Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1466
Levertov, Denise 1923–
English-born American poet in the tradition of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Denise Levertov's] energies go into the making of poems, into the forming of intense yet modulated presentations of life. She spends no time whatsoever in flattering, cajoling, or winking at the reader; nor does she carry on a self-regarding dialogue with us the better to coax us into assent. Furthermore, and perhaps most riskily, she is not inclined toward jokes, ironies—harsh or suave—directed at the self. I don't think the absence of such wit makes for solemn poems, mainly because she gets so much on-going suppleness into the lines; in Williams' terms, she has Invention, and the things of her poetry are well-spaced and well-timed. In most of these poems [in The Sorrow Dance] a voice is overhead, serious—often to the point of grimness—(the poems on Vietnam are the most obvious case in point) yet musical too, on the move in various and interesting ways. Miss Levertov is preoccupied with the job of rendering, of Poundian presentation through powerful directness—the poem as well-written as good prose….
William H. Pritchard, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1967, pp. 310-11.
[Denise Levertov] is closer to Creeley than to Olson or Duncan in her desire to keep her poems uncluttered both in their formal movement and in their literal statement. One cannot accuse her of cultivating a 'minimal' style, however. She does at times let the thought trail off in a kind of inaudible ambiguity in her effort to keep the rhythm and the associations offhandedly natural. And a number of the poems lose their definitive outlines for the same reasons. Poetry may be, as Auden once declared, 'heightened speech'; perhaps, though I doubt it, that is all it is. For my part, I very much enjoy reading Miss Levertov's work even when it becomes simply a running brook thinking aloud as it runs, and doing so musically and charmingly. But work that goes too far in this direction does threaten to dwindle into mere 'heightened speech,' and on the whole that result is far from Miss Levertov's intention.
Her earlier work, before With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959), involved a slightly painful process of dissolving a tendency toward over-complexity by imitation of the colloquial simplicities and the rhythmic discoveries of Williams. Her more recent work, beginning with the volume just noted and including The Jacob's Ladder (1961) and O Taste and See (1964), reveal her as freed from that struggle. Her characteristic expression had been, earlier, the indirect formulation of an abstract thought, perhaps set off by a literary allusion, and then its resolution in some concrete piece of narration or image….
But in With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads she begins to give us some vivid, simple impressionist poems…. These show her able to catch the essential details of sensuous experience and to relate them so as to organize a world of insight and of emotional response with great economy and objectivity.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (© 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 184-88.
Among her fellow-poets in [the] tradition [pioneered by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and H. D.], Denise Levertov stands out as one whose art, fresh and compelling, convinces us of her genuine rapport with the reality she presents as its core. Her poetry is frequently a tour through the familiar and the mundane until their unfamiliarity and otherworldliness suddenly strike us. Her imaginative gaze feasts on the small objects we usually treat as insignificant appendages to our lives, or pauses with affectionate interest on the seemingly trivial activities in which we spend so much of those lives. Thus she engages very naturally in a persistent investigation of the events of her own life—inner and outer—in the language of her own time and place, and completes that investigation in the forms emerging from what she discovers as it is translated into words….
[To] find any metaphysical revelation in Miss Levertov's art we must enter the precincts of the poet's own existence, for she justifies her art through that existence, as well as her existence through her artistic perception.
Miss Levertov's primary intention as a poet has not been the statement of visionary experiences but rather the dogged probing of all the routine business of life in search of what she calls "the authentic" in its rhythms and its details….
The quotidian reality we ignore or try to escape, 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; they open to us aspects of object and situation that but for them we should never have known.
Ralph J. Mills, Jr., "Denise Levertov: The Poetry of the Immediate," in Poets in Progress, edited by Edward Hungerford, Northwestern University Press, 2nd edition, 1967.
That Levertov has become a political activist doesn't seem to have damaged her gift of rhythm or her skill of fusing form and content, image and motion. My hunch is that the complete poet goes inward and outward at once, and finds the two meeting in a tension which, fully apprehended, makes a new creative energy.
Todd Gitlin, "The Return of Political Poetry," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), July 23, 1971, pp. 375-80.
Denise Levertov's style is characterized by its low visibility. Her poems are so carefully wrought that the workmanship goes by unnoticed. They seem like speech, heightened and purified. Although her poems are modernistic enough to satisfy any avant-garde editor of the Twenties, they are certainly never obscure, never seem to be doing anything but communicating with presentational immediacy.
Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, p. 164.
As a document, the book [To Stay Alive] is heavy with fact: names are named, places and dates given, accusations made, praise bestowed. Its major fault—in the geological sense of a fracture-line between opposed forces—results from the attempt to absorb these materials into a specifically poetic dramatization. Levertov's poetic sensibility is deeply informed by the classical English tradition (phrases from Keats, Hopkins, and Swinburne float in italics on the page). The time-honored impulse to celebrate, to wonder, to sing is basic in her, and this impulse is, literally, disturbed by the knowledge that an unassimilable evil exists which must be hated and which must be fought on the level of action. Poetic forms are repeatedly laid aside, as if felt inadequate for the rendering of actual life. Pages of the book are devoted to "real" excerpts, in prose, from pamphlets, postcards, letters, simulated or actual newspaper items, and a page from The Instant News published in Berkeley at the time of the People's Park confrontations (in which Levertov was a participant), telling "What People Can Do." At times the effect is one of collage; the reader has an irritating sense of being made to switch back and forth between poetic and moral response….
Elsewhere, the resources of traditional rhetoric are eloquently marshaled in the attempt to bring home the unspeakable…. The celebration is Shakespearian, reassuring; the indignation is as lofty as it is vain…. It is as a human portrait, not as a work of imaginative transfiguration, that this book remains with us, in delicate and anguished echo. Perhaps this is as its author would wish.
Marie Borroff, in The Yale Review (© 1972 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1972, pp. 81-3.
It is distressing to report that … Denise Levertov's new book, To Stay Alive, contains a quantity of bad confessional verse. Her anti-Vietnam War poems, written in casual diary form, sound rather like a versified New York Review of Books—the same righteous indignation, the same uncompromising moral zeal and self-important tone. It is difficult to believe that the poet who, as one of the most promising heirs of William Carlos Williams, wrote "The world is/not with us enough/O taste and see," should now resort to the flat abstractions, the facile polemics, and the careless rhythms of To Stay Alive….
But, poetry aside, To Stay Alive is not even particularly good rhetoric: the speaker herself seems too implausibly innocent of the crimes that "fevered Amerika" is committing. One would think that never before in history had any country waged an unjust war, that all Vietnamese are saints, all American politicians villains.
Marjorie G. Perloff, "Poetry Chronicle: 1970–71," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 97-131.
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