Denise Levertov 19231997

Denise Levertov was born in Ilford, England, a suburb of London, and became a US citizen in 1955. Her mother was Welsh, and her father of Russian Jewish ancestry who converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest. Levertov's work in the 1950s responded to the examples of William Carlos Williams and of the Black Mountain College poets, especially Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, but by the 1960s she had found her own powerful voice. Her poetry combines visionary mysticism with a focus on the everyday, and often with urgent social and political concerns. She was strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam and later to the Gulf War, and was active in the environmental and anti-nuclear movements. Her later books explore religious faith more explicitly, and towards the end of her life she converted to Catholicism. For some critics Levertov's poetry of the 1960s is her major achievement, and they find the anti-war poetry in particular to be crudely rhetorical in comparison with her earlier work. But for many Levertov remained an important figure, as poet, teacher, and critic, offering her own particular perspective upon the country that she - not always contentedly - had chosen as her own, and bringing to that perspective her own multi-cultural heritage and moral vision.

Levertov was educated mostly at home. Her first published poem, "Listening to Distant Guns," somewhat similar in tone to the poems of Hardy, appeared in 1940, and her first book, The Double Image, in 1946. In 1947 she married American writer Mitchell Goodman, who would go on to be a major anti-war activist in the 1960s. In France and Italy in the next few years Levertov began reading Williams and Wallace Stevens, and in 1951, at the instigation of Creeley, who had known Goodman at Harvard, she began a correspondence with Williams. Kenneth Rexroth included six of her poems in his anthology The New British Poets (1949), a volume designed to illustrate the new British Romanticism (with Dylan Thomas as its major figure) that was reacting against the work of Auden and the poets of the 1930s.

From 1952 until the late 1960s - when she moved to the Boston area -Levertov was based in New York. She began to publish in such journals as Origin and the Black Mountain Review. During two years living in Mexico (1957-8), she published her first two American books, Here and Now and Overland to the Islands. In these volumes and in With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1960) she responded to the open form poetics of Williams, Duncan, Creeley, and Charles Olson. Like Williams and Creeley, her poetry emphasized a full engagement with the world of objects. But in Levertov's poetry the object, properly engaged, reveals an almost magical essence beneath its surface. This is Levertov's version of Williams's phrase "No ideas but in things" from his Paterson, which she insisted when writing of Williams's own poetry did not mean "no ideas." This direction is to go "beyond the end," as she put it in a poem of that title. In the title poem of Overland to the Islands a dog "keeps moving, changing / pace and approach but / not direction - 'every step an arrival.'" This visionary aspect of her work gave her an especial affinity to the poetry of Robert Duncan. Dreams were an important area of experience for Levertov, and the journals among her papers at Stanford University contain many descriptions and possible interpretations reflecting this interest.

In three volumes in the 1960s Levertov found her own particular voice, The Jacob's Ladder (1961), O Taste and See (1964), and The Sorrow Dance (1967). In "September 1961," from the 1964 volume, she wrote of her sense of the heritage bestowed by the aging Williams, Pound, and H.D.: "This is the year the old ones, / the old great ones / leave us alone on the road." These figures "have told us / the road leads to the sea, / and given // the language into our hands." The poem concludes:

But for us the road unfurls itself, we count the words in our pockets, we wonder how it will be without them, we don't stop walking, we know there is far to go, sometimes we think the night wind carries a smell of the sea . . .

Levertov's public role grew in the 1960s too. In 1961 and again from 1963 to 1965 she was poetry editor of The Nation, and she held a series of teaching and writer-in-residence positions which included Vassar, City College of New York, Berkeley, and MIT.

Her opposition to the Vietnam War began in earnest in 1965, culminating with a visit to Hanoi with poet Muriel Rukeyser in the fall of 1972. Poems in The Sorrow Dance begin to reflect this concern, which became central to Levertov's next volumes. "What Were They Like?" is a particularly well-known poem from the 1967 volume, and "Advent 1966" an example from a little later.

Another important event for the poet in the 1960s was the death in 1964 of Levertov's older sister Olga, who is remembered in the sequence first published in The Sorrow Dance titled "Olga Poems." These poems and the late autobiographical essays in Tesserae reveal the importance of the sometimes difficult relationship between the sisters.

Levertov and Mitchell Goodman separated in 1973 and divorced in 1975. Marriage is a theme in a number of poems in Levertov's volumes, and love continued to be a subject that she often returned to subsequently, although never in the confessional mode of some of her peers - a mode that she depreciated in her essays and interviews. From 1972 to 1978 she taught at Tufts University. In 1980 she was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1981 began a period teaching a semester each at Brandeis and Stanford. Subsequently she moved to Seattle in 1989, and retired from Stanford as a full professor in 1993.

Levertov continued her social activism in the 1980s and into the last years of her life. Her poetry in the 1980s began to foreground the interest in religious faith that became characteristic of her later work, but that was also one with the visionary emphasis in all of her poetry. Candles in Babylon (1982) illustrates the integration of many of her interests, since it includes poems on political action, a speech for an anti-draft rally, a eulogy of Williams, and also "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus." Another direction in Levertov's work in these years was the broadening of her sense of heritage to include English and other European poets, especially Rilke, that her 1950s and 1960s poetry had given less attention to. She published three volumes of essays on such topics as her impressions of contemporaries, reflections on the challenge of teaching, the craft of writing, and the nature of political poetry.

Levertov's final volumes, Evening Train (1992), Sands of the Well (1996), and the posthumous This Great Unknowing: Last Poems (1999), reflect her continuing faith, her sensitive response to the seasons around Mount Rainier and Lake Washington where she lived her last years, and meditations and memories from the perspective of her terminal illness - lymphoma, complications from which ended her life just before Christmas 1997. The quality of Levertov's most successful work is informed by a keen eye and a visionary passion, and - for sympathetic readers - driven by a political and moral commitment that is always balanced by a concern for craftsmanship.

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