Denise Levertov Levertov, Denise (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Levertov, Denise 1923–

A poet, editor, and translator, Levertov was born in England and has been an American citizen since 1955. Throughout her career as a poet, Levertov has been influenced by the main currents of modern poetry through her contacts with other contemporary poets. Her early poetry drew the attention of Kenneth Rexroth, among others, and was compared by Rexroth to the early poetry of Rilke. In the United States Levertov became acquainted with Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and other proponents of the Black Mountain school of poetry. Under their influence she formed a concern for capturing the "authentic experience" in verse. Under the influence of William Carlos Williams, the severely disciplined form of Levertov's early verse expanded to embrace the looser verse form characteristic of her later poetry. She has matured into a major contemporary poet whose unique poetry is characterized by depth of feeling and polished diction. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Denise Levertov was well on her way to becoming a pleasant, minor British neo-romantic poet when an American had to come along, marry and transport her to San Francisco, and add to her already complex Judaeo-Celtic heritage the insalubrious atmosphere of the Bay Area's beatnikism: Mishna and Mabinogion, if you will; but then on to Zen and mishmash? So now, in her The Jacob's Ladder, behold verse like, "I hear / the tide turning. Last / eager wave over- / taken and pulled back / by moon-ache. The great knots / of moon-awake energy / far out."… On the whole, the poems in The Jacob's Ladder can be fair to middling, like the title poem,… or pretentious and lumpish, like "In Memory of Boris Pasternak."… Let it be noted also that Miss Levertov's free verse is often uncompelling in its movement, and frequently as arbitrary and ostentatious in its line breaks as William Carlos Williams's at its worst. "She is the most subtly skillful poet of her generation," Kenneth Rexroth informs us, and adds, "the most profound, the most modest, the most moving." The only way I can make sense of these four superlatives is to assume that the first ("most skillful") is used to keep the other three well hidden. (pp. 241-42)

John Simon, "More Brass than Enduring," (originally published in The Hudson Review, Vol. XV, No. 3, Autumn, 1962), in his Acid Test (copyright © 1963 by John Simon: reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers), Stein and Day, 1963, pp. 236-52.∗

George Bowering

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Denise Levertov, who has lived in America since 1948, commands the field and the grove as far as the women poets are concerned, and is among the five best poets of the United States. In what has come to be called the New American Poetry, she is only one among the leaders and champions, but her poetry, like Robert Creeley's, is most accessible to the new or common reader, while at the same instance being in the post-Williams stream.

In addition, her work is all centered on the religious stance. She extends the idea of poetry as religion, till she says: "I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays." But she says that poets are not thus passive—they are also makers, so that poetry comes from shared activities, human with hobgoblin, mind with mystery. (p. 77)

Denise Levertov is also confronted by the nature of spiritual consciousness among the whole community of people in the twentieth century—or rather, we are. With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads … is the name of her first widely distributed American book. The title poem is modernly elusive about the aims, chances, prospects, of mortals, but adds that elusiveness to Emily Dickinson's espousal of nature. (p. 78)

A good portion of Denise Levertov's poetry is given to celebrating colors and flavors, the sustenance of the senses. One of her books is called O Taste and See. She feels no guilt for these appetites, as Anne Bradstreet would; and she feels no need to be defiant about them, as Emily Dickinson would. The celebration of the senses is not done under the eye of a reproachful or paternal God. The modern poet does not often call God by that name except for irony or other rhetoric. Denise Levertov seeks unstated spiritual significance in emotional honesty, precise attention to the natural, exercise of Pity, Mercy, Peace, and Love. Not that God is dead, unless by that is meant that he no longer wears the Talmudic and Mosaic disguises and fright-beards. Miss Levertov uses images of nature's things to speak of more abstract feelings, but not with such consciously stated intentions as are to be found in Thoreau and Dickinson…. (p. 79)

Many of Miss Levertov's poems express and name the loneliness of the human individual, so often a realization of modern writers that it may be taken as true for us, at least to the extent that the Puritan world-picture seemed true in Massachusetts in 1650. But it is that loneliness that forces the imaginative act—the individual will fall down inside himself, or he will try to find some possible communion. In her poem called "The Communion", that act is not between a petitioning servant and his superior god, but "an accord" among things living, the poet, a frog, a bowl of plums. In the act of communion the poems tend to open moments outward, as do those of Emily Dickinson, with the difference that here there is no talk of Eternity. Rather the moment may teach the observation of the world as it is, even surprising, even irrational, even if the old values and meanings are violated. (p. 80)

