Denise Levertov 1923–
English-born American poet, short story writer, essayist, editor, and translator.
Levertov is an important postmodern poet. Her career began in England, where her first collection, The Double Image, was published in 1946. Her early verse was influenced by the romanticism prevalent in Britain during World War II and displayed the formal, even stiff, construction and dreamlike extravagance characteristic of that period. In 1948, after marrying the American novelist Mitchell Goodman, she moved to the United States. This move was crucial to her development as a postmodern poet.
Through her husband's friendship with Robert Creeley, Levertov became involved with the Black Mountain poets. Her poetic development was heavily influenced by Charles Olson's aesthetics, by the innovative application of everyday speech patterns encouraged by poets Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth, and by the immediacy and vitality characteristic of William Carlos Williams's work. Here and Now (1957), her first collection following her move to the United States, evidences the dramatic effect these poets had on her writing; Collected Earlier Poems 1940–1960 (1979) charts her artistic development.
Like her contemporaries, Levertov sought to capture the "authentic experience" in verse and to develop the relation of form to content. Thematically, she combines attention to concrete daily objects with a larger personal, political, and religious awareness. While on the one hand she writes poems grounded in social reality—for example, in The Sorrow Dance (1967) she protests the Vietnam War—she also displays a romantic reverence for the natural world in connection with the mythical and spiritual dimensions of the human psyche. Endorsing Gerard Manley Hopkins's "inscape concept," she adds depth and relevance to her poems by applying her own inward response to extrinsic phenomena. Her recent collection, Candles in Babylon (1982), continues Levertov's tradition of writing graceful, powerful, and irreducible poems.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
When one puts pressure on postmodern poetics by asking questions about philosophical adequacy, one immediately confronts a powerful contradiction: considered as metaphysical or religious meditation, the poetry of the sixties seems to me highly sophisticated; it takes into account all the obvious secular objections to traditional religious thought and actually continues and extends the inquiries of philosophers as diverse as Heidegger, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein. This very success, however, makes it disappointing that the poetry fails so miserably in handling social and ethical issues. One cannot avoid asking why this is the case, and when he does he finds that at least one poet, Denise Levertov, has preceded his questions…. Miss Levertov has been one of the major voices of the new poetry in the 1960s, and while not very original, she is often quite a good poet devoted to developing concrete moments in which the numinous emerges out of the quotidian. Yet what interests me most about her work…. is her experience of the inadequacy of the aesthetics of presence when in The Sorrow Dance (1966) and subsequent volumes she tries to adapt her poetic to pressing social concerns caused by the war in Vietnam. Miss Levertov presents a very compelling critique of that aesthetic, but even more telling is her own lack of poetic power and authority when she tries to adapt the principles that had shaped her work to social questions. In effect, her later work testifies to the most basic intellectual weaknesses of the contemporary aesthetic…. (p. 226)
Let me first briefly sketch her earlier objectivist celebrations of presence as plenitude…. From Olson, and more directly from Duncan and Creeley, she takes her objectivist ideals: verse must capture the energies of the attentive consciousness open to the event of arriving each step along the way. But like Creeley, her tone and dramatic context differ radically from Olson's bardic voice and generalizing perspective. Both poets keep the less hero-oriented dimensions of Olson's aesthetic, but use them in specific domestic contests that share O'Hara's emphases on the local, the casual, and the contingent. Finally, in her desire to correlate objectivist ideals with the mystical attitudes that sustain the "pilgrim's way," her pursuit of presence leads to meditations on the deep image and the development of techniques to render a "slip inward," or in her case a slip beyond, to a sense of the infinite depth and mystery at the horizon of what is sharply seen.
