Denise Levertov 1923–
English-born American poet, essayist, translator, and editor. See also Denise Levertov Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 8, 15, 28.
One of the most significant American poets since World War II, Levertov utilizes many of the characteristics of objectivist and projectivist verse to contemplate the metaphysical aspects of familiar surroundings and to comment on a variety of political and social issues. Levertov's work reflects her awareness of the poetry of Americans William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound as well as the work of "Black Mountain" poets Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan. Drawing on these influences, Levertov's poetry often presents minute observations of everyday life and imbues commonplace objects with personal and religious significance. Reacting to the turbulent events of the 1960s,. Levertov began to use her poetry to explain and support her actions as a political activist, with her most strident poetry being directed against the actions of the U.S. military in the Vietnam War. Levertov's craftsmanship, command of style, and visual imagery have earned her enthusiastic praise from critics and fellow poets. As Kenneth Rexroth once commented, Levertov's poems "are so carefully wrought that the workmanship goes by unnoticed. They seem like speech, heightened and purified…. they are certainly never obscure, never seem to be doing anything but communicating with presentational immediacy."
Born in Ilford, Essex, England, Levertov comes from a unique heritage that has influenced her work significantly. Her paternal ancestors include an eighteenth-century rabbi who was a founder of a Hasidic religious movement that celebrates the mystery of everyday events. Levertov's father, who converted from Judaism to Christianity, became an Anglican minister devoted to bringing Christians and Jews closer together. Her mother was a writer and artist who also had a forbear who was active in religious mysticism. Levertov's parents educated their two daughters at home, relying on the family library and BBC broadcasts as resources, though Levertov later studied classical ballet at a dance school. She began composing poetry at age five and, while still an adolescent, corresponded with English poets T. S. Eliot and Herbert Read. During World War II, Levertov worked as a nurse in England and afterward held several jobs while living in various European cities, including Paris. While travelling in Switzerland in 1947, she met and married American novelist Mitchell Goodman. The following year they emigrated to the United States, where their son was born, though various travels in the 1950s took the family to Europe and to Mexico for extended periods. Working with
Goodman and many other American writers in the 1960s and 1970s, Levertov became actively involved in opposing the role of the United States in the Vietnam War. The poet has continued her commitment to social causes, including various peace and justice issues and the fight against nuclear power. An experienced teacher of poetry, Levertov has taught at a long list of American universities and has been a member of the faculty at Stanford University since 1982.
Levertov's first volume of poems, The Double Image, was written in England during World War II and evidences her reading of English Romantic poetry and her early inclination to use traditional metrical and stanzaic forms. Her approach changed considerably following her move to the United States; she eschewed traditional poetic devices in favor of free verse constructions and stressed the description of concrete objects to communicate her impressions—a practice summed up in William Carlos Williams's influential proclamation, "no ideas but in things." Like the work of her principal mentor Williams, Levertov's American poetry features precise imagery and subjects drawn from everyday life, often recognizing and celebrating the spiritual qualities of domestic situations. Levertov's early collections—Here and Now, Overland to the Islands, With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, The Jacob's Ladder, and O Taste and See: New Poems—firmly established her as an important contemporary poet and contain many frequently anthologized pieces. With the publication of The Sorrow Dance in 1967, Levertov's work turned in a new direction. The book contains poems that contemplate the death of her sister Olga and are generally more somber than her celebratory early verse. The Sorrow Dance also features poetry written in opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War; poems concerning the war are also a central part of the collections Relearning the Alphabet and To Stay Alive. In many of these pieces, Levertov adopts a more immediate style to convey the urgency of her message. "From a Notebook" for example, first published in Relearning the Alphabet, combines letters, prose passages, and quotations to depict her experiences within the antiwar movement. Her other major volumes from the 1970s, including The Freeing of the Dust and Life in the Forest, also contain many poems of a political nature and are noted for their explorations of such personal topics as Levertov's divorce and her relationship with her son. The poet's mixture of topics both personal and political continues in Candles in Babylon, Oblique Prayers, and Breathing the Water. These collections also consider spiritual themes and explore her reinvigorated Christian beliefs.
