nature, war, the nuclear arms race, the environment, mysticism, poetry, and the role of the poet. She addressed these themes throughout her career, but all of them appear in her writings from The Jacob’s Ladder (1958) onward and are intimately connected with Levertov’s understanding of the awesome responsibility she assumed in her "vocation" as poet.

"Poetry, Prophecy, Survival" reiterates a theme that the poet addressed throughout her career: the artist or the poet’s call "to summon the divine." She spoke clearly about this "vocation" in a number of works, especially in her 1984 essay "A Poet’s View" (reprinted in New & Selected Essays, 1992):

To believe, as an artist, in inspiration or the intuitive, to know that without imagination... no amount of acquired scholarship or brilliant reasoning will suffice, is to live with the door of one’s life open to the transcendent, the numinous. Not every artist, clearly, acknowledges that fact - yet all in the creative act experience mystery. The concept of inspiration presupposes a power that enters an individual and is not a personal attribute; and it is linked to a view of the artist’s life as one of obedience to a vocation (241).

Levertov’s reflections on the "vocation" of the poet should also be examined in light of the notable influence of the poetry and poetics of Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke - an influence that she tells us in "Rilke as Mentor" predated by seven or eight years her coming to America and her reading of Williams, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens.

As indicated above, Levertov long blended an activist career of opposition to war and injustice with her commitment to her calling as poet. It is not surprising when she speaks out against prejudice, injustice, and war in "Poetry, Prophecy, Survival" and "Paradox and Equilibrium" (1988) and "Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions" (1989). Her poems in the "Witnessing from Afar" section of Evening Train are testimonies to her belief that "[a] passionate love of life must be quickened if we are to find the energy to stop the accelerating tumble...toward annihilation. To sing awe - to breathe out praise and celebration - is as fundamental an impulse as to lament." This strong blend of the mystical with a firm commitment to social issues has undoubtedly contributed to critics’ placement of Levertov in the American visionary tradition. As was evident in the poetry and prose of the last several decades of her life, though her range of subject matter remained by no means exclusively "engaged," she continued with other poets, such as Pablo Neruda and Muriel Rukeyser, to confront the social issues of our time.

Copyright 2000 by Joan F. Hallisey

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