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."
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.
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.
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."