Early in her career, Levertov's work found the support of many influential critics. Kenneth Rexroth, who first presented her poems to American readers in his 1949 anthology New British Poets, was an early advocate of Levertov's writing, and a number of other prominent reviewers were quick to recognize the craft and insight of her verse. Levertov's attempt to expand the realm of her poetry to encompass social and political themes has received mixed notices. Some critics praise the human content and solemn tone of this work, suggesting that Levertov's early poetry suffered from an overenthusiastic celebration of objects and was largely devoid of people. Others, however, fault her poetry from the late 1960s and early 1970s as too harsh and haphazard, arguing that the poet's artistic sensibilities were overwhelmed by her moral outrage. With more recent collections, scholars have noted Levertov's less strident manner of expressing her political messages, and her long list of poetic accomplishments have led critics to praise what Diane Wakoski calls "a lifetime career of writing beautiful, lyric poems, interspersed with militant political ones." Through all, Levertov has garnered respect for her ability to craft poems that spring organically from everyday objects and actual events. "The quotidian reality we ignore or try to escape," writes Ralph J. Mills, Jr., "Denise Levertov revels in, carves and hammers into lyric poems of precise beauty. As celebrations and rituals lifted from the midst of contemporary life in its actual concreteness, her poems are unsurpassed."
The Double Image 1946
Here and Now 1957
Five Poems 1958
Overland to the Islands 1958
With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads 1959
The Jacob's Ladder 1961
City Psalm 1964
O Taste and See: New Poems 1964
Psalm Concerning the Castle 1966
The Sorrow Dance 1967
A Marigold from North Vietnam 1968
A Tree Telling of Orpheus 1968
Three Poems 1968
The Cold Spring and Other Poems 1969
A New Year's Garland for My Students, MIT 1969-1970 1970
Relearning the Alphabet 1970
Summer Poems 1969 1970
To Stay Alive 1971
The Freeing of the Dust 1975
Chekhov on the West Heath 1977
Modulations for Solo Voice 1977
Life in the Forest 1978
Collected Earlier Poems, 1940-1960 1979
Pig Dreams: Scenes from the Life of Sylvia 1981
Wanderer's Daysong 1981
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SOURCE: "Denise Levertov," in Assays, New Directions, 1961, pp. 231-35.
[Rexroth was an influential American poet, critic, editor, and translator, who was active in the San Francisco-based literary revival of the 1940s and 1950s. With the following review, originally published in Poetry in November, 1957, Rexroth became an early proponent of the work Levertov produced after coming to the United States, finding it superior to the poetry of most of her contemporaries.]
In my opinion Denise Levertov is incomparably the best poet of what is getting to be known as the new avantgarde. This may sound to some, committed to the gospel of the professor poets—the first commandment of whose decalogue of reaction is: "The age of experiment is over"—like saying that she is very much better than her associates, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Cid Corman, Chris Berjknes, Gil Orlovitz and others who published in Origin and the Black Mountain Review. I don't believe these are bad poets—in fact, I think they are the best of their generation and the only hope for American poetry. It is just that Denise Levertov has several things they haven't got, at least yet.
In the first place, she is more civilized. One thing she has which they lack conspicuously is what Ezra Pound calls culture (which he himself is utterly without). She is securely humane in a way very few...
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SOURCE: A review of O Taste and See, in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 111, No. 10, December 31, 1964, pp. 18-19.
[In this excerpt, Mazzocco offers a mixed review of O Taste and See, complaining about the obscurity of many poems in the volume while lauding others for their skilled construction and dramatic appeal.]
