Denise Levertov Levertov, Denise (Vol. 3) - Essay

Levertov, Denise (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Levertov, Denise 1923–

An English-born American poet sometimes associated with the Black Mountain School, Ms. Levertov has been influenced by William Carlos Williams. She is considered one of America's finest contemporary poets. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Denise Levertov is] probably America's best post-war poet…. As a young girl in England she was the most promising of British New Romantics, who have run down even steeper hills than the French into practical oblivion. For a while in America she was influenced by the Southern Cavaliers, but soon developed her own pure, intimate, classic style. She … resembles Mallarmé or Pierre Reverdy, except that she is easily understood. She remains completely a poet of married love, motherhood, daughterhood and the problems of a transfigured domesticity, practically unique in the long tradition of woman poetry in raising these elements to the effective universality of great literature. We have never had anybody like her. Comparison with Edna Millay or Marianne Moore, Eunice Teitjens or Amy Lowell is ridiculous. Only Coventry Patmore, but as a male, had tried to do what she does and he did not do it nearly as well. The universal respect in which she is held by Academics, Beats and Black Mountains has led her to be identified with one or the other by careless critics and anthologists. She is in fact classically independent.

Kenneth Rexroth, "Poetry in the Sixties" (1965; originally published in Saturday Review), in his With Eye and Ear, (copyright 1970 by Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press), Herder, 1970, pp. 69-77.

The poems in Denise Levertov's Footprints belong to a more diaristic and prosaic kind of literary poetry. They record impressions and talk about experiences, often with precise dates appended. Her political poems are not eloquent rhetoric, and not acute analysis, they are simply statements of her own convictions. Some of the poems in this book, like the "New Year's Garland" for her students, are so strictly personal that you wonder why she thought anyone else should read them. There is a certain presumptuousness about publishing a collection like this…. But in another way I think I can understand and agree with the publication of a book like this, for the conception of poetry behind it. Better notes, sketches, beginnings, fragments, than the pointless skill of the rhetorical set-piece. Levertov believes that poetry is communication, and that it is even more primarily a daily, intimate language-activity, not a performance to be watched and applauded. But something is always sacrificed in literary poetry. Levertov seems to have set aside almost everything that makes the art of composition difficult.

To succeed in this kind of writing, a poet needs to have a sure sense of speech and strong material. There is too much easy sentimentality in these poems, too much wishfulness and wistfulness. And they fall too often into a literary language that permits her to say that the moon "tarries," that Keats stops to "pluck" a leaf, and to speak of "wanderers," of a house "embowered" in leaves, of a "dimlit" room. It is an eclectic language that does not sort well with the political realism that Levertov has been seeking in her work. And the same problem occurs in her choice of materials. The imagistic and dream-vision poems in Footprints have a natural piety that tends towards animism….

They also contain reveries about a primitive, magical life that exists only in sleep or in other parts of the world. Behind all of this there is an awareness of the essential relationship between the struggle for a more authentic vision and the struggle for a more authentic world, which is the heart of Hugh MacDiarmid's work. If Levertov does stand for this, it is important to recognize it, and it sets her apart from the usual concerns of the literary poet. But her expression of it is dangerously bound up with the old mystifications of romanticism….

Richard Pevear, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 200-01.

Any new work by Denise Levertov should awaken the reader's anticipation. No poet of her generation, it seems, not even Robert Bly, has been more involved in political activism or the anti-war movement and they have naturally enough dominated her writing in the last few years. Yet this involvement, which she has defended in essays and prefaces with eloquence, has not fundamentally damaged her poetry—though some may think so—by engaging it with public themes. Miss Levertov is a poet of flexibility, depth and imaginative growth. She has become one of those figures around whom a large part of our sense of what has occurred in American poetry in the past fifteen or so years revolves.

