Denise Levertov Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Tracing Denise Levertov’s religious dispositions throughout her life, how does religious, mystical, or Transcendental discourse operate in her poetry?

How do the high modernists, Imagists, and postmodernists affect Levertov’s line, meter, and imagery? From whom does she borrow, and how does she implement her acquired tools and materials?

Where and how does Levertov insert herself and her own life into her work?

Considering a piece such as “Carapace,” does Levertov try to teach with her poetry? If so, who would be her audience?

How does the interplay between domestic and global policy play into works such as “What Were They Like?” and “A New Year’s Garland for My Students/MIT: 1969-70”?

How does nature operate in Levertov’s poetry? Is it generative? Destructive? Containable?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

The Poet in the World (1973) gathers prose articles, reviews, criticism, statements to the press, and tributes to fellow poets by Denise Levertov (LEHV-ur-tawf). Light Up the Cave (1981), her second volume of prose pieces, includes three short stories, articles on the nature of poetry and politics, speeches and political commentary, and memoirs and notes on other writers—Hilda Morley, Michele Murray, Bert Meyers, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anton Chekhov. Of particular interest are the pages on dream, memory, and poetry and the details of her arrest and imprisonment experience as a war protester.

Levertov also wrote a novella, In the Night: A Story (1968), and the libretto for an oratorio, El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation (pr. 1983). With Kenneth Rexroth and William Carlos Williams, she edited Penguin Modern Poets Nine (1967). She produced translations of other poets’ works, including In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali (1967, with Edward C. Dimock, Jr.), Selected Poems, by Eugene Guillevic (1969), and Black Iris, by Jean Joubert (1988). Her final prose work, Tesserae (1995), consists of autobiographical fragments that composed a “mosaic” of the poet’s life.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Denise Levertov’s first book of poems, The Double Image, was published in England in 1946. It brought her to the attention of British and American critics and poets such as Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Creeley. Eleven years later, her first American book was published, followed by many volumes of poems and several translations of other poets’ work. She taught at many institutions, including Vassar College; Drew University; City College of New York; University of California, Berkeley; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Brandeis University; Tufts University; and Stanford University. As the poetry editor of The Nation in the 1960’s, she influenced the critical reception of new poets. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her many awards include the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine in 1960, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1962, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1965, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1976 for The Freeing of the Dust, both the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award and the Shelley Memorial Award in 1983, the Frost Medal in 1990, the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry in 1993, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1995, and a Washington State Book Award in 1996.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brooker, Jewel Spears. Conversations with Denise Levertov. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998. Collects interviews with Levertov conducted by various interviewers from 1963 to 1995. The most common themes addressed are faith, politics, feminism, and poetry.

Felstiner, John. “Poetry and Political Experