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Denise Levertov 1923–
English-born American poet, short story writer, essayist, editor, and translator.
Levertov is an important postmodern poet. Her career began in England, where her first collection, The Double Image, was published in 1946. Her early verse was influenced by the romanticism prevalent in Britain during World War II and displayed the formal, even stiff, construction and dreamlike extravagance characteristic of that period. In 1948, after marrying the American novelist Mitchell Goodman, she moved to the United States. This move was crucial to her development as a postmodern poet.
Through her husband's friendship with Robert Creeley, Levertov became involved with the Black Mountain poets. Her poetic development was heavily influenced by Charles Olson's aesthetics, by the innovative application of everyday speech patterns encouraged by poets Robert Duncan and Kenneth Rexroth, and by the immediacy and vitality characteristic of William Carlos Williams's work. Here and Now (1957), her first collection following her move to the United States, evidences the dramatic effect these poets had on her writing; Collected Earlier Poems 1940–1960 (1979) charts her artistic development.
Like her contemporaries, Levertov sought to capture the "authentic experience" in verse and to develop the relation of form to content. Thematically, she combines attention to concrete daily objects with a larger personal, political, and religious awareness. While on the one hand she writes poems grounded in social reality—for example, in The Sorrow Dance (1967) she protests the Vietnam War—she also displays a romantic reverence for the natural world in connection with the mythical and spiritual dimensions of the human psyche. Endorsing Gerard Manley Hopkins's "inscape concept," she adds depth and relevance to her poems by applying her own inward response to extrinsic phenomena. Her recent collection, Candles in Babylon (1982), continues Levertov's tradition of writing graceful, powerful, and irreducible poems.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
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When one puts pressure on postmodern poetics by asking questions about philosophical adequacy, one immediately confronts a powerful contradiction: considered as metaphysical or religious meditation, the poetry of the sixties seems to me highly sophisticated; it takes into account all the obvious secular objections to traditional religious thought and actually continues and extends the inquiries of philosophers as diverse as Heidegger, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein. This very success, however, makes it disappointing that the poetry fails so miserably in handling social and ethical issues. One cannot avoid asking why this is the case, and when he does he finds that at least one poet, Denise Levertov, has preceded his questions…. Miss Levertov has been one of the major voices of the new poetry in the 1960s, and while not very original, she is often quite a good poet devoted to developing concrete moments in which the numinous emerges out of the quotidian. Yet what interests me most about her work…. is her experience of the inadequacy of the aesthetics of presence when in The Sorrow Dance (1966) and subsequent volumes she tries to adapt her poetic to pressing social concerns caused by the war in Vietnam. Miss Levertov presents a very compelling critique of that aesthetic, but even more telling is her own lack of poetic power and authority when she tries to adapt the principles that had shaped her work to social questions. In effect, her later work testifies to the most basic intellectual weaknesses of the contemporary aesthetic…. (p. 226)
Let me first briefly sketch her earlier objectivist celebrations of presence as plenitude…. From Olson, and more directly from Duncan and Creeley, she takes her objectivist ideals: verse must capture the energies of the attentive consciousness open to the event of arriving each step along the way. But like Creeley, her tone and dramatic context differ radically from Olson's bardic voice and generalizing perspective. Both poets keep the less hero-oriented dimensions of Olson's aesthetic, but use them in specific domestic contests that share O'Hara's emphases on the local, the casual, and the contingent. Finally, in her desire to correlate objectivist ideals with the mystical attitudes that sustain the "pilgrim's way," her pursuit of presence leads to meditations on the deep image and the development of techniques to render a "slip inward," or in her case a slip beyond, to a sense of the infinite depth and mystery at the horizon of what is sharply seen.
Her most characteristic image for reconciling the sense of continual arrival in a satisfying present with the "pilgrim way" is the image of ripeness, as exemplified by the last stanza of "Under the Tree":
let the oranges
ripen, ripen above you
you are living too, one
among the dark multitude …
Presence as plenitude here is very different from Olson's energy of spring or Snyder's "Communionism."… Rather this stanza concentrates a slow process of satisfaction (the repeated "ripen") blending into a sense of transcendent union. The poem dwells lovingly on "one," a word at once requiring a strong pause and, because it is enjambed, a quick transition into the "dark multitude." Ripeness then functions in several ways. As a physical image it renders a sense of the scene as self-contained plenitude. But ripeness is of its very nature a transitional state; it testifies to the fact that individual perfection is not essentially an end in itself but a means for becoming a functioning and satisfying element in the total process. The tree puts forth fruit in order to nourish the seed and create new life. Moreover, from man's perspective the ripe fruit calls out to be eaten, and thus is another way to sustain life. Psychologically a similar ripening process takes place for the speaker. The stanza's initial imperative, "let," summarizes the poem's moral movement. The speaker is willing to accept process as process and to dwell with attention on the fullness of the "Here and Now." Like the fruit, she is at once fully there and gradually preparing for a new relationship to the total life process, a relationship embodied in the shift in attention from the trees to herself and then to the climactic sense of oneness. (In many of Miss Levertov's poems this movement from ripeness to union takes explicit sexual form.) Finally the sense of oneness leads in the last line to the "slip beyond" into a metaphysical vision of shared process at a deeper level of awareness. "Dark multitude" is unfortunately vague and abstract, but in a sense these qualities are necessary to get the intended feeling of the whole physical scene being carried into a level of experience where the mind itself sees its place in an all-embracing process.
How different from this satisfying enclosed space and relaxed accepting attitude is the opening poem of Relearning the Alphabet…. [In this poem every] step is no longer an arrival as she replaces confident assertion with a series of questions that set the dominant tone of the volume. This poet of place and attention now can neither stand peacefully nor follow a purposive path. Moreover, accustomed to merging her ego into a field of actions, she now feels that field breaking up into a public self merely playing roles and a genuine "I" that grows so deeply private one must fear for its continued presence…. Even touching and tasting, two of her most recurrent acts of celebration, now only alienate the sensitive spirit from the things of this world…. (pp. 226-29)
No orange will compensate for the fact that the present moment is now inextricable from the continual awareness of the senseless suffering and death created by the war in Vietnam. The psychological counterpart to this hunger is the doubt about her previous poetic stance that permeates Relearning the Alphabet…. (p. 229)
What she knows can no longer suffice because she is now confronted with two problems her aesthetics of presence cannot handle. With the war so dominant a fact of experience, especially for the poet whose sensitivity now becomes a kind of curse, she perceives in the present at least as many inescapable reminders of suffering and pain as causes for awe and religious acceptance. Second, the war brings home the poet's helplessness. What mystery she does perceive in the present is too personal and too particular to help her either judge or transform the suffering. The "dark multitude" has shown itself as a mass of isolated individuals who share only confusion. In "The Cold Spring" she seeks to renew her sense of the numinous sources or origins that can sustain the way of poetic affirmation, but she finds instead that at the source of the spring feeding poetic inspiration, the life-giving waters are reddened and muddied by human violence. The eye now is only a physical instrument recording ambiguities and can give no direction, no structure, to the I….
"Advent 1966" is Levertov's most powerful statement of the changed landscape where the sensitive eye, which once served to unite the "I" with the numinous scene, now sees only a demonic version of incarnation. And this reversal of traditional possibilities for satisfying mythic transformations is paralleled by the fact that now the intense literal reality of the flames from napalm no longer allows the shift to mythic dimensions of fire so easily and movingly rendered in "Eros at Temple Stream."… (p. 230)
Relearning the Alphabet has a place in the modern tradition of volumes of poetry revaluing a whole poetic career and tentatively exploring new directions. Like Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens before her, she knows what she has to do, but she has considerably less at her disposal to help her realize the new goals. Her task is twofold—to awaken the sensitivity of those supporting the war so they might see its evils … and to formulate an ethic and an aesthetic that might help restructure the consciousness of society. The poetry of numinous presence must grow more discursive in order to propound values at once more explicitly ethical than those of immanence and more general than those bound to the now muddied objective contexts of specific moments of perception. (p. 231)
Where, however, is she to find within her sense of poetry and the poet's role, style and themes adequate to the task she sees as necessary? Where will she find an ethical basis for creating models of humane behavior? To what value structures can the poet turn when for most of her life she has rejected humanism and the early moderns' use of tradition and creative imagination as the basis of her ideals? While she recognizes that the aesthetics of presence no longer suffices, she has only its implicit ethical ideals to work with. That aesthetic is built on visions of immanence whose only ethical corollary is the command to let be and to recognize the fullness of what lies before one. Such an ideal might provide the goal for a transformed society, but it will not give much help in determining or propounding the means for creating such a society. Moreover, that aesthetic is intensely antisymbolist … and can provide little guidance when the poet feels that she must deal with symbolic generalizations and must transform moments of vision into the basis of discursively presented structures of value. With so much cut away in order to reach the numinous present, what has the contemporary poet left with which to build an ethical vision based on his insights?
I am now entering aspects of the crisis presented in Relearning the Alphabet that are no longer under Miss Levertov's self-conscious control. She wants to raise questions in order to provide at least tentative answers, but the poems giving answers only make one realize that the crisis is a deeper one than she seems to think. She tries to work out a solution by turning to the notebook form, for here she can remain faithful to the now confused present while replacing the dramatic poem of sharply realized perceptions with one loose enough to allow moral reflections. In this form she can discuss moral issues without pretending to a structured moral vision and can allow moments of moral conviction to emerge from her intense suffering and inner contradictions. If the poet cannot adequately judge her age intellectually, she can provide personal witness of what it is doing to its sensitive and reflective spirits. Moreover, unwilling and perhaps unable to construct heroic models of resistance that may be mere fictions, she can in the notebook form capture as models of humane behavior whatever acts strike her, without endangering the power of the acts themselves by either interpreting them or excessively dramatizing them. Personal example is perhaps the only ethical model for social action that makes coherent sense within an aesthetics of presence because it simply shifts attention from the numinous qualities of natural scenes to the qualities of human actors in social situations.
In theory, then, the notebook form makes a certain amount of sense, given Miss Levertov's plight. But it simply does not work, and perhaps could not work to achieve what she desires. The notebook style at best can serve as a historical document dramatizing the problems of a sensitive consciousness at given moments. But it has little reconstructive value because it provides no checks—either formal or in demands for lyric intensity—against the temptations—so strong when one is driven by moral outrage—to easy rhetoric and slack generalizations. Moreover, the form exerts very little authority: it seems only the cries of a passive victim. Here perhaps the "wise passiveness" cultivated by the poetics of presence shows its ultimate weakness. It is, of course, not easy for the poet, so lacking in real social power, to assert authority, but there are, if she will ally herself with them, moral and artistic traditions that demand and support resistance to the kind of forces oppressing Levertov. But before I get into theoretical questions about the limitations of all modern political poetry, I shall look closely at the undeniable weaknesses in Miss Levertov's efforts. Then one can hardly doubt that there are better philosophical and aesthetic foundations for public poetry, and one can see how deeply her own work is victimized by the very problems she describes in the aesthetics of presence. (pp. 231-33)
The details [in "From a Notebook: October '68—May '69"] are flat, often sentimental, asserting rather than manifesting value…. And loose propagandistic phrases like "the people" and "The War / comes home to us" neither create fresh insights nor bear up under intellectual analysis. More telling is the pathetic quest to make assertions of value in generalizations that seem simplistic. "Happiness / in the sun" might be a simple moment of life, but it is not an adequate model for basing so general a conclusion as, "Is it that simple, then, / to live." No, for our culture it is not, whether one accepts its vision of authentic life or whether one wants to change it in any meaningful way. And the symbolic equation of the grass revealed in its freshness when the garbage is removed with "a new testament" has a certain momentary validity, but it is too slight an event on which to hang so portentous and inclusive a symbolic referent. Here human action restores a simple natural dynamism, but that is a far cry from receiving the vision, structure, and ground of a new law as implied by the metaphor.
No wonder she does not develop this but quickly changes her perspective. Where she arrives, though, is even more problematic. Miss Levertov has a quick mind; she recognizes the irony of removing garbage only to add to the Bay-fill destroying the San Francisco harbor, and she records this both to dramatize the self-irony a revolutionary can maintain and to stave off her critics. But her clever way of dismissing the irony will not do. In fact, it makes childish and questionable the love she is trying to celebrate. It is precisely that easy praise of human virtues and the tendency to assert it in order to cover up political contradictions that has made the new calls to revolution suspect and undermined the authority of those poets celebrating it.
What bothers me most in this passage, though, is the way it exemplifies problems I suspect are endemic to a poetics of immanence. That aesthetic, in the pursuit of an unmediated sense of Being and in its attempts to make ontologically real harmonies perceived between aesthetic and natural processes, tends in social questions to confuse art and life and to misuse poetic categories of thought. Miss Levertov, as I have shown, explicitly denies a symbolic way of thinking in her pursuit of objects; numinous experiences require primarily attentive participation and not artificial interpretive acts of the reflective mind. Not terribly conscious or analytic, then, about what symbols she does use, she is likely to misuse the poet's synthesizing power by constructing problematic analogies like that between the uncovered grass and the New Testament. After encountering repeated instances of this kind of faulty thinking, the reader is likely to grow skeptical, and to replace a sympathetic openness to her work with an analytic attitude—scrutinizing language he should trust the poet has scrutinized so that he can simply respond to it.
A more elaborate misuse of aesthetic categories takes place here when she facilely extends the particular experience of cooperation at People's Park into a universal model for the new society to be created by the revolution. It takes very little skepticism to note that this group is politically homogeneous and gathered together for a short time to achieve a particular purpose that has obvious mythical values underlying it. Such a model is far removed from the problems encountered in creating or maintaining a political society, particularly in cultures that value freedom and difference. (pp. 234-35)
This social denial of the complexity and differences constitutive of modern societies is reinforced by a characteristic postmodern view of the nature of evil. The aesthetics of presence is essentially monistic, conceiving evil as basically only a privation, a failure to perceive correctly or to align one's consciousness with the latent harmonious orders of a given scene. The dream is that proper action will follow naturally from a correct understanding or, more radically, a correct positioning in which the understanding receives its "sentences" from the situation. But however appealing the metaphysics of this vision might be, the realm of politics is largely constituted by the need to correlate different visions and priorities…. Poetry, one might say, is primarily a meditative mode of consciousness that seeks to bring minds into accord with one another by dramatizing a given perspective. But politics is a mode of action, where the distribution of goods and powers requires reconciling different perspectives. It is not enough to see how others might see; people need to find forms of agreement that do not require sharing the same particular perspectives and priorities. Poetry unifies perspectives within provisional dramatic points of view; society must seek abstract agreements acceptable to dramatic positions widely separated in time, space, and quality.
Given these conditions, one must recognize the fact that no poetry is likely to have much direct impact on the social order. Still, as high modernism makes clear, in style if not in content, political poetry need not be embarrassingly simplistic. This form of poetry can profoundly engage one's sympathies, if not political allegiances. To do so, however, political poetry, and perhaps the more general category of ethical as opposed to perceptual poetry, must first of all recognize the enormous gulf between values found in meditating on nature and those explicitly developed by reflection on public themes and problems. With respect to public poetry, then, modernism is far more effective than the postmodern alternative because of the modernist reliance on tradition and the mythmaking or reconstructive imagination. First, tradition provides both a set of recurrent public and ethical problems that have been central to political debate and a series of roles and allusions that can give dignity and depth to the poet's social stance. Indeed the more fully one includes history in his work, as Yeats does for example in "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" and "Meditations in Time of Civil War," the more he perforce admits the complexity of political questions and achieves for himself a stance that can claim authority and universality for both its suffering and its ideals. Second, the very tension between ideals and the recalcitrance of history forces the poet to recognize the complexity of human motives and the enormous gulf, in both society and in the self, between the imagination and empirical reality.
