Denise Levertov

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Levertov, Denise (Vol. 8)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2867

Levertov, Denise 1923–

Levertov is an English-born American poet. During her long career she has evolved from early verse influenced by the romanticism prevalent in Britain during World War II, through the influence of the Black Mountain poets, to become a unique poet whose verse consistently reflects her concern with the relation of form and content. The material for her poetry is drawn from her own experience, evoking both outward reality and inward response. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Through clean, simple, precise language [Levertov] seeks to record in terse pictures the vivid present, though not for its own sake so much as for the sake of a mystical vision of life…. In her fourth collection, The Jacob's Ladder…, the poems rise to greater heights, burn with a brighter light than Creeley's. At best they embody a humble immolation of vision, reveal beauty emerging from objects like a butterfly from its chrysalis, cause a transformation of the events of everyday life into the words of a message from somewhere far beyond it. They are songs of praise, rendered in a proselike free verse in terms of the present moment….

Yet by their nature Denise Levertov's poems suffer from limitations much like those which ultimately sterilized the imagist movement. Too often her insistence on the present tense, the present participle, the present perception necessitates a narrow, mannered way of speaking, particularly since she dispenses with meter and has no recurrent heartbeat to broaden and unify the rhythm. Too often her poems, anchored in the present, cannot move out of it unless the reader, independently, can make the same mystical connection that the poet has made.

This is the risk inherent in depending only on unconnected images: the poet leaves it to the reader, not to the power of language, to guide the connection between image and idea. It is like a conversation whose silences are as meaningful as its words; such conversations do not take place between strangers. (p. 86)

Peter Davison, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1962 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), November, 1962.

What struck me first on reading The Poet in the World, which is a collection of Denise Levertov's prose writings about art, politics, and life in general,—what struck me first, and what still strikes me in my reconsideration of the book … is the force of the author's good sense and practical wisdom. To many readers this may seem surprising. Levertov's base, both philosophical and temperamental, is in Neoplatonism, as I think is well known; certainly it has been more than evident in her poetry for twenty years. But unlike many writers who share this broad neoplatonic provenance, she never, or hardly ever, steps outside her role as a working poet aware of the practical and moral relationships between herself and her poetic materials: her experience, her life, her humanity. She keeps her mind on the reality of imaginative process. She rarely veers into mystical utterance for its own sake. (p. 475)

["The Poet in the World," the centerpiece of her book], should be read by every poet in the country—in the world! Written from the working poet's point of view, out of Levertov's own active experience in the recent period of collaboration between poetry and politics, it has the immediacy and efficacy that my own more scholastic arguments, not to say tirades, doubtless lack.

Has Levertov solved the paradox of the poet as a specialist of sensibility in the practical human world? Not entirely....

(This entire section contains 2867 words.)

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Her book contains many statements, and her poems many more, in which [the dangerous view of the poet as a person apart and special, somehow superior,] is at least implicit…. Often she invokes The Poet in a role essentially vatic or ideally prophetic. Her affinity with Neoplatonism, from Plotinus to Swedenborg to Hopkins—a devious thread—is clear. My own base, which is not, whatever else it may be, Neoplatonism makes me shy away from such statements. But always in her prose, and often in her poetry, there is this saving complementary strain, awareness of the poet as a craftsman engaged in a psychologically reasonable endeavor; ultimately her affinity is with makers more than seers, with Wordsworth and Rilke, Williams and Pound. The title of one of her essays gives it in a nutshell: "Line-Breaks, Stanza-Spaces, and the Inner Voice." Moreover, in her basic humaneness Levertov often realizes, reaches out to, and celebrates the poet in Everyman, at leastin posse, thus incorporating a necessary disclaiming proviso among her attitudes. She does it best, I think, in the essay that deals with sensibility as a moral and political instrument. The paradox remains, of course. It cannot be glossed over…. But the point is that Levertov does not … well, I was going to say that she does not recognize it, but of course she does. Yet I think she does not feel it. She is not stopped by it, not boggled. She works through and beyond it, in her writing and in what we know of her life, conscious only of the wholeness of her vision. And she succeeds. She is practical.

