Denise Levertov Levertov, Denise - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Denise Levertov 1923–

English-born American poet, essayist, translator, and editor. See also Denise Levertov Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 8, 15, 28.

One of the most significant American poets since World War II, Levertov utilizes many of the characteristics of objectivist and projectivist verse to contemplate the metaphysical aspects of familiar surroundings and to comment on a variety of political and social issues. Levertov's work reflects her awareness of the poetry of Americans William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound as well as the work of "Black Mountain" poets Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan. Drawing on these influences, Levertov's poetry often presents minute observations of everyday life and imbues commonplace objects with personal and religious significance. Reacting to the turbulent events of the 1960s,. Levertov began to use her poetry to explain and support her actions as a political activist, with her most strident poetry being directed against the actions of the U.S. military in the Vietnam War. Levertov's craftsmanship, command of style, and visual imagery have earned her enthusiastic praise from critics and fellow poets. As Kenneth Rexroth once commented, Levertov's poems "are so carefully wrought that the workmanship goes by unnoticed. They seem like speech, heightened and purified…. they are certainly never obscure, never seem to be doing anything but communicating with presentational immediacy."

Biographical Information

Born in Ilford, Essex, England, Levertov comes from a unique heritage that has influenced her work significantly. Her paternal ancestors include an eighteenth-century rabbi who was a founder of a Hasidic religious movement that celebrates the mystery of everyday events. Levertov's father, who converted from Judaism to Christianity, became an Anglican minister devoted to bringing Christians and Jews closer together. Her mother was a writer and artist who also had a forbear who was active in religious mysticism. Levertov's parents educated their two daughters at home, relying on the family library and BBC broadcasts as resources, though Levertov later studied classical ballet at a dance school. She began composing poetry at age five and, while still an adolescent, corresponded with English poets T. S. Eliot and Herbert Read. During World War II, Levertov worked as a nurse in England and afterward held several jobs while living in various European cities, including Paris. While travelling in Switzerland in 1947, she met and married American novelist Mitchell Goodman. The following year they emigrated to the United States, where their son was born, though various travels in the 1950s took the family to Europe and to Mexico for extended periods. Working with

Goodman and many other American writers in the 1960s and 1970s, Levertov became actively involved in opposing the role of the United States in the Vietnam War. The poet has continued her commitment to social causes, including various peace and justice issues and the fight against nuclear power. An experienced teacher of poetry, Levertov has taught at a long list of American universities and has been a member of the faculty at Stanford University since 1982.

Major Works

Levertov's first volume of poems, The Double Image, was written in England during World War II and evidences her reading of English Romantic poetry and her early inclination to use traditional metrical and stanzaic forms. Her approach changed considerably following her move to the United States; she eschewed traditional poetic devices in favor of free verse constructions and stressed the description of concrete objects to communicate her impressions—a practice summed up in William Carlos Williams's influential proclamation, "no ideas but in things." Like the work of her principal mentor Williams, Levertov's American poetry features precise imagery and subjects drawn from everyday life, often recognizing and celebrating the spiritual qualities of domestic situations. Levertov's early collections—Here and Now, Overland to the Islands, With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, The Jacob's Ladder, and O Taste and See: New Poems—firmly established her as an important contemporary poet and contain many frequently anthologized pieces. With the publication of The Sorrow Dance in 1967, Levertov's work turned in a new direction. The book contains poems that contemplate the death of her sister Olga and are generally more somber than her celebratory early verse. The Sorrow Dance also features poetry written in opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War; poems concerning the war are also a central part of the collections Relearning the Alphabet and To Stay Alive. In many of these pieces, Levertov adopts a more immediate style to convey the urgency of her message. "From a Notebook" for example, first published in Relearning the Alphabet, combines letters, prose passages, and quotations to depict her experiences within the antiwar movement. Her other major volumes from the 1970s, including The Freeing of the Dust and Life in the Forest, also contain many poems of a political nature and are noted for their explorations of such personal topics as Levertov's divorce and her relationship with her son. The poet's mixture of topics both personal and political continues in Candles in Babylon, Oblique Prayers, and Breathing the Water. These collections also consider spiritual themes and explore her reinvigorated Christian beliefs.

