Denise Levertov

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933

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 these books, she continued to use the natural world as her subject. More and more, however, she focused on social issues. When the United States became involved in the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, Levertov’s personal and poetic life began to reflect more of her social consciousness. With several other poets, she founded Writers and Artists Protest Against the War in Vietnam. She participated in antiwar protest marches and was jailed at least once for her involvement.

Relearning the Alphabet (1970) contains many such poems protesting the war, but it also contains poems dealing with other social concerns, such as the Detroit riots and the famine in the African country of Biafra. Levertov’s antiwar poetry was collected in the 1971 volume To Stay Alive; though well crafted, these social and political poems did not receive as much critical acclaim as did her other work. Levertov continued to produce collections of poetry throughout the 1970’s that demonstrated her technical, social, and spiritual development. She divorced Goodman in 1972, and The Freeing of the Dust (1975) illustrates her journey toward a balance and integration in her life and verse.

In addition to her poetry, Levertov also wrote many essays and short articles. She worked as an editor and translator, and she taught at Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the City College of New York, and many other colleges. She received numerous awards for her writing, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1962, a Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1975, and an Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in 1983. Levertov’s final years were spent in Seattle, Washington, where she converted to Catholicism; she died on December 20, 1997, from complications of lymphoma.

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