At one moment Denise Levertov can be direct and honest and at the next seem struggling as if blind-folded. Looking for meaning in her poems is like looking for a fourleaf clover. She is both sure-handed and sloppy, angular, and sensuous. In general her style is the broken-up mode of Williams—short, straggly lines, with occasionally longer spilling-over ones—but lacking his hard-edged control, the vigor of his observation. Miss Levertov is both more delicate and murkier, aspects at times sadly evident in O Taste and See, where more than once I've had the impression of reading notations, messages, or cryptograms to the Inner Self. Her best poems, none of which are in this volume, appear to be existing purely by chance, quirky miracles as it were (e.g., "Goddess," "Pleasures," "Third Dimension," "Hands").
Her sensibility is towards the lyrical, with an undercurrent of the gnomic (there are also relations re Zen, Jewish mysticism, and indeterminacy, all too spidery to go into here). She writes about nature or the everyday occurrence, the hot and cold...
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SOURCE: "Some Notes on Organic Form," in New Directions in Prose and Poetry, Vol. 20, edited by J. Laughlin, New Directions, 1968, pp. 123-28.
[In the following essay, originally published in Poetry (Chicago), Levertov discusses the creation of "organic" poetry.]
For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and reveal. There are no doubt temperamental differences between poets who use prescribed forms and those who look for new ones—people who need a tight schedule to get anything done, and people who have to have a free hand—but the difference in their conception of "content," or "reality," is functionally more important. On the one hand is the idea that content, reality, experience, is essentially fluid and must be given form; on the other, this sense of seeking out inherent, though not immediately apparent, form. Gerard Manley Hopkins invented the word inscape to denote intrinsic form, the pattern of essential characteristics both in single objects and (what is more interesting) in objects in a state of relation to each other; and the word instress to denote the experiencing of the perception of inscape, the apperception of inscape. In thinking of the process of poetry as I know it, I extend the use of these words, which he seems to have used mainly in reference to sensory...
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SOURCE: "Denise Levertov: The Poetry of the Immediate," in Poets in Progress, edited by Edward Hungerford, Northwestern University Press, 1967, pp. 205-26.
[Mills is an American educator and critic whose books include Theodore Roethke (1963) and Richard Eberhart (1966). In this essay, originally published in Mills's Contemporary American Poetry in 1965, he analyzes Levertov's poetry as it relates to that of William Carlos Williams and discusses her use of "personal observation and knowledge."]
American poetry at the present time sustains two extremes, with a wide range of practice in between in which the best—as well as the most truly advanced—writing is usually done. One extreme is represented by the academic poets. The term does not necessarily apply to all poets who happen to teach in universities for their living, but denotes those writers whose materials are often selected from the history of literature and culture, and whose methods are dictated by critical theories of what poetry ought to be. At the opposite extreme, the Hip writers mistake the exhibition of hysteria and the release of invective, unhindered by the requirements of craft, for poetry. Whitman and Rimbaud, the "true gods" the Hip writers claim for their masters, had both the genius and the strength to navigate the rapids of emotion and vision in which these self-styled successors capsize and drown....
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SOURCE: "Sound of Direction," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter, 1967, pp. 218-25.
[Linda Welshimer Wagner (later Linda Wagner-Martin) is an American critic, poet, and educator whose books include The Poems of William Carlos Williams (1964) and Hemingway and Faulkner: Inventors/Masters (1975). A prominent authority on Levertov, Wagner is the author of Denise Levertov (1967), one of the early book-length studies of the poet, and is the editor of Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province (1979) and Critical Essays on Denise Levertov (1990). The following review of O Taste and See comments on Levertov's effective use of sound devices in her poetry, and also considers the poet's use of sound and hearing as a subject in her work.]
I suppose it is fair to assume that nearly every writer has "direction," goal, in his writing processes—and that the adherence to a goal forces the writer to study, to polish, his means. Although technique can never supplant the supraconscious element of writing, art is usually strengthened when technical practices are isolated, recognized, and named. The apprehension of technique provides insight to a poet's eventual attainment as well, for method is the means by which any poet moves.
To no age in poetry has this assumption been more applicable than the present. Contemporary poets are besieged by...
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SOURCE: "The Poet in the World," in The Poet in the World, New Directions Books, 1973, pp. 107-16.
[In the following essay, originally delivered at a symposium in 1967, Levertov asserts that poets must be actively and politically engaged in the events of their time.]
The poet is in labor. She has been told that it will not hurt but it has hurt so much that pain and struggle seem, just now, the only reality. But at the very moment when she feels she will die, or that she is already in hell, she hears the doctor saying, "Those are the shoulders you are feeling now"—and she knows the head is out then, and the child is pushing and sliding out of her, insistent, a poem.
The poet is a father. Into the air, into the fictional landscape of the delivery room, wholly man-made, cluttered with shining hard surfaces, steel and glass—ruthlessly illuminated, dominated by brilliant whitenesses—into this alien human scene emerges, slime-covered, skinny-legged, with a head of fine black hair, the remote consequence of a dream of his, acted out nine months before, the rhythm that became words, the words that were spoken, written down.
The poet is being born. Blind, he nevertheless is aware of a new world around him, the walls of the womb are gone, something harsh enters his nose and mouth and lungs, and he uses it to call out to the world with what he finds is his voice, in a cry...
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SOURCE: "Magistral Strokes and First Steps," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 212, No. 25, June 21, 1971, pp. 794-95.
[Zweig was an American poet, translator, and critic whose books include the poetry collections Against Emptiness (1971) and The Dark Side of the Earth (1974). Here he offers an unfavorable assessment of Relearning the Alphabet, criticizing the "literariness" of the collection and faulting several poems that seem "incomplete."]
I have always admired Denise Levertov's poetry. Her sparse, sinuous language reminds me of an artist who is able to suggest a face, the entire mystery of a gesture, with a single, uninterrupted pencil stroke. The word "mystery" is apt, too, because that is what Miss Levertov's poetry seems so often to be concerned with: inner landscapes, nourished by strong emotion, by moments of recognition and self-recognition, which have the plastic energy of a revelation, as in this short poem, "Abel's Bride," from Sorrow Dance:
Woman fears for man, he goes
out alone to his labors. No mirror
nests in his pocket. His face
opens and shuts with his hopes.
His sex hangs unhidden
or rises before him
blind and questing.
She thinks herself
lucky. But sad. When she goes out
she looks in the glass, she remembers
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SOURCE: "Levertov," in Critical Essays on Denise Levertov, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin, G. K. Hall & Co., 1990, pp. 30-5.
[Carruth is an American poet, critic, and editor, whose books include the poetry collections Contra Mortem (1967) and The Bloomingdale Papers (1975), and the collected criticism volume Working Papers (1982). In the following review of The Poet in the World, originally published in the Hudson Review in 1974, Carruth analyzes Levertov's poetry as it relates to the poetic theories she espouses in her essays. He praises Levertov's "personal and practical" vision of her work and endorses, in particular, her accomplishments in the poem "Staying Alive."]
What struck me first on reading The Poet in the World, which is a collection of Denise Levertov's prose writings about art, politics, and life in general—what struck me first, and what still strikes me in my reconsideration of the book as I prepare to write this review, though now in a stronger, richer way, is the force of the author's good sense and practical wisdom. To many readers this may seem surprising. Levertov's base, both philosophical and temperamental, is in Neoplatonism, as I think is well known; certainly it has been more than evident in her poetry for twenty years. But unlike many writers who share this broad neoplatonic provenance, she never, or hardly ever, steps outside her...
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SOURCE: An interview in The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from "The New York Quarterly," edited by William Packard, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974, pp. 79-100.
[In this interview, originally published in New York Quarterly, Levertov explains her method of writing and also discusses various influences on her poetry, including teaching, religion, and politics.]
[Rowe]: What stories or poems from your childhood reading do you remember particularly? Which ones do you think may have had an influence on your development as a poet?