One of her poems is called "Everything that acts is actual." Her greatest debt as a poet is to William Carlos Williams, the champion of plain language and ordinary concrete things as the materials of poems. People have flapped down on the kind of poem that results, saying that the mundane materials do not permit any flight of the imagination in the poem. But the eyes and the senses may be as close to the divine as any speculative brain, if not closer. The shaman's sticks and bones are as much sign of men's spiritual imagination as abstracted theology may be. The actual is in the act, and in the soul's music that emerges, as Wallace Stevens knew, plunking on his blue guitar. (pp. 80-1)

With no thoughts of afterlife, and hence no impulse to call this life either a vanity or a dream, the poet keeps eyes...

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William H. Pritchard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Denise Levertov writes too many poems, too many journal jottings broken up into lines, a title plunked on top of them with the hope that some rhythm of composition according to "the musical phrase" (Pound) will hold them together. But in the best poems from [Life in the Forest] …, and they are found in its first section titled "Homage to Cesare Pavese," she works with longer lines and a discursive structure, yet avoids the breathless heart-on-sleeve manner that for me marred so much of her last three, politically obsessed volumes. In fact the sequence of poems about a daughter and her ninety-year old mother dying in Mexico, is as moving and intelligent work as anything she has done since "Olga Poems" (written about her sister) from The Sorrow Dance (1967). (pp. 262-63)

The single most interesting poem, also from this section, is "Chekhov on the West Heath," which begins with a young girl pushing another young girl in a wheelchair, up Judges' Walk in Hampstead in 1941. The narrator is remembering herself as the younger girl who was pushing the wheelchair, and her voice rises to say what reading Chekhov meant for her and her friend Bet…. [The poem explores], in a manner both generous and precise, the difference that Chekhov, that growing up near the Heath with the war going on, made to their lives. In comparison to these poems, much of the later part of the book seems ephemeral and fragmentary; but no matter—Denise Levertov for stretches in these poems writes out of her deepest and best self, and you can hear it in their rhythms. (pp. 263-64)

William H. Pritchard, "Criticisms of Life: Sound and Half-Sound," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 252-68.∗

Hugh Seidman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As usual, Miss Levertov can demonstrate the clarity of image and illumination of experience that we have come to expect from her. Yet it is often hard not to feel that ["Life in the Forest"] would have benefited greatly from editing and more self-restraint.

In the first section, "Homage to Pavese," she is more conscious than elsewhere of subduing the "I," and several poems to the poet's dead mother are quite moving. In general, Miss Levertov is perhaps sharpest when observation informs the emotional rhythm of her lines; when she waxes philosophical, her work is often windy or verbose…. Other poems throughtout the book suffer a … paradoxical loss of focus, only to be redeemed in part by clear thrusts of perception.

Likewise Miss Levertov's "political" poems seem a mixture of personal guilt, felt emotion and jargon. We may share her outrage at the brutalization of blacks ("Pushing open my mind's / door on its grating hinges / to let in the smell of / pain") or the horror of Hiroshima ("The shadow's voice / cries out to us to cry out. / Its nails dig / into our souls / to wake them"); but the exhortations themselves lack originality.

The same problems mar other poems. "Modulations for a Solo Voice," which she frankly describes as the chronicle of "un amour" ("I wanted to learn you by heart") does little more than excite a vague sympathy for love's failure. And parts of a poem like "Metamorphic Journal" can be almost embarrassing…. (p. 14)

Hugh Seidman, "Images, Artifacts, Entertainments," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 8, 1979, pp. 14, 24.∗

Harry Marten

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Artistic longevity is always risky. A poet who with the passing of years settles into a style becomes not a maker of poems but of artifacts. It is a pleasure to note, then, that with the publication of Life in the Forest, her twelfth book of verse, Denise Levertov continues to write exquisitely crafted lyrics. In their reverence for language and life, they make the reader continually aware that the poet's task is, as Levertov has said elsewhere, "to clarify … not answers but the existence and nature of questions."

Early linked by friendship to Robert Creeley and his Black Mountain Review, to Robert Duncan by shared imaginative resources, to Cid Corman, Charles Olson and Paul Blackburn...

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