Denise Levertov was born October 24, 1923, in Ilford, Essex, England, the daughter of Paul Philip Levertoff, a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and became a minister, and Beatrice Spooner-Jones, a Welsh preacher’s daughter. Until she was thirteen years old, Denise and her sister were educated by their parents at home. The environment was rich in books and cultural discussion; her mother read the great works of nineteenth century literature aloud to the family, and her father was literate in four languages. She did receive some formal education in the form of ballet study from age twelve through seventeen and, in addition, took French lessons, learned piano, and painted, all of which would later aid the development of her rhythm and style. Her parents had been prisoners of war at Leipzig during World War I, so many refugees came to their home. The resultant religious, social, and ethical discussions that took place there profoundly influenced her life and works.
This background provided a natural environment for learning to write, and at age five, Levertov decided to become a poet. When she was twelve, she sent some of her work to T. S. Eliot, himself a venerable poet of great esteem and, at the time, someone dealing with conflicting concerns about poetics, religion and social issues, who responded with an encouraging letter of advice. At sixteen, she corresponded with the poet and critic Herbert Read and also became acquainted with editor Charles Wrey and author Kenneth Rexroth.
During World War II, she underwent nurse’s training and worked for three years at St. Luke’s Hospital, where she helped to rehabilitate returning soldiers. During the evenings, she continued to write poetry. As noted, her family was actively engaged at this time in the relocation of Jewish refugees, so the war figured prominently in her life. Yet the political climate of the war did not directly figure in her first book, The Double Image (1946). The poems, here, dealt more from a personal vantage point of the loss of childhood, death, and separation, and Levertov composed them in more standard and regular stanzas than the free verse which she became synonymous with in her later work. She would continue to develop these themes, alongside her social and political ideas, but in a very different style.
In 1947, Levertov married an American soldier, novelist Mitchell Goodman. The next year, they moved to New York City, where their son, Nikolai, was born the following year. This move engaged Levertov in a new life and culture and radically changed her poetics. Her American settlement built upon her mother’s instruction on the nineteenth century and introduced her to the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, not to mention the more recent poetics of Ezra Pound and his Imagism. Her second book, Here and Now (1957), though somewhat reminiscent of her early style, showed promise of what was to come with her newly developed line which bore the vestiges of travel, marriage, and intellectual maturation.
In the United States, Levertov met her mentor, the poet and novelist William Carlos Williams, who taught her to focus though his famous credo “no ideas but in things,” with the concrete things, themselves, being carriers of powerful emotion and ideas. She also became involved in the social scene of New York City, its streets and people as well as its artistic movements. She became friends with poets Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, both of whom taught at Black Mountain College and were early publishers of her work in the Black Mountain Review. By the time she became associated with New Directions Press in 1959, her voice had reached its maturity. With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959) illustrates her full involvement with the American literary movements of the times.
In The Jacob’s Ladder (1961) and in O Taste and See (1964), Levertov’s poetry begins to shift into a discussion of poetic theory and the imagination. In both of...
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