[Levertov]: Well, it's always difficult to know what did and what didn't affect your work later. My mother read aloud to me a great deal when I was a child, even after I was reading to myself. She read Beatrix Potter, whom I consider a great stylist, the Andrew Lang fairy books, Hans Andersen. She read aloud very well, and she read not only to me, but to the assembled family, consisting of my sister, my father, and myself—all of Dickens, all of Jane Austen, and most of George Eliot, most of the nineteenth-century classics. It was a somewhat nineteenth-century household, I think, in that in the evenings we would sit around listening to reading out loud.
Your name is often linked with the names of the Black Mountain poets, with William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and H.D. Who are some of the other poets, early or contemporary,...
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SOURCE: "Inside and Outside in the Poetry of Denise Levertov," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 57-70.
[In the following essay, Surman traces the poets and principles that have influenced Levertov's work, focusing primarily on William Carlos Williams and the manner in which his ideas on perception and writing are reflected in Levertov's poetry.]
'We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things.' This sentence from Jacques Maritain was chosen by the Objectivist poet George Oppen as an epigraph to his book The Materials. Its presence there accents a paradox central to some of the most interesting American writing today. 'Objectivism' is a term very loosely used at present, and I can think of no better way of giving it definition, than by recalling Louis Zukofsky's gloss on the word 'Objective' in the special number of Poetry Chicago he edited in 1930. First he takes a definition from Optics; 'An Objective—the lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus.' Then he offers its 'Use extended to poetry': 'Desire for that which is objectively perfect.' The Objectivist movement initiated by Zukofsky in the thirties was a programmatic formulation of the poetic theory of Ezra Pound and the poetic practice of William Carlos Williams over the previous twenty years. In particular, it derived from Pound's effort, through the Imagist movement,...
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SOURCE: "Songs of Experience: Denise Levertov's Political Poetry," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 213-32.
[In this essay, Smith addresses Levertov's development as a political poet, tracing her evolution as a writer from one who creates largely mystical verse to an "engaged" author often concerned with war and revolution.]
Denise Levertov's large body of political poetry records the vicissitudes of a deeply ethical imagination grappling with the difficult public issues of the last twenty years. At forty-four, Levertov had published six volumes before her first Vietnam protest poems appeared in The Sorrow Dance (1967). The seven volumes since The Sorrow Dance all contain poems in response to contemporary political issues; in prose and at readings she is an outspoken activist. Though she continues to write many nonpolitical poems and to gather politically topical poems in separate sections within volumes, Levertov's work since the late sixties is infused with the reciprocal beliefs that "only revolution can now save that earthly life, that miracle of being, which poetry conserves and celebrates" [as she states in The Poet in the World] and that by its very nature, poetry itself is "intrinsically revolutionary."
The effort to fuse poetry and revolution is more vexed, however, than Levertov suggests in her numerous ars poetica. Her...
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SOURCE: "Deciphering the Spirit—People, Places, Prayers," in Understanding Denise Levertov, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 147-201.
[In the following excerpt from Marten's book-length study of Levertov, he analyzes the poet's message of Christian spirituality in three collections: Candles in Babylon, Oblique Prayers, and Breathing the Water.]
The combination of harmony and flow … defines Levertov's books of the 1980s: Candles in Babylon, Oblique Prayers, and Breathing the Water. As if in momentary completion of the directions of her life's work, Levertov develops her vision of the mysteries of human experience into a statement of religious conviction and faith. As she explained in an article in 1984, "A Poet's View," in Religion and Intellectual Life [No. 1, Summer, 1984]:
all, in the creative act, experience mystery. The concept of "inspiration" presupposes a power which enters the 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. David Jones wrote in one of his essays of the artist's impulse to gratuitously set up altars to the unknown god; and I alluded to the passage from what was then an agnostic standpoint. Later, that unknown began to be defined for me as God….
…. In the matter of religion … I have moved in...
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SOURCE: "Song of Herself," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 5, February, 1988, pp. 7-8.