This is the heart of the matter, I think. At any rate it is what I am interested in now: not the larger verities but her own work and the way her theoretical writing applies to her own work, particularly to her recent poetry. Undoubtedly her best known statement about poetry is the brief discussion of "organic form" that was originally published in Poetry in 1965, then reprinted a couple of times elsewhere before its appearance in her new book…. [It] asserts that forms exist in reality as natural, or possibly more than natural, immanences, and that the poet perceives or intuits these forms through acts of meditation, which issue, once the perception has acquired a certain intensity, in the creation of verbal analogies; that is, poems. This is not simply the pathetic fallacy at work in a new way, because the analogy between poem and object is not superficial; there may be no resemblance whatever in exterior structures, textures, and styles. The resemblance is indwelling. Levertov refers to Hopkins and his invention of the word "inscape" to denote intrinsic, as distinct from apparent, form, and she extends this denotation to apply not only to objects and events but to all phenomena, including even the poet's thoughts, feelings, and dreams. She emphasizes the importance of the quality of meditation, speaking of it in basically religious language. Meditation is the genuine but selfless concentration of attention upon phenomena, the giving of oneself to phenomena, from which proceeds the recognition of inner form; it is, to use another of Hopkins' inventions, the disciplined or ascetic submission to "instress." And I must point out also, with equal emphasis, that although at times Levertov speaks of the poet as no more than an instrument of a larger "poetic power," and although more than once she implies that the poem as a verbal analogy may occur in part spontaneously in a sensibility which is thoroughly attuned to its object through a sufficient act of meditation, nevertheless she insists as well on the element of craft in the poetic process, the part played by verbal experiment and revision in bringing the poem into proper analogy to its phenomenal paradigm. The poem is a made object.

I don't say there aren't questions—risks, qualifications, paradoxes by the bucketful—and of course the entire complex is … conventional, having appeared and reappeared at many times and in many places; yet Levertov's reformulation is very evidently her own, a personal vision, personal and practical; that is, it comes from her practice. One can't miss, either in her prose observations or in her poems, the way her understanding of what she is doing is instinctual at base, ingrained in her whole artistic personality. Look at her poems up to about 1968. They are what we call "lyric poems," mostly rather short; they fall into conventional categories: nature poems, erotic poems, poems on cultural and esthetic themes, and so on. Their style is remarkably consistent from first to last, changing only to improve, within its own limits, in matters of expressive flexibility, subtlety of cadence, integration of sonal and syntactic structures, and the like. But if the style is consistent the form is various, the inner form. From poem to poem each form is its own, each is the product of its own substance; not only that, each is the inevitable product—we sense it though we cannot demonstrate it—of its own substance…. It has been customary to speak of the musicality of Levertov's poetry, and I have done so myself. But I think this is the wrong term. I doubt that she has been aware of music, e.g., as Pound was aware of it. But she has been deeply aware of formal consonance, of the harmony of inner form and vision; and certainly this, rather than the facility of artifice some critics have ascribed to her, is what lies at the root of her "musical" language. (pp. 476-78)

["Staying Alive"] is, first, a sequence about the poet's life as a political activist from 1966 to 1970; second, an exploration of the sense and temper of those years generally; third, an attempt to locate and express the poet's own complex feelings, particularly with regard to questions of artistic responsibility; and fourth—and most important—a creation of poetic analogues to the inner form, the inscape, of that momentous "historical present." Remember the elements of poetic process as Levertov conceives them—perception, meditation, making—and then apply them to the substance of this long poem, those enormously intricate social, historical, esthetic, and moral gestalten. A whole nation, even the world, is involved here. No wonder the poem is multiform. It contains, what so annoys the critics, highly lyric passages next to passages of prose—letters and documents. But is it, after Paterson, necessary to defend this? The fact is, I think Levertov has used her prose bits better than Williams did, more prudently and economically; she has learned from Paterson. And aside from that, if one grants the need, in a long poem, for modulations of intensity, as everyone must and does, then why not grant the further modulation from verse into prose? It is perfectly feasible. Much of "Staying Alive" is what I call low-keyed lyric invocation of narrative; not narrative verse as such, not "thus spake mighty Agamemnon" or "the boy stood on the burning deck"…. Brilliance is not wanted here, nor musicality (the superficial kind), but rather a strong supple verse, active and lucid; and this is exactly what we have. It changes; heightens and descends; turns soft or hard as the evolving analogy demands; it does the job. I repeat, the poem must be read whole. And readers who do this, as they easily can in one sitting, will see, I believe, or hear, precisely the consonance I spoke of in connection with Levertov's shorter lyrics, but now greatly enlarged and more varied: a just analogue for a complex phenomenon, unified in its whole effect, its vision, and its inner, "organic" form.

I don't say the poem succeeds in every line. That would have been a miracle. Sometimes the poet's perception or meditation apparently flagged; she tried to make up for it with acts of simple artistic will (as when she writes about her English friends whose lives "are not impaled on the spears of the cult of youth"). But such lapses are few. They do not disturb the unity of the poem.