Critical Reception

Early in her career, Levertov's work found the support of many influential critics. Kenneth Rexroth, who first presented her poems to American readers in his 1949 anthology New British Poets, was an early advocate of Levertov's writing, and a number of other prominent reviewers were quick to recognize the craft and insight of her verse. Levertov's attempt to expand the realm of her poetry to encompass social and political themes has received mixed notices. Some critics praise the human content and solemn tone of this work, suggesting that Levertov's early poetry suffered from an overenthusiastic celebration of objects and was largely devoid of people. Others, however, fault her poetry from the late 1960s and early 1970s as too harsh and haphazard, arguing that the poet's artistic sensibilities were overwhelmed by her moral outrage. With more recent collections, scholars have noted Levertov's less strident manner of expressing her political messages, and her long list of poetic accomplishments have led critics to praise what Diane Wakoski calls "a lifetime career of writing beautiful, lyric poems, interspersed with militant political ones." Through all, Levertov has garnered respect for her ability to craft poems that spring organically from everyday objects and actual events. "The quotidian reality we ignore or try to escape," writes Ralph J. Mills, Jr., "Denise Levertov revels in, carves and hammers into lyric poems of precise beauty. As celebrations and rituals lifted from the midst of contemporary life in its actual concreteness, her poems are unsurpassed."

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


The Double Image 1946

Here and Now 1957

Five Poems 1958

Overland to the Islands 1958

With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads 1959

The Jacob's Ladder 1961

City Psalm 1964

O Taste and See: New Poems 1964

Psalm Concerning the Castle 1966

The Sorrow Dance 1967

A Marigold from North Vietnam 1968

A Tree Telling of Orpheus 1968

Three Poems 1968

The Cold Spring and Other Poems 1969

Embroideries 1969

A New Year's Garland for My Students, MIT 1969-1970 1970

Relearning the Alphabet 1970

Summer Poems 1969 1970

To Stay Alive 1971

Footprints 1972

The Freeing of the Dust 1975

Chekhov on the West Heath 1977

Modulations for Solo Voice 1977

Life in the Forest 1978

Collected Earlier Poems, 1940-1960 1979

Pig Dreams: Scenes from the Life of Sylvia 1981

Wanderer's Daysong 1981

Candles in Babylon 1982

Poems, 1960-1967 1983

El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation 1984

The Menaced World 1984

Oblique Prayers: New Poems with Fourteen Translations from Jean Joubert 1984

Selected Poems 1986

Breathing the Water 1987

Poems, 1968-1972 1987

A Door in the Hive 1989

Evening Train 1993

Other Major Works

In the Night: A Story (short story) 1968

The Poet in the World (essays) 1973

Light Up the Cave (essays) 1981

New and Selected Essays (essays) 1992

Kenneth Rexroth (essay date 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Denise Levertov," in Assays, New Directions, 1961, pp. 231-35.

[Rexroth was an influential American poet, critic, editor, and translator, who was active in the San Francisco-based literary revival of the 1940s and 1950s. With the following review, originally published in Poetry in November, 1957, Rexroth became an early proponent of the work Levertov produced after coming to the United States, finding it superior to the poetry of most of her contemporaries.]

In my opinion Denise Levertov is incomparably the best poet of what is getting to be known as the new avantgarde. This may sound to some, committed to the gospel of the professor poets—the first...

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Robert Mazzocco (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of O Taste and See, in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 111, No. 10, December 31, 1964, pp. 18-19.

[In this excerpt, Mazzocco offers a mixed review of O Taste and See, complaining about the obscurity of many poems in the volume while lauding others for their skilled construction and dramatic appeal.]