Ideals make dualists of us all, but they need not force us to despair. The third advantage of the modernist poetic, in fact, stems directly from this gulf. For in order to reconcile desires bred by the traditions of imaginative literature with the realities societies produce in the name of these ideals, poets had to distinguish between social values and a deeper ground for values carried by the tradition but never realized. This social condition generates in turn an ethical distinction between empirical or social and ideal or best selves, and it gives the poets a powerful set of analogies between remaking the self imaginatively and reconstituting social order. In the poetry, then, social conflicts need not remain abstract nor invite self-righteous judgment. Social order becomes the parallel to the poet's remaking himself in terms of ideal images, and his struggles to establish poetic orders at once repeat and give authority to his pursuit of social order—an order dependent on correlating psychological and social materials. By making the self an analogue for redeemed society, these poets were easily tempted by elitist and authoritarian models of order, and they had their own problems in successfully distinguishing between art and politics. But because they were so aware of the ideal (not necessarily "fictive") status of their visions, their poetry maintained a sense of the difficulties and possible self-delusions involved in relating art and life, poetic tradition and political realities. And, more important, because they distinguished between perception and making or reconstructing viable social myths and images, their public poetry retained a sense of drama and conflict. They could create personae who could do more than pathetically record their hopes and confusions in the form of private notebooks. They felt that they could speak to society, not simply be overheard by it lamenting impersonal, demonic forces, and hence they articulated dignified forms of public speech as a last noble, if hopeless, model for the poet's active relationship to his society.
More than Levertov's work is at stake in this contrast, and the problems in developing an adequate postmodern public poetry are largely symptoms of psychological problems inherent in the aesthetics of presence. The quest for immanent plenitude, for example, leads readily toward quiescent passivity. Snyder and Levertov make it clear that too strong a sense of evil as mere privation and too much reliance on strategies of perception or imaginative stances as the mode for overcoming that privation leave the self helpless or pathetic in relation to social forces. Moreover, by locating most or all significant values in moments of vision, the poet has great difficulty constructing specific ethical values or moral images that are more applicable and more general than specific epistemological poses. The pursuit of immanence simply does not bring into play important rational faculties of the mind, nor does it focus the poet's attention on historical and traditional forces that might both define the contemporary situation and provide values and images from the past one can use to judge and transcend it. (pp. 235-38)
One ought finally to keep in mind that if the contrast with modernism serves to clarify the limits of the poetry of the sixties, it also helps in another way to illustrate the significance of its achievement. For in their attempts to articulate the creative powers of the imagination, even the greatest of the modernists blinded themselves to two primary needs in any society. They were unable to imagine culture except in ideal and mythic terms, and most of them could provide alternatives to what they saw as a vulgar positivist and philistine society only by returning to what now seem outmoded and indefensible forms of organicist social and metaphysical thought. The postmoderns would have performed a significant cultural role if they merely tried to right the balance. (pp. 238-39)
If they do not either reconcile us to society or lead us to want or to see how to change it, they do help reconcile us to the more general and perhaps more significant situations in which it is man's constant task to find ways of affirming his own existence. Postmodern poetry builds a temple out of nature, not a city, but that can be a considerable achievement even for those whose ultimate dream is some version of a redeemed society. History shows that man's efforts to build temples have little effect on the specific practices characterizing life in the city. Yet history also shows that without the temple, however it may be constructed, life in the city seems at best vulgar and callous, at worst a demonic force driving man back on the woeful inadequacy of endless introspection. When Lowell left Rome for Paris, the archetypal secular city, he found only the second alternative—forcing him to a more and more enervated self-consciousness and a desperate quest to locate all value in domestic experience. The other alternative, implicit in many poets and working for adequate expression in Miss Levertov's "Relearning the Alphabet," requires that one first seek ontological security and then gradually try to extend the terms of that security as the elements of a moral alphabet that one can begin applying to social issues. Once identity has a fixed base, it is possible to endure the contradictions, restraints, and tentative projection of ideals that constitute the public moral life. (p. 239)
Charles Altieri, "Denise Levertov and the Limits of the Aesthetics of Presence," in his Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960s (© 1979 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1979, pp. 225-44.
