In “Revolutionary Love: Denise Levertov and the Poetics of Politics,” Sandra M. Gilbert describes Levertov as “a poet who trusts that a thread of potential joy is woven into every inch of the fabric that constitutes daily reality” (Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry, edited by James McCorkle, 1990). She is, and has always been, a poet of affirmation who wonders at the human ability to risk that joy, to undermine its potential, through corrupting political action and environmental inaction. In an earlier age, she might have been one of the “Fireside Poets,” so confidently does she combine aesthetic and ethical dimensions in her work. In her own time, she is one of a handful of major poets whose careers have been marked by moral vision and political courage. In this regard, her writings belong in the company of William Everson, Robert Bly, and Robert Lowell, whose great-grandfather James Russell Lowell was one of those very “Fireside Poets” from whose pen a satiric brand of political poetry flowed. In terms of a mystical element in her poems, Levertov herself has noted affinities with the work of Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley.
Born in England and educated at home by her Welsh mother and a Russian-Jewish father (who later became an Anglican clergyman and biblical scholar), Levertov married an American and came to the United States in 1948. Her first collection, The Double Image, was published in 1946, and her first collection after coming to the United States was Here and Now (1957). By the 1960’s, Levertov was a well-known poet whose craft had reached maturity. With O Taste and See (1964), this prolific poet’s seventh volume, she had approached major stature, her work marked by a celebration of the everyday. Soon after, American involvement in Vietnam galvanized Levertov’s “revolutionary love,” giving it a focused, explosive, and unavoidable subject. Her remarkable balancing of personal and political utterance defines one important aspect of her persona but has led critics and anthologists to undervalue those poems that do not overtly plumb political consciousness and conscience. Her work through the 1970’s and 1980’s remained highly personal, though far more directly revelatory than the poems in her more modest and figurative first volumes.
All of Levertov’s characteristic themes continue in Sands of the Well, her twenty-second collection, though the topical political poem is less frequent. Her ability to find and express the epiphanic moment of perception or spiritual uplift is as strong as ever. Her engagement not merely as an observer but as a denizen of the natural world is here even more richly evoked and convincingly textured. The special notes of Levertov’s later years, notes that include the embrace of the Pacific Northwest and of a more conventional religiosity, are played with stunning expertise. Here and there, in this generous volume, are pieces that might well have been set aside as notebook work, but on the whole the level of intensity is high, and the variety of experiences that Levertov addresses is abundant.
Sands of the Well is divided into eight numbered and titled sections. The first two of these are comprised of what might be called nature poems, though the direction is from poems of description to poems of identification. These poems are buoyed by awe and a latent mysticism, reminding readers of the abiding influence on Levertov of such giants as William Blake and later poets in the English Romantic tradition. A poem such as “Concordance,” found in the opening “Crow Spring” section, clearly owes a debt to William Wordsworth, perhaps as filtered by Robert Frost:
Brown bird, irresolute as a dry
leaf, swerved in flight
just as my thought
changed course, as if I heard
a new motif enter a music I’d not
till then attended to.
It is one of many poems that insist on a correspondency of nature within and without the human agent. The title of Levertov’s second section, “Sojourns in the Parallel World,” underscores this thematic concern. In a poem by the same name, Levertov philosophizes about the parallel and overlapping world humans call Nature, “only reluctantly/ admitting ourselves to be Nature’ too.” She reminds us of the moments when, moving beyond our obsessions, we seem to step out of ourselves as “something tethered/ in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch/ of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.” When we return again, like the winged emblem of the imagination in John Keats’s “Ode to a...