Her most characteristic image for reconciling the sense of continual arrival in a satisfying present with the "pilgrim way" is the image of ripeness, as exemplified by the last stanza of "Under the Tree":
let the oranges
ripen, ripen above you
you are living too, one
among the dark multitude …
Presence as plenitude here is very different from Olson's energy of spring or Snyder's "Communionism."… Rather this stanza concentrates a slow process of satisfaction (the repeated "ripen") blending into a sense of transcendent union. The poem dwells lovingly on "one," a word at once requiring a strong pause and, because it is enjambed, a quick transition into the "dark multitude." Ripeness then functions in several ways. As a physical image it renders a sense of the scene as self-contained plenitude. But ripeness is of its very nature a transitional state; it testifies to the fact that individual perfection is not essentially an end in itself but a means for becoming a functioning and satisfying element in the total process. The tree puts forth fruit in order to nourish the seed and create new life. Moreover, from man's perspective the ripe fruit calls out to be eaten, and thus is another way to sustain life. Psychologically a similar ripening process takes place for the speaker. The stanza's initial imperative, "let," summarizes the poem's moral movement. The speaker is willing to accept process as process and to dwell with attention on the fullness of the "Here and Now." Like the fruit, she is at once fully there and gradually preparing for a new relationship to the total life process, a relationship embodied in the shift in attention from the trees to herself and then to the climactic sense of oneness. (In many of Miss Levertov's poems this movement from ripeness to union takes explicit sexual form.) Finally the sense of oneness leads in the last line to the "slip beyond" into a metaphysical vision of shared process at a deeper level of awareness. "Dark multitude" is unfortunately vague and abstract, but in a sense these qualities are necessary to get the intended feeling of the whole physical scene being carried into a level of experience where the mind itself sees its place in an all-embracing process.
How different from this satisfying enclosed space and relaxed accepting attitude is the opening poem of Relearning the Alphabet…. [In this poem every] step is no longer an arrival as she replaces confident assertion with a series of questions that set the dominant tone of the volume. This poet of place and attention now can neither stand peacefully nor follow a purposive path. Moreover, accustomed to merging her ego into a field of actions, she now feels that field breaking up into a public self merely playing roles and a genuine "I" that grows so deeply private one must fear for its continued presence…. Even touching and tasting, two of her most recurrent acts of celebration, now only alienate the sensitive spirit from the things of this world…. (pp. 226-29)
No orange will compensate for the fact that the present moment is now inextricable from the continual awareness of the senseless suffering and death created by the war in Vietnam. The psychological counterpart to this hunger is the doubt about her previous poetic stance that permeates Relearning the Alphabet…. (p. 229)
What she knows can no longer suffice because she is now confronted with two problems her aesthetics of presence cannot handle. With the war so dominant a fact of experience, especially for the poet whose sensitivity now becomes a kind of curse, she perceives in the present at least as many inescapable reminders of suffering and pain as causes for awe and religious acceptance. Second, the war brings home the poet's helplessness. What mystery she does perceive in the present is too personal and too particular to help her either judge or transform the suffering. The "dark multitude" has shown itself as a mass of isolated individuals who share only confusion. In "The Cold Spring" she seeks to renew her sense of the numinous sources or origins that can sustain the way of poetic affirmation, but she finds instead that at the source of the spring feeding poetic inspiration, the life-giving waters are reddened and muddied by human violence. The eye now is only a physical instrument recording ambiguities and can give no direction, no structure, to the I….
"Advent 1966" is Levertov's most powerful statement of the changed landscape where the sensitive eye, which once served to unite the "I" with the numinous scene, now sees only a demonic version of incarnation. And this reversal of traditional possibilities for satisfying mythic transformations is paralleled by the fact that now the intense literal reality of the flames from napalm no longer allows the shift to mythic dimensions of fire so easily and movingly rendered in "Eros at Temple Stream."… (p. 230)
Relearning the Alphabet has a place in the modern tradition of volumes of poetry revaluing a whole poetic career and tentatively exploring new directions. Like Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens before her, she knows what she has to do, but she has considerably less at her disposal to help her realize the new goals. Her task is twofold—to awaken the sensitivity of those supporting the war so they might see its evils … and to formulate an ethic and an aesthetic that might help restructure the consciousness of society. The poetry of numinous presence must grow more discursive in order to propound values at once more explicitly ethical than those of immanence and more general than those bound to the now muddied objective contexts of specific moments of perception. (p. 231)
Where, however, is she to find within her sense of poetry and the poet's role, style and themes adequate to the task she sees as necessary? Where will she find an ethical basis for creating models of humane behavior? To what value structures can the poet turn when for most of her life she has rejected humanism and the early moderns' use of tradition and creative imagination as the basis of her ideals? While she recognizes that the aesthetics of presence no longer suffices, she has only its implicit ethical ideals to work with. That aesthetic is built on visions of immanence whose only ethical corollary is the command to let be and to recognize the fullness of what lies before one. Such an ideal might provide the goal for a transformed society, but it will not give much help in determining or propounding the means for creating such a society. Moreover, that aesthetic is intensely antisymbolist … and can provide little guidance when the poet feels that she must deal with symbolic generalizations and must transform moments of vision into the basis of discursively presented structures of value. With so much cut away in order to reach the numinous present, what has the contemporary poet left with which to build an ethical vision based on his insights?