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Collected Earlier Poems—a selection from Denise Levertov's earliest English book, The Double Image (1946), and her three following collections, Here and Now (1957), Overland to the Islands (1958), and With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1960)—has appropriately just come out … as a complement to Life in the Forest (1978), allowing us to trace Miss Levertov's poetic development from its nervous English beginnings to the sensitive American balance of discourse and reflection. Composed for the most part in London in the Forties, the early and uncollected poems, tightly structured, already evince a desire for solitude and a celebration of the gifts of nature that are typical of the more mature Levertov. War is seen in them not as hatred or violence, but as mere lack of love, aridity of the spirit. What disturbs the writer is the boredom, the deprivation of wonder. In her Wordsworthian intimations she endeavors to survive, opposing inertia as if it were the real culprit, the root of many social evils. Mild intimations to be sure, but Miss Levertov's poetics does indeed start here…. (p. 360)
In The Double Image, a recurrent sense of loss prompts her to extemporize on death as not a threat but a rite to be accepted gladly and honored. This germ of a personal mythology burgeons in Here and Now with a fable-like aura added to it. Animated by the wildest zest for life, Miss Levertov listens keenly to "the humble rhythms, the falling and rising of leaf and star," where the falling is observed and treasured as much as the rising, death as much as life. What predominates, though, is still a predilection for bright colors and a call for the restoration in us of the animal quality of wonder. The thought of black as something terse, concentrated, and final is present only in "Ink Drawings" and "The Third Dimension," and it brings in a surprising note of honesty. As to the rest, the book is a hymn to "idiot" joy, which the poet still considers the best protection against the aridity of war and war's memories. Her weakness lies in a childish romanticism, which will be replaced later by a more substantial concision. Here the language is a bit too ornate, too flowery.
The quest for the real returns, even if feebly, in Overland to the Islands, together with occasional lapses into sentimentality. There is a strong, fresh presence of the maternal, best recalled in a beautiful poem on Wales, emblematic of the purity of nature. With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads continues this exploration. With polished style, Miss Levertov pries into things, objects, plants, to their last detail, their most hidden secret. This inward movement to the center of things, to the ultimate core, death, is her fullest achievement. There are warm intimacies here, but also meditations and Confucian analects. Most of all, there's an insistence on the need to watch nature as it incessantly recreates life. Nature is truth, says Miss Levertov, revising Keats. All the rest is false. This concept is taken up again in … Life in the Forest, where the two main themes of the previous collection—mother and the forest symbol—stand for the inevitability of death and the permanence of creation. (pp. 360-61)
N. E. Condini, "Embracing Old Gods," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1980; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016; reprinted with permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 6, March 21, 1980, pp. 360-61.
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Denise Levertov was fitted by birth and political destiny to voice the terrors and pleasures of the twentieth century. Granddaughter on her father's side of a Russian Hasidic Jew and on her mother's of a Welsh mystic, she has published poetry since the 1940s that speaks of the great contemporary themes: Eros, solitude, community, war…. How consistently she has constructed her poems of hard, solid and mysterious qualities can be seen in [Collected Earlier Poems 1940–1960]. (pp. 109-10)
Perhaps because she was educated by private tutors in her English childhood, Levertov seems never to have had to shake loose from an academic style of extreme ellipsis and literary allusion, the self-conscious obscurity that the Provençal poets called "closed" (trobar clus). Other poets—Adrienne Rich, for example—move away from an early brilliant but rigid and pedantic voice to direct and personal speech. A reading of Levertov's early work shows her to be remarkably consistent in theme and form throughout her career. A recent verse mass … takes up the threads of her first passion for physical beauty and emotional sincerity in human life. The tone is deeper and more tragic, naturally, as both private and public life move through these dreadful decades; yet even her first published poem, the haunting eight-line "Listening to Distant Guns," sounds the message of her perceptions, senseless terror and sacred natural existence. As an "evacuated" English girl in the southern countryside, she could hear the booming of cannon across the Channel.
Many poems of these early volumes are set in Mexico; others have New York or suburban country as their locale. Levertov plays with dialects and language, though not often. Her favorite style is to use a narrative as slightly sketched background for the presentation of a state of mind. Feeling is brought to clear expression while story or dramatic element is a shadow. Always rooted in the presence of a tangible, visible reality, the poems caress objects with praise…. Word and object are handled with a peasant strength, direct and wise. Titles are short, only one or two words. The influence of Rilke is here…. In an age of sarcasm, individual and mass alienation and "double-voiced" words, as Mikhail Bakhtin shows, when few famous poets in the West are being arrested for their political views, Levertov both writes and lives her belief in the poet as bringer of praise and hope. The publication of her early work reveals the good seed from which a rich harvest has come. (p. 110)
Doris Earnshaw, in a review of "Collected Earlier Poems: 1940–1960," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 109-10.