As for the recurrent accusation of self-indulgence, who except the self can perceive, meditate, and create? Would the poem have been different if the poet had remained "anonymous" and "omniscient"? No, except for a possible loss of authenticity. Was De Tocqueville self-indulgent? Was Mrs. Trollope? Montaigne wrote: "I owe a complete portrait of myself to the public. The wisdom of my lesson is wholly in truth, in freedom, in reality"; and reality in this poem is in part the exemplary, very exemplary, responses of the poet to the perplexities of a time of rapid social disintegration. Clearly Montaigne was right for himself in his more moderate circumstances, and I think Levertov is equally right in the extremity of her (and our) circumstances. I also think that "Staying Alive" is one of the best products of the recent period of politically oriented vision among American poets.

Denise Levertov and I are good friends. Writing "Levertov" repeatedly where I would normally write "Denise" has seemed peculiar to me, even painful in a way…. I believe our friendship, which I suppose is rather well known, makes no difference and should make no difference to what I have written here…. If my view of Denise's work were antipathetic, obviously in the circumstances I would choose to say nothing about it. But the fact that my view is, on the contrary, sympathetic does not seem to me to detract from its usefulness. I have omitted many things about The Poet in the World that would have been said in the customary review. It is, for instance, a miscellaneous volume, springing from many miscellaneous occasions, and its tone ranges from spritely to gracious to, occasionally, pedantic. It contains a number of pieces about the poet's work as a teacher; it contains her beautiful impromptu obituary for William Carlos Williams, as well as reviews and appreciations of other writers. But chiefly the book is about poetry, its mystery and its craft, and about the relationship between poetry and life. It is an interesting and valuable book in general, and in particular it is an essential commentary on the poet's own poems and her methods of practice. It should be read by everyone who takes her poetry seriously. (pp. 478-80)

Hayden Carruth, "Levertov," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by the Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 3 Autumn, 1974, pp. 475-80.

In the last twenty years Denise Levertov has given us ten volumes of poetry, a body of work that insists on passionate formal clarity and on the dailiness of the activity of writing. This first collection of her prose [The Poet in the World] is as good as the poems might make us hope. It is, certainly, the best and most valuable writing on the craft that we have from an active poet. Its value derives not only from what it tells us about her own art, but also from her rather special connection to the traditions of English and American poetry. She is a disciple of Williams and an associate of Creeley, Olson, and Duncan, who began her career in the style of the British "new Romantics" of the forties and had actually grown up in an English vicarage where she acquired a "curiously Victorian" education by browsing in her parents' library. The essays do not tell us how an imagination as Anglican and romantic as hers was drawn to objectivism or the austerities of Black Mountain, but they demonstrate why. Levertov is able to show us that, in her own art, Wordsworth's dictum that language is the embodiment not the dress of poetry comes to mean that there are no ideas but in things. In doing so, she makes lucid the relation between romanticism and the American experimental tradition. (pp. cxxxi, cxxxiv)

The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1974, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 50, No. 4 (Autumn, 1974), pp. cxxxi, cxxxiv).

Levertov, through her forceful and compassionate presentations of urban lives, has been associated with the work and traditions of William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman. She also has been praised for the beauty and sensuousness of her nature poems. By nearly unanimous agreement Levertov was well on her way to becoming one of our leading poets. The onset of the Vietnam War began the decline of her reputation, coinciding with the reemergence of the genteel tradition of polite and ultra sophisticated writing, a fantastic paradox in the face of the disaster of the war. Levertov, like so many other poets socially and personally involved, began to write her passionate Vietnam poems and to help lead large demonstrations against the war. In midst of our terrible spirtual dilemmas, nationwide, we can no longer afford to ignore her.

In "The Freeing of the Dust," her power to move us has not diminished. If anything, it has gone into new, vital areas. Poems against the Vietnam War are still present, several of superb pathos, but beyond that are poems of a way of looking at life that we never before met in her work. She has changed. I am referring to her poems of love and divorce, for instance. At her center there now seems to be an acceptance of imponderable limits, yet without the bitterness one would expect from a disillusioned humane idealist. Rather there is a sweetness, a tenderness towards life; a change rises from her poems that is inspiring to read. For Levertov the circle of human frailty has been completed and forgiven and even blessed, because of life…. (pp. 54-5)

David Ignatow, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 30, 1975.


Levertov, Denise (Vol. 3)