[Wakoski is an American poet and educator whose verse collections include The George Washington Poems (1967), Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands (1975), and The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13 (1984). In the following review of Breathing the Water, Wakoski finds that much of Levertov's work reflects a "linking of body and soul through God" while it also recognizes the attraction and danger of the natural world.]
Others will speak of her spirit's tendrils reaching
almost palpably into the world;
but I will remember her body's
seen in the fragrant redwood sauna …
American poetry, like American culture, has manifested from the beginning an unlikely combination of the material and the spiritual. We are pragmatists, grounded in our physical world, but for some reason we do not accept this as a limitation. We continue to see the spiritual rising out of the material, and our great poets like Whitman talk as if God were in all of us intermingled with the natural world:
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to...
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SOURCE: "Levertov: Poetry and the Spiritual," in Critical Essays on Denise Levertov, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 196-204.
[In the following essay, Wagner-Martin addresses the message of religious affirmation in Levertov's later poetry, focusing on the collection Life in the Forest.]
At what point does the overtly political become a more enclosing, less compartmentalized angst? Levertov's essays on Kim Chi Ha, Solzhenitsyn, Neruda, and others, as well as her important 1960s and 1970s poem collections that were often described as "political," have prompted a great many of her readers to characterize her work in that way. Yet running concurrent with that perhaps more easily labeled theme has always been a pervasive spiritualism. [In Religion and Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring 1986)], Joyce Beck points to the '"natural supernaturalism' of her romantic poetics," her rearing as the child of a Church of England clergyman, and her ancestral roots in Judaism. Harry Marten finds Levertov's poems of the last ten years to be conclusive proof that the poet has become "increasingly convinced that the exercise of the imagination moves one toward faith" [Understanding Denise Levertov, 1988]. From her earliest writing to the most recent, Levertov has revealed her fused Christian and Hasidic beliefs in the joys of the immediate world, supporting the holistic "I" that is...
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SOURCE: "The Bright Shadow: Images of the Double in Women's Poetry," in Sexuality, the Female Gaze, and the Arts: Women, the Arts, and Society, edited by Ronald Dotterer and Susan Bowers, Susquehanna University Press, 1992, pp. 166-84.
[Levine-Keating is a poet and educator who is coauthor, with Walter Levy, of Lies through Literature (1991). In this excerpt, she analyzes Levertov's depiction of "the double" in two poems, asserting that this second self is a positive representation of female creativity and nonconformity.]
Until recently, little attention was paid to the presence of the double or shadow in literature by women. In the last decade, however, feminist critics have begun to recognize and explore women's poetry and fiction in which the double appears. For example, [in Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction, 1981], Annis Pratt found that the feminine shadow represents all that is socially conformist to women. In contrast, in my own work on women poets such as Denise Levertov, Julia de Burgos, and Tess Gallagher, I have found the feminine shadow is, to use a Jungian term, a "bright" shadow—a positive, creative, wild, medial second self—embodying on one hand the source of poetry itself and on the other hand all that has been buried by female poets because it has been unacceptable to be a female poet in a patriarchal society. The female double or shadow differs from typical images...
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Sakelliou-Schultz, Liana. Denise Levertov: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1988, 321 p.
Comprehensive analytic bibliography that covers some foreign language sources and includes an index and chronology of Levertov's life.
Gould, Jean. "Denise Levertov." In her Modern American Women Poets, pp. 29-50. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984.
Details the major events in Levertov's life through the mid 1980s.
Breslin, James E. B. "Denise Levertov." In his From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945-1965, pp. 143-74. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Discusses Levertov's work through O Taste and See, focusing on the manner in which her work was influenced by the "Black Mountain" poets and other literary predecessors.
Driscoll, Kerry. "A Sense of Unremitting Emergency: Politics in the Early Work of Denise Levertov." Centennial Review XXX, No. 2 (Spring 1986): 292-303.
Maintains that Levertov's political sensibility is evident in her early collections, well before the publication of her Vietnam War...
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