The Poets Denise Levertov (1923-1997)


About the Poet

Poet and critic Denise Levertov, an antiwar, antinuclear activist who was moved to public testimonial, unified life and beliefs with art. Her work was a response to a calling. In her words, she chose to live in an all-out state of alert, "open to the transcendent, the numinous." Assertive in politics and language, she eludes categorization as feminist or seer. Perhaps she is best described as an emerging American eclectic; she accommodated contemporary idioms as the language best suited to her well-plotted, luminous verse.

Of Welsh and Russian-Hasidic descent, Levertov was the daughter of Beatrice Spooner-Jones and the Reverend Paul Philip Levertov, a Jew turned Anglican. A native of Ilford, Essex, England, born on October 24, 1923, she was educated at home, where European Jews gathered during pre-Holocaust tensions. Her interests — art, French, and ballet — tended toward the genteel until the 1930s, when her family voiced their protest of Mussolini's fascism and supported Spanish independence, Eastern Europe's refugees, and the League of Nations. After completing her education privately and publishing The Double Image (1946), she married American author Mitchell Goodman, bore a son, and settled in the United States, where she became a naturalized citizen in 1955.

A descendant in verse of H. D. and William Carlos Williams, Levertov came under the influence of Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, poets of the Black Mountain school, yet steered her own course. She taught at Tufts and Stanford and published spare naturalist-populist verse in Here and Now (1957), Overland to the Islands (1958), and With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959). In 1961, she became poetry editor of The Nation and issued probing, disturbing verse in The Jacob's Ladder (1961) and O Taste and See: New Poems (1964). She toured Southeast Asia to protest American involvement in Vietnam, the subject of a collection of pacifist writings, Out of the War Shadow (1967), and a soulful triad, The Sorrow Dance (1967), Relearning the Alphabet (1970), and To Stay Alive (1971). In addition to verse, she collaborated with Edward Dincock, Jr., on a translation, In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali (1967).

Like many of her contemporaries, Levertov took up feminist themes, which she addressed in Footprints (1972), The Freeing of the Dust (1975), Life in the Forest (1978), and Candles in Babylon (1982). While teaching at Tufts, Brandeis, and Stanford, she remained focused on her art in Oblique Prayers: New Poems with Fourteen Translations (1984), Breathing the Water (1987), A Door in the Hive (1989), Evening Train (1992), and Tesserae (1995), and two essay collections, The Poet in the World (1973) and Light Up the Cave (1981). By the time of her death from lymphoma in Seattle, Washington, on December 20, 1997, she had accumulated a wide readership.

Chief Works

Levertov introduces her forebears in "Illustrious Ancestors" (1958). The Hasidic grandfather, the rabbi from "Northern White Russia," learns the "language of birds" from nature-centered concentration during his devotions. Similarly pragmatic, a Welsh grandfather, "Angel Jones of Mold," incorporates his mysticism in the real world by stitching his thoughts into his garments. At the poem's conclusion, the poet begins with "Well" her inclusion of birds, hard data, and the tailor's needle in her life's work. In silence, she contemplates the thin-air quality of internalized stimuli.

Composed four years after Levertov's divorce, "A Woman Alone" (1978) delights in "blessed Solitude," the reward to an aging woman lost in a paradox of "sober euphoria." Stepping over breezy enjambments from a memory of passion to an involved late-night conversation that prefaces sleeping alone among books, she has no need to banish self-pity, which "dries up" of its own volition. More fearful of attrition than manlessness, the poet-speaker pictures an active old age, "a wanderer, / seamed and brown." Slightly ridiculous as "Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby" from The Water-Babies, she acknowledges that the world rejects that winsome Victorian fantasy. At home in the realities of urban life, she chooses instead to be "tough and wise" in a newfound contentment.

Published the year after her mother's death, "Death in Mexico" (1978) traverses the final stages of life. The poem moves through a self-revelatory grief to contrasting forms as a garden returns from the imposed ideal to the wild. As though depicting in metaphor the retreat of health over a five-week decline, the text vivifies the "squared circle" of her mother's garden destroyed in a month after twenty years of tending. Prefiguring a processional to the grave, line 31 pictures the gardener, borne past her garden on a stretcher, as too blind to focus on the transformation of her garden. Building on the image of blurred vision, the poet-speaker turns to the obdurate masks of stone "gods and victims," whose fixed gaze allows no response to life, even that which crawls like a vine or scorpion over the face. Alienated by death and Mexican exotica, the speaker pictures the garden as her mother's hostage, summarily retrieved into its natural surroundings.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. What are Levertov's impressions of her ancestors in "Illustrious Ancestors"? Cite lines of the poem that support your answer.

2. Determine Levertov's complex woman-centered point of view in "A Woman Alone." Does the speaker in the poem relish being alone? If so, why? If not, why not?

3. What does Mexico symbolize in Levertov's "Death in Mexico"? How much of an impact does Mexico play in the poem?

4. Analyze the interplay of humor and self-image in Levertov's "Song for Ishtar."

5. Summarize the pervasive unease in Levertov's "The Ache of Marriage," "Divorcing," and "About Marriage."