Footprints is Miss Levertov's tenth book; it picks up threads of her work which had been partially set aside in favor of the urgency of political commitment prevailing in Relearning the Alphabet and To Stay Alive. It is, however, false and misleading to compartmentalize her poetry, with one place for a more rhetorical kind of writing, engagé, and another given to the sacred speech of the true imagination. The poet herself would deny any division of this sort, for in her opinion the artist's involvement with public affairs is part of a total involvement with the life he lives and the world in which he lives it….

With few exceptions, Footprints is a remarkable, lovely book, the earned result of the homage Miss Levertov continues to pay her Muse, even in these unhappy, confused days….

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in Parnassus, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 219-21.

The Poet in the World is an interesting, uneven, occasionally exasperating and always sincere collage of essays, criticism, fiction, political statement, articles on teaching and on other poets….

Miss Levertov can, and does, write lucidly of the blunders, prizes and tenacities of the poet sweating out her poem; and her discussion of other writers, (Creeley, Williams and Duncan are those she most admires) though highly subjective, is alive and uncompromising. She is at her most happily typical when she takes on the questions of the nature of poetry, and when she describes poetry in terms of a translation, a word defined in her 1865 Webster's as "being conveyed from one place to another, remove to heaven without dying." She has some sharply accurate things to say of the flabbiness of much current poetry, of the abuse of the personal pronoun, and of "those wizened off-shoots of Williams' zeal for the rhythmic structure of the American language … who have made the mistake of supposing that he was advocating a process of reproduction, of facile imitation, whereas what he was after was origins, springs of vitality."

Her analysis of the uses of myth in poetry, of the numinous metaphor, is an intelligent discussion of the poverty of urban cyncism….

But that earlier word "uncompromising" shades uncomfortably, in other sections, into the sort of single-mindedness more admirable in a crusader than in a writer. However compassionate or enraged she may be, the difference with which a writer wears her rue must be the evidence of an openness to the unwelcome intrusion of the conditional, to that complexity which is always cutting down the self-indulgence of the simplistic. In Levertov's prose, this problem is mixed up with the absence of that sense of proportion which is humor. Irony, slapstick, self-mockery and wit are temperamentally uncongenial to her. Unwilling to distinguish between that healthy skepticism which ultimately is the protection against cynicism's dry rot, once she quits prosody, her conclusions are often accompanied by a disconcerting overkill….

But what is most impressive in this volume is the vehemence with which Denise Levertov speaks for the reach and dignity of poetry. And if passages of her book seem at times toneless and didactic, without the interest and richness of conclusions forged from the assessing of contradictions, the book always is that of the true, never the carrion, artist. It makes, most movingly, large claims for an art form so often hamstrung in practice by the trivial, the fake and the chic. It is impossible to read this book, to listen to its immediacy, without a quickening.

Josephine Jacobsen, "Hard to be Human," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), January 26, 1974, pp. 29-31.

[Levertov] comes across [in The Poet in the World] as a person who enjoys the strengths of two cultures—the solidity of the English, with their almost absolute respect for tradition (she came here when she was 21), combined with a very American outgivingness.

In terms of ideas her range isn't wide; basically it consists of important phrases from Wordsworth, Rilke, Pound, Williams, bolstered by other thinkers and admired contemporaries. But this is a working book, not a net of fine thought (or afterthought) which can be used to trap poetry. Each idea has stamped all over it "For the Use of the Poet." Maybe as a theoretician she leans toward balance and structure, essentially (and soundly) a conservative, but in her performance what we might think of as poetry's better clichés in fact glow and become radical because of the unflagging intensity of her commitment to the thought that "organic poetry" is revelation.

Occasionally her appeal to a tradition of belief could stand more thoughtful analysis, as when she says the "unlived life" meant the same thing to both Rilke and Proust. But any book that so openly shows struggle and growth, and awakens the poetic impulse even while taking a tough look at harsh contemporary events, justifies poetry in the best sense.

Martin Washburn, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), February 7, 1974, p. 23.