Denise Levertov Essay - Levertov, Denise (Vol. 1)

Levertov, Denise (Vol. 1)

Levertov, Denise 1923–

English-born American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1-4, rev. ed.)

In my opinion Denise Levertov is incomparably the best poet of what is getting to be known as the new avant-garde. 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….

[But it] means that Denise Levertov knows more than her colleagues, far more than most…. Because it is humane, her knowledge is the result of doing what came naturally. She may have read Donne from her father's library at the age of ten—perhaps, like the Bible, for the dirty words. That is the way to read Donne. Cultured people do not discover him when they go to Harvard and use him to intimidate the yokels back home in St. Louis. This means too that she has an almost perfect ear. Reading her, especially hearing her read aloud, you feel she must have literally absorbed the rhythms of great poetry with her mother's milk. It is all so natural and so utterly removed from English 7649328 A—Forms and Techniques of English Verse (4 credits)….

Nothing could be harder, more irreducible, than [her] poems. Like the eggs and birds of Brancusi, they are bezoars shaped and polished in the vitals of a powerful creative sensibility. No seminar will break their creative wholeness, their presentational immediacy. No snobbery will dissolve their intense personal integrity. However irrefrangible as objects of art, it is that, their personalism, that makes them such perfect poetic utterances. Denise may never have pushed a pram in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, supermarket, but these are woman poems, wife poems, mother poems, differing only in quality of sensibility from thousands of other expressions of universal experience. Experience is not dodged, the sensibility is not defrauded—with any ambiguity, of seven types or seventy. One meets the other head on, without compromise. This, I was taught in school, many years ago in a better day, is what makes great poetry great. And the rhythms. The Schwärmerei and lassitude are gone. Their place has been taken by a kind of animal grace of the word, a pulse like the footfalls of a cat or the wingbeats of a gull. It is the intense aliveness of an alert domestic love—the wedding of form and content in poems which themselves celebrate a kind of perpetual wedding of two persons always realized as two responsible sensibilities. What more do you want of poetry? You can't ask much more. Certainly you seldom get a tenth as much.

Kenneth Rexroth, "Denise Levertov" (© 1961 by Kenneth Rexroth; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), in his Assays, New Directions, 1961, pp. 231-35.

Denise Levertov is a prolific poet whose work is considered some of the best in America and, consequently, in the world. (p. 7)

Poetry to Levertov is not iconoclastic. The poet does not withdraw from life in order to practice his art. In fact, she defines the poem as "that which is shared" with the reader—be it an emotion, a scene, an occurrence, or other less specific impressions. The poem, however, has never only this single effect. Its importance as an art form, and as a part of man's life, lies in the fact that it has the power [to capture the whole mind]. Even when a poem appears to be a literal description of an object, its scope is broadened through implication.

Considered graphically, the poem seems to Levertov to be a three-dimensional figure, a "mystery" so far as analysis is concerned…. In other words, the poet who begins with craft and works toward the poem is likely to fail, for he cannot build the poem. That is an entity in itself, and as such it comes to the poet. The poet may literally be a "maker," but he does not make the poem. He discovers it. (p. 18)

Levertov's belief in the inexplicable also influences her poetic themes, for she maintains that nothing lies outside the province of the poet…. [He] must include whatever he considers relevant, even though materials may seem trivial in an objective sense. The poem should be like a Renaissance portrait, filled with detail and color, re-creating not only the subject but also the poet's reaction to it. (p. 20)

She approaches her milieu positively. Her concept of experience as a revelation of basic order grows from her belief in a systematic universe and in the poem as an orderly re-creation of it. Because the poem as an art form has this inherent design, it cannot merely reflect chaos. (p. 21)

Most readers … recognize the humanity in her writing; they respond to her obvious love of nature, her respect for individual man, her enthusiasm for life—all themes treated in subtle, singing lines. (p. 22)

Most of her poems stem from personal experiences—the poem begins not with the object seen in isolation, but with the object in relation to the poet…. Yet, the use of experience is more than a simple retelling, for the poet's aim should be much greater than narration…. Except for a few poems based on significant lines from another's work, her poetry comes largely from actual happenings, often very personal happenings: quarrels, enjoyment of beauty, memories, admiration, love, disgust, pleasure in the physical senses, grief…. This is not to say that poetry should be a showcase for the poet's feelings, that it should be cathartic or purgative in effect. It should not be emotion recollected in tranquility, but emotion distilled from the personal, crystallized into the immediately meaningful. Art permits that, although the poet may write from an apparent first-person point of view, the poem can remain free from the sentimental overwash of some autobiography. (pp. 37-9)