At one moment Denise Levertov can be direct and honest and at the next seem struggling as if blind-folded. Looking for meaning in her poems is like looking for a fourleaf clover. She is both sure-handed and sloppy, angular, and sensuous. In general her style is the broken-up mode of Williams—short, straggly lines, with occasionally longer...

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Denise Levertov (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Some Notes on Organic Form," in New Directions in Prose and Poetry, Vol. 20, edited by J. Laughlin, New Directions, 1968, pp. 123-28.

[In the following essay, originally published in Poetry (Chicago), Levertov discusses the creation of "organic" poetry.]

For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and reveal. There are no doubt temperamental differences between poets who use prescribed forms and those who look for new ones—people who need a tight schedule to get anything done, and people who have to have a free hand—but the difference in their...

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Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Denise Levertov: The Poetry of the Immediate," in Poets in Progress, edited by Edward Hungerford, Northwestern University Press, 1967, pp. 205-26.

[Mills is an American educator and critic whose books include Theodore Roethke (1963) and Richard Eberhart (1966). In this essay, originally published in Mills's Contemporary American Poetry in 1965, he analyzes Levertov's poetry as it relates to that of William Carlos Williams and discusses her use of "personal observation and knowledge."]

American poetry at the present time sustains two extremes, with a wide range of practice in between in which the best—as well as the most truly...

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Linda Welshimer Wagner (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sound of Direction," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter, 1967, pp. 218-25.

[Linda Welshimer Wagner (later Linda Wagner-Martin) is an American critic, poet, and educator whose books include The Poems of William Carlos Williams (1964) and Hemingway and Faulkner: Inventors/Masters (1975). A prominent authority on Levertov, Wagner is the author of Denise Levertov (1967), one of the early book-length studies of the poet, and is the editor of Denise Levertov: In Her Own Province (1979) and Critical Essays on Denise Levertov (1990). The following review of O Taste and See comments on Levertov's effective use of sound devices in...

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Denise Levertov (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poet in the World," in The Poet in the World, New Directions Books, 1973, pp. 107-16.

[In the following essay, originally delivered at a symposium in 1967, Levertov asserts that poets must be actively and politically engaged in the events of their time.]

The poet is in labor. She has been told that it will not hurt but it has hurt so much that pain and struggle seem, just now, the only reality. But at the very moment when she feels she will die, or that she is already in hell, she hears the doctor saying, "Those are the shoulders you are feeling now"—and she knows the head is out then, and the child is pushing and sliding out of her, insistent, a poem....

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Paul Zweig (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Magistral Strokes and First Steps," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 212, No. 25, June 21, 1971, pp. 794-95.

[Zweig was an American poet, translator, and critic whose books include the poetry collections Against Emptiness (1971) and The Dark Side of the Earth (1974). Here he offers an unfavorable assessment of Relearning the Alphabet, criticizing the "literariness" of the collection and faulting several poems that seem "incomplete."]

I have always admired Denise Levertov's poetry. Her sparse, sinuous language reminds me of an artist who is able to suggest a face, the entire mystery of a gesture, with a single, uninterrupted pencil stroke. The...

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Hayden Carruth (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Levertov," in Critical Essays on Denise Levertov, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin, G. K. Hall & Co., 1990, pp. 30-5.

[Carruth is an American poet, critic, and editor, whose books include the poetry collections Contra Mortem (1967) and The Bloomingdale Papers (1975), and the collected criticism volume Working Papers (1982). In the following review of The Poet in the World, originally published in the Hudson Review in 1974, Carruth analyzes Levertov's poetry as it relates to the poetic theories she espouses in her essays. He praises Levertov's "personal and practical" vision of her work and endorses, in particular, her accomplishments in the poem...

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Denise Levertov with Susan Rowe (interview date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from "The New York Quarterly," edited by William Packard, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974, pp. 79-100.

[In this interview, originally published in New York Quarterly, Levertov explains her method of writing and also discusses various influences on her poetry, including teaching, religion, and politics.]