I am now entering aspects of the crisis presented in Relearning the Alphabet that are no longer under Miss Levertov's...
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Collected Earlier Poems—a selection from Denise Levertov's earliest English book, The Double Image (1946), and her three following collections, Here and Now (1957), Overland to the Islands (1958), and With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1960)—has appropriately just come out … as a complement to Life in the Forest (1978), allowing us to trace Miss Levertov's poetic development from its nervous English beginnings to the sensitive American balance of discourse and reflection. Composed for the most part in London in the Forties, the early and uncollected poems, tightly structured, already evince a desire for solitude and a celebration of the gifts of nature that are typical...
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Denise Levertov was fitted by birth and political destiny to voice the terrors and pleasures of the twentieth century. Granddaughter on her father's side of a Russian Hasidic Jew and on her mother's of a Welsh mystic, she has published poetry since the 1940s that speaks of the great contemporary themes: Eros, solitude, community, war…. How consistently she has constructed her poems of hard, solid and mysterious qualities can be seen in [Collected Earlier Poems 1940–1960]. (pp. 109-10)
Perhaps because she was educated by private tutors in her English childhood, Levertov seems never to have had to shake loose from an academic style of extreme ellipsis and literary allusion, the...
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Poetry and prose are different talents, originating from opposite spheres of the brain. Not many poets have the ambidexterity to do both well, but Denise Levertov ranks high among that elect. Her essays and memoirs [in "Light Up the Cave"] are not only marked by the intense personal integrity of her poems; they stand alone as works of art…. Her memoirs of Sexton, Rukeyser, Duncan and Herbert Read are free of nostalgia and are concrete and frank in the details of Levertov's close relationships with these poets. Also included are pieces on Levertov's experiences in wartime England, first as a ballet student, subsequently as a nurse. Both are moving on account of their perspicacity, distrust of authoritarianism in all...
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[In Light Up the Cave, Denise Levertov, a] noted poet with a fertile mind and unabashed emotions, treats her readers to a volume of prose about what it means to be, and to live as, a craftsman of language. The writing is rich, polished and complex—with insights to ponder, feelings to share, assumptions to correct and meaning to distill. A critic might object to certain statements or conclusions—that Solzhenitsyn, for example, has a "martyr complex" or that Sylvia Plath and other suicides could have done better than to confuse and complicate the independent entities of creativity and death—but the strong impression remains that here speaks a poet intensely loyal to her craft, abiding by an artist's inner...
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Denise Levertov is a poet whose public outspokenness has not harmed her reputation as a highly private poet. Candles in Babylon … displays the same technical expertise that marked her previous dozen books; there is little in the open form that she cannot manage: nostalgia, protest, satire or story. "The Great Wave" catches the excitement of swimming at the shore as a child, while "The Art of the Octopus" is a perfect description and allegory Levertov admits that one piece, written for an antidraft rally, really is a speech rather than a poem. Unfortunately, too many others move in the same direction, where good causes bury good poetry. Even her "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus" strikes me as pulpit...
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The hallmark of Denise Levertov's prose [as in Light Up the Cave] is something so simple and elusive as clear eyed common sense. In the nature of things, so esoteric a virtue has not been grandly rewarded. Common sense? mainline writers along with their multicorporate pushers, have stampeded toward the rainbow named Avarice; others have shown a sorrowful, even despairing obsession with the Confession That Bares All.
Levertov is aware of the implications here, destructive as they are of political understanding and writers' craft. And of life itself, as in writers who have constructed a game called despair; and played it, bullet to head.
She takes up such matters, despair,...
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