Denise Levertov Essay - Critical Essays

Denise Levertov American Literature Analysis

In her collection of essays The Poet in the World (1973), Levertov explains the close connection between the poetic and the political: “A sense of history must involve a sense of the present, a vivid awareness of change, a response to crisis, a realization that what was appropriate in this or that situation in the past is inadequate to the demands of the present, that we are living our whole lives in a state of emergency which is unparalleled in all history.” It is her contention that, as a poet, she cannot stand aside and ignore these events happening around her, but rather she must address these threats to humanity. Poetry is the appropriate medium to do this because the poet can personalize these concerns.

In the same book, Levertov discusses her craft and its process. For her, to write poetry is not simply to manipulate words. Perhaps conflating both Pound and the nineteenth century Transcendentalists, Levertov contends that creating poetry requires the writer to transform personal experience into words by intuiting an order into the experience. To those ends, not to mention or note her further conflation of meditation, spirituality, nature, and (eventually) Judeo-Christianity would be to miss a large element of her later career. How exactly Levertov constructs or understands religion and spirituality is difficult to discern and often seems to modulate with the passage of time. It is fair to say, however, that in her poetry the words result from intense perception and immersion into the experience itself, in a sort of deep trance.

This meditative state brings about her words and invigorates them with life through the spoken word. This action of saying something leads to further deep perception, and the cycle of poetry reiterated becomes almost unending. As complex as that epistemology sounds, aside from her first volume of poetry, Levertov’s poems use concrete, everyday language in a free verse form that is organic, growing from within the experience that gave rise to the words. The idea is that, while the thoughts behind the words are complex and manifold, the words themselves are easily accessible.

Levertov uses her political experiences as sources for many of her poems. She shies away from very little in the political arena, having written on topics such as pollution, the destruction of the rain forests, the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) crisis, animal rights, and many others. In all these poems, Levertov juxtaposes images of life and nature with images of death so that the reader will personalize these events and, as she did, make the political become personal.

Because Levertov is so intensely immersed in these events, she can turn them into poetry successfully. In each poem, language and vision are equally dependent upon each other. Each experience has a form that the poet intuits, an order that perhaps she alone can see. In “Some Notes on Organic Form” (1965), she writes of a poetic process in which a cross-section of several experiences comes together in a moment. The poet is the person who can capture the experiences in words. The form that the resulting poem takes is self-reflexive and becomes determined by the experience.

For example, in “Carapace,” from Oblique Prayers (1984), she writes of the desire to retreat into a shell that will protect her from the horrors of people’s inhumanity. The poem’s stanzas are arranged so that longer lines enclose shorter ones, creating a visual carapace, or shell, in the text itself. In “Snail,” from Relearning the Alphabet, the form the poem takes imitates a snail’s slow movement. In “A Marigold from North Vietnam,” from the same book, the lines are disjointed, with large spaces between the images. The form imitates what was done not only to the country of Vietnam but also to the American spirit by the war. Levertov writes in free verse, but the form is internal—there is definitely a form, but it is liberated from conventional verse forms.

“The Stricken Children”

First published: 1987 (collected in Breathing the Water, 1987)

Type of work: Poem

Returning to the scene of her happy childhood, the poet contemplates children who have lost their childhoods.

In “The Stricken Children,” the persona governing the poem—many attribute it as Levertov herself—recalls her return to a wishing well of her childhood. During that time, the well was a clear bubbling spring less than three feet across, with a bank of rocks protecting it from falling leaves. It was a tiny personal place which the speaking persona recalls as likely holding within it the wishes of many others from the past. People who came here did not throw money but, rather, searched themselves for the right small wish to throw into the well in the form of a pebble or rock. The immediate juxtaposition here is that visitors did not throw money, as wishes are not meant to be bought but rather hoped for with deepest interest and concern. This well was the place where, year after year, she returned to launch her journeys into the imagination. Like the spring, her childhood imagination could roam uncluttered, and the experiences she encountered nourished her.

When she returns as an adult, however, the wishing well has changed. She had hoped it would be familiar, merely older. Instead, it was marred, unfamiliar and sickly. The naïve beauty and appreciation she had for it in the past has been tarnished by a modern society who had filled it with its consumer excess, which she views, quite literally, as pollution. She wonders if the spring, so clogged, still flows, and if it was children who deposited the trash. If so, she muses, how damaged are these children by such consumerism? From the persona’s perspective, could children who would exact such violence on Nature actually dream; would they understand real desire? Were they raised by people who could instill virtue and imagination within them?

She leaves quickly, for the urgency of her own dreams pushes her onward. She continues to wonder, however, about the children of today, these stricken children who cannot find a source of nourishment for their dreams anywhere in a disposable culture of throwaways. The past, the generative wellspring that gave her the stability to dream and to act on dreams, has been, like the well, choked up. From the persona’s perspective, modern culture has strangled the imagination of these children at exactly the time of life when they most need to develop it.

It is possible that the personal awareness of what her own childhood offered in nourishing her life leads Levertov to reexamine the concept of childhood itself, here in the light of the cultural and political climate that could produce stricken children. In the poem’s view, the world is violent, and this violence enters every life soon after birth. The child does not have time to develop an imagination or a sense of wonder. Levertov’s poem re-creates that wonder at the same time that it warns against the political and social consequences of careless actions.


First published: 1987 (collected in Breathing the Water, 1987)

Type of work: Poem

Utilizing the British tale of the first Christian poet, Levertov asserts a method for finding a poetic voice.

Denise Levertov’s own footnote for this poem tells the reader that the plot of “Cademon” comes from the History of the English Church and People (731), by Saint Bede the Venerable, the first known British Christian poet. That information tells readers that the historical analog of “Cademon” is the story of an illiterate stable hand who received a divine call to sing in praise of God.

Even armed with that knowledge, readers may find that the tight line and verse structure of “Cademon” obviates simple readings of the poem. It is reminiscent, perhaps, of the laconic verse of Levertov’s Imagist mentors: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and H. D. The message appears to be simple enough: Any beings who come into contact with the spirit can be transformed into something magnificent. Here, the clumsy, inarticulate persona informs the reader of his inability with words by comparing the situation to being trapped in a dance without any knowledge of steps or grace. Yet when he is touched by the divine hand of an angel while attending to his duties as a cowhand, he finds his mouth and lips touched, burned even, by the fiery hand of God, and he discovers his poetic voice.

Whether the poem is meant to be didactic, with Levertov asserting the ways of finding one’s own poetic voice utilizing the tale of Cademon as an example, or whether it is an autobiographical analog to both her own poetic ascension and her Christian conversion, is debatable. There is little biographical evidence to assert the latter reading, but given the persona’s self-effacing attitude toward himself, there is some credibility to consider the discussion. Regardless of how one interprets the intention of the piece, “Cademon” illustrates Levertov’s transformative reliance upon her reconceptualization of the divine as a source material separating herself from her more Transcendental roots to ones assuredly more Christian.


First published: 1984 (collected in Oblique Prayers, 1984)

Type of work: Poem

Levertov asserts that a person needs a protective shell to avoid the tragedies of life but, at the same time, needs to reach out for the experiences that life offers.

In “Carapace,” Levertov writes about her response to the world’s political tragedies. A carapace is the hard shell of an animal, such as a turtle or crab, that protects the soft inner part from harm. The poem’s persona announces that she herself is growing a shell, even though she regrets the shell-like exteriors of other people that render them insensitive to the world’s problems. In the poem, she contemplates children. She begins as though the poet and a child were talking about a situation. The child has seen her own father shot by police; the poet asks the child if she knows what the word...

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