One concern central to her work is that of living life to the fullest, within the confines of personal ethics and relationships. With a truly Epicurean perspective, Levertov believes that only life experienced completely can enrich man. (p. 40)

Levertov has said that the essence of poetry, like the essence of life, is paradox. And paradox does run through her descriptions of man. On one hand, she urges man to live to the fullest, to taste, to feel, to see everything possible. This imperative implies motion, activity. Yet in other poems she degrades the movement of activity as escape from the real issues of living. A further parallel (which is also paradoxical) is her insistence on both communication and silence. In "The Park" she presents lifeless people who miss experience because they "turn their heads away," "they talk and delay." Usually, silence is the ideal state, the most expressive of conditions…. Again and again, the image of silence dominates Levertov's poems. It is used more frequently than any other single motif and in so many different kinds of poems that it appears to be integral to the poet's philosophy. (pp. 48-9)

The poet's use of the forms of psalm, prayer, and rune; her reliance on incantation and refrain; her interest in death, water, serpents, and various Earth Mother figures—each practice illustrates further her respect for man's basic responses. This is not to say that Levertov makes use of traditional poetic symbols as such; hers is not an allusive, erudite poetry. Her reference pattern is more instinctive and feminine than it is "literary." (pp. 62-3)

Pace, tempo, horizon note—musical terminology runs throughout Levertov's criticism and poetry…. When Levertov titles some poems "psalms" or "songs," the reader is alerted to the song-like qualities of those poems: rhythms, refrains, word patterns, sounds rather than literal meanings of words. With the poet's interest in musical forms has come an increasing use of musical patterns in the structure of her poems. Many are divided into distinguishable movements, differing in pace and tone; others are one-theme, one-note lyrics; some are intricate madrigals. (p. 66)

Although she uses all [the] traditional word devices [assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia], it is the larger pattern of word effects that is her primary interest…. Of all single verbal devices in Levertov's work, assonance proves to be the most effective, perhaps because it is the most viable. In some poems it is used only to set the initial mood; in others it permeates the entire poem. (pp. 79-80)

Several poets have been or are important in Levertov's poetic development. Levertov's respect for William Carlos Williams' work has frequently led critics to think Williams a dominant influence. They cite his insistence on an "American language" as being central to Levertov's later poetry…. I think [however] that the most significant influence Williams had on Levertov lies in the area of theme…. So far as poetic technique is concerned, Wallace Stevens and, more incidentally, Hilda Doolittle, are probably the most important poets to Levertov. The emphasis on sound is primary…. But also, the subtle effects from the wonderfully ambiguous word, the joy in a line whose rhythm parallels its thought, the counterpoint of contrasting moods which again reflect content—these are properties of Stevens' poetry which are rare in contemporary work except, to a lesser degree, in H.D.'s; and increasingly, in Levertov's and Robert Duncan's. (pp. 136-37)

Robert Creeley also has been important to Levertov's work, partly at least for his insistence on unimpaired movement…. Important too are the letters and poetry of Kenneth Rexroth…. It is no secret that she respects their poetry, but her own is unlike any of theirs. Her work is neither eclectic or imitative…. Levertov's poems have such a characteristic tone, pace, and thematic focus that they constitute a whole. Perhaps one might say, then, that these "influences" have stimulated existing propensities instead of forcing alterations. They may be viewed as having given more encouragement than they have knowledge. (pp. (138-39)

Linda W. Wagner, in her Denise Levertov, Twayne, 1967.

[Denise Levertov's] rhythms … are unerring, her voice true and original. She forces her reader to read at her pace, to emphasize the words she wants emphasized, to participate in the poem…. Word by word there is transformation as her poems take shape. Her voice is delicate, feminine, but rugged, not the voice of the ladies Roethke saw as stamping a tiny foot against God.

In her best work she creates a concrete physical world. The structure of her precise imagery becomes the thematic center of her work, and she instinctively knows when it is necessary to stop talking. She does not burden us with comment, does not underestimate her audience's ability to taste and see, or to think.

William Heyen, "Fourteen Poets: A Chronicle," in The Southern Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 539-50.