Levertov, Denise (Vol. 28)
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...
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N. E. Condini
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 of the more mature Levertov. War is seen in them not as hatred or violence, but as mere lack of love, aridity of the spirit. What disturbs the writer is the boredom, the deprivation of wonder. In her Wordsworthian intimations she endeavors to survive, opposing inertia as if it were the real culprit, the root of many social evils. Mild intimations to be sure, but Miss Levertov's poetics does indeed start here…. (p. 360)
In The Double Image, a recurrent sense of loss prompts her to extemporize on death as not a threat but a rite to be accepted gladly and honored. This germ of a personal mythology burgeons in Here and Now with a fable-like aura added to it. Animated by the wildest zest for life, Miss Levertov...
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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 self-conscious obscurity that the Provençal poets called "closed" (trobar clus). Other poets—Adrienne Rich, for example—move away from an early brilliant but rigid and pedantic voice to direct and personal speech. A reading of Levertov's early work shows her to be remarkably consistent in theme and form throughout her career. A recent verse mass … takes up the threads of her first passion for physical beauty and emotional sincerity in human life. The tone is deeper and more tragic, naturally, as both private and public life move through these dreadful decades; yet even her first published poem, the haunting eight-line "Listening to Distant Guns," sounds the message of her perceptions, senseless terror and sacred natural existence. As an...
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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 its forms and compassion for other human beings.
A review of "Light Up the Cave," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the September 11, 1981 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1981 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 220, No. 11, September 11, 1981, p. 70.
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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 rules and deserving attention and respect.
Intelligent and nourishing, her writing leaves a lingering glow long after the last page is turned….
This volume is a potpourri: assorted musings, subtle insights, tender memories of youth and strength, political passions, gentle but respectful accolades to other writers. The prose is utterly free of restraints, save those demanded by a fierce, independent spirit insisting at all times on honesty.
Part I offers three short stories with cliff-hanger endings. Part II squeezes the last drop of meaning out of the subtleties of good poetic structure—and, no, it is not boring reading. The next two parts depict a goodly dose of liberal sentiment,...
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James Finn Cotter
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 oratory sprinkled with omnipresent "we's"—a word that the poet should use more sparingly. Poetry should entice and not force us to acceptance. (p. 75)
James Finn Cotter, "Poets Then and Now: A Review of Recent Literature" (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc. and the author; © 1983; all rights reserved), in America, Vol. 148, No. 4, January 29, 1983, pp. 75-6.∗
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Daniel Berrigan, S.J.
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, anomie, political indifference, matters which most writers today prefer to keep decently out of sight and mind. She analyzes despair and its practitioners, and those who justify it as a resource. And by a parallel right instinct, she avoids the rapacious rush to trivialize life, to bring it in line with a desperate and trivial culture.
She is that rara avis, a poet, a political writer, very much a woman. These are the poles of her art as of her existence. She stays close to essentials, and the resolve, in the best sense, has paid off. Her writing remains wonderfully contemporary, it walks with us, illumines the journey of conscience that began in civil rights days and continues on into the eighties and the antinuclear...
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