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Poetry and prose are different talents, originating from opposite spheres of the brain. Not many poets have the ambidexterity to do both well, but Denise Levertov ranks high among that elect. Her essays and memoirs [in "Light Up the Cave"] are not only marked by the intense personal integrity of her poems; they stand alone as works of art…. Her memoirs of Sexton, Rukeyser, Duncan and Herbert Read are free of nostalgia and are concrete and frank in the details of Levertov's close relationships with these poets. Also included are pieces on Levertov's experiences in wartime England, first as a ballet student, subsequently as a nurse. Both are moving on account of their perspicacity, distrust of authoritarianism in all its forms and compassion for other human beings.
A review of "Light Up the Cave," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the September 11, 1981 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1981 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 220, No. 11, September 11, 1981, p. 70.
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[In Light Up the Cave, Denise Levertov, a] noted poet with a fertile mind and unabashed emotions, treats her readers to a volume of prose about what it means to be, and to live as, a craftsman of language. The writing is rich, polished and complex—with insights to ponder, feelings to share, assumptions to correct and meaning to distill. A critic might object to certain statements or conclusions—that Solzhenitsyn, for example, has a "martyr complex" or that Sylvia Plath and other suicides could have done better than to confuse and complicate the independent entities of creativity and death—but the strong impression remains that here speaks a poet intensely loyal to her craft, abiding by an artist's inner rules and deserving attention and respect.
Intelligent and nourishing, her writing leaves a lingering glow long after the last page is turned….
This volume is a potpourri: assorted musings, subtle insights, tender memories of youth and strength, political passions, gentle but respectful accolades to other writers. The prose is utterly free of restraints, save those demanded by a fierce, independent spirit insisting at all times on honesty.
Part I offers three short stories with cliff-hanger endings. Part II squeezes the last drop of meaning out of the subtleties of good poetic structure—and, no, it is not boring reading. The next two parts depict a goodly dose of liberal sentiment, but served up in such a way as to force a smile. Part V is perhaps the most readable section—descriptions of friendships that nourished a writer of substance, the influence of early years that shaped and honed a questing mind. Finally, the book pays tribute to other exceptional writers—some known, some not so known.
This is a book to read, then reread at leisure.
Ingrid Rimland, "A Poet Offers Prose That Glows" (copyright, 1982, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission of the author), in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 18, 1982, p. 8.
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Denise Levertov is a poet whose public outspokenness has not harmed her reputation as a highly private poet. Candles in Babylon … displays the same technical expertise that marked her previous dozen books; there is little in the open form that she cannot manage: nostalgia, protest, satire or story. "The Great Wave" catches the excitement of swimming at the shore as a child, while "The Art of the Octopus" is a perfect description and allegory Levertov admits that one piece, written for an antidraft rally, really is a speech rather than a poem. Unfortunately, too many others move in the same direction, where good causes bury good poetry. Even her "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus" strikes me as pulpit oratory sprinkled with omnipresent "we's"—a word that the poet should use more sparingly. Poetry should entice and not force us to acceptance. (p. 75)
James Finn Cotter, "Poets Then and Now: A Review of Recent Literature" (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc. and the author; © 1983; all rights reserved), in America, Vol. 148, No. 4, January 29, 1983, pp. 75-6.∗
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The hallmark of Denise Levertov's prose [as in Light Up the Cave] is something so simple and elusive as clear eyed common sense. In the nature of things, so esoteric a virtue has not been grandly rewarded. Common sense? mainline writers along with their multicorporate pushers, have stampeded toward the rainbow named Avarice; others have shown a sorrowful, even despairing obsession with the Confession That Bares All.
Levertov is aware of the implications here, destructive as they are of political understanding and writers' craft. And of life itself, as in writers who have constructed a game called despair; and played it, bullet to head.
She takes up such matters, despair, anomie, political indifference, matters which most writers today prefer to keep decently out of sight and mind. She analyzes despair and its practitioners, and those who justify it as a resource. And by a parallel right instinct, she avoids the rapacious rush to trivialize life, to bring it in line with a desperate and trivial culture.
She is that rara avis, a poet, a political writer, very much a woman. These are the poles of her art as of her existence. She stays close to essentials, and the resolve, in the best sense, has paid off. Her writing remains wonderfully contemporary, it walks with us, illumines the journey of conscience that began in civil rights days and continues on into the eighties and the antinuclear struggle.
She charts the essentials; how we grew, what mistakes we made, how we failed one another, what gains and losses percolated, boiled over. And perhaps, most important, how we've grown, and into what….
There is a measure of courage required to march and be arrested. And there is another sort of courage, intelligence, and discipline implied in setting down a record of the march, the arrests, the meaning of it all. Their tone, excitement, verve! In the lives of most who take part, there is no comparable taste of the lost American art known as community.
Her essays thus hearten young and old alike; they are a diary of our neglected soul. Norman Mailer did something like this in the sixties; but since those heady days and nights, he, like most such marchers and writers, has turned to other matters….
Levertov is still marching, still recording the march. There are dazzling skills here; they start in the feet, rhythmically implanted in mother earth, and make their way, mysterious, tingling, into hand, fingers, pen. It begins with courage, a continuity of courage, a cold stream in the temperate larger stream of soul. Robert Frost's contrary stream, headlong in one direction when the rivers of a given time, and the voice of those rivers, would have us believe that "all is well."…
She tells of that comatose decade, the seventies, almost as though it hadn't existed. She marches, keeps something alive, is personally dispassionate. There was work to be done, that was all. It little mattered that the work was despised or ignored or neglected. It was simply there, as evil was, as the world was; as hope was. She is passionate only about the issues, life or death. In this she, so to speak, turns the cultural method on its head. That is to say, American writing in the seventies, both prose and poetry, was disproportionately passionate about the self, and correspondingly numb (passion not being in large supply) toward the public weal and woe. Thus was a natural balance thrown out of kilter.
In insisting on this balance, and thus restoring it, Levertov reminds me of Paul Goodman; in political sanity, in large scope and interest, in intellectual clarity—and especially in moral unabashedness. I think of her, as I recall him, unashamed to be old fashioned and patriotic, calling the country to accounts, being (horrors!) "judgmental" toward morons and rogues in high places, linking her work to spirits like Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Mother Jones, John Brown, the Quaker chroniclers—and, in our lifetime, to the incomparable Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day. Moralists, poets, activists, pacifists, abolitionists, prolabor, propoor, prohuman, these formed her history, as ours, if we can but rise to it; living it, rising to it, testing its native decency against the manifest social indecency of war, piratical economics, hatred of the poor, racism, nouveau riche clowning, the mad mutual rhythms of waste and want.
I have not so much as mentioned the richness and scope of her literary criticism. Multum in parvo; the entire book is beyond praise. I think of how, in a sane time, such a book and those which preceded it, including poetry, short stories, literary essays, social criticism, would form a university course entitled something like: A Renaissance Woman of the Late Twentieth Century. But this is dreaming; it would mean crossing jealous frontiers, violating "expertise."
Meantime, for those who come on this book, there is much to ponder, much to learn. Since these essays were published, several of her themes have grown, imperceptibly and ominously, like stalactites aimed at the heart of things. The despair for instance, which she analyzes so acutely, a point of departure for a debased theory of "art at the extremes"—despair has spread, become the national mood, from sea to shining sea….
All this being our predicament, political responsibility, resistance, together with the recounting and pondering and exemplifying—these can no longer be viewed as a choice in a range of choices. Our options, as they say, are no longer large…. [We] may choose to do nothing; which is to say, to go discreetly or wildly mad, letting fear possess us and frivolity rule our days.
Or we may, along with admirable spirits like Denise Levertov, be driven sane; by community, by conscience, by treading the human crucible.
Daniel Berrigan, S.J., in a review of "Light Up the Cave," in The American Book Review (© 1983 by The American Book Review), Vol. 5, No. 2, January February, 1983, p. 14.