[Rowe]: What stories or poems from your childhood reading do you remember particularly? Which ones do you think may have had an influence on your development as a poet?

[Levertov]: Well, it's always difficult to know what did and what didn't affect your work later. My mother read...

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Diana Surman (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Inside and Outside in the Poetry of Denise Levertov," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 57-70.

[In the following essay, Surman traces the poets and principles that have influenced Levertov's work, focusing primarily on William Carlos Williams and the manner in which his ideas on perception and writing are reflected in Levertov's poetry.]


'We awake in the same moment to ourselves and to things.' This sentence from Jacques Maritain was chosen by the Objectivist poet George Oppen as an epigraph to his book The Materials. Its presence there accents a paradox central to some of the most interesting American...

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Lorrie Smith (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Songs of Experience: Denise Levertov's Political Poetry," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 213-32.

[In this essay, Smith addresses Levertov's development as a political poet, tracing her evolution as a writer from one who creates largely mystical verse to an "engaged" author often concerned with war and revolution.]

Denise Levertov's large body of political poetry records the vicissitudes of a deeply ethical imagination grappling with the difficult public issues of the last twenty years. At forty-four, Levertov had published six volumes before her first Vietnam protest poems appeared in The Sorrow Dance (1967). The seven...

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Harry Marten (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Deciphering the Spirit—People, Places, Prayers," in Understanding Denise Levertov, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 147-201.

[In the following excerpt from Marten's book-length study of Levertov, he analyzes the poet's message of Christian spirituality in three collections: Candles in Babylon, Oblique Prayers, and Breathing the Water.]

The combination of harmony and flow … defines Levertov's books of the 1980s: Candles in Babylon, Oblique Prayers, and Breathing the Water. As if in momentary completion of the directions of her life's work, Levertov develops her vision of the mysteries of human experience into a statement of...

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Diane Wakoski (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Song of Herself," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 5, February, 1988, pp. 7-8.

[Wakoski is an American poet and educator whose verse collections include The George Washington Poems (1967), Virtuoso Literature for Two and Four Hands (1975), and The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13 (1984). In the following review of Breathing the Water, Wakoski finds that much of Levertov's work reflects a "linking of body and soul through God" while it also recognizes the attraction and danger of the natural world.]

Others will speak of her spirit's tendrils reaching
almost palpably into the world;
but I...

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Linda Wagner-Martin (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Levertov: Poetry and the Spiritual," in Critical Essays on Denise Levertov, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 196-204.

[In the following essay, Wagner-Martin addresses the message of religious affirmation in Levertov's later poetry, focusing on the collection Life in the Forest.]

At what point does the overtly political become a more enclosing, less compartmentalized angst? Levertov's essays on Kim Chi Ha, Solzhenitsyn, Neruda, and others, as well as her important 1960s and 1970s poem collections that were often described as "political," have prompted a great many of her readers to characterize her work in that way. Yet running...

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Helane Levine-Keating (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bright Shadow: Images of the Double in Women's Poetry," in Sexuality, the Female Gaze, and the Arts: Women, the Arts, and Society, edited by Ronald Dotterer and Susan Bowers, Susquehanna University Press, 1992, pp. 166-84.

[Levine-Keating is a poet and educator who is coauthor, with Walter Levy, of Lies through Literature (1991). In this excerpt, she analyzes Levertov's depiction of "the double" in two poems, asserting that this second self is a positive representation of female creativity and nonconformity.]

Until recently, little attention was paid to the presence of the double or shadow in literature by women. In the last decade, however,...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Sakelliou-Schultz, Liana. Denise Levertov: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1988, 321 p.

Comprehensive analytic bibliography that covers some foreign language sources and includes an index and chronology of Levertov's life.


Gould, Jean. "Denise Levertov." In her Modern American Women Poets, pp. 29-50. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984.

Details the major events in Levertov's life through the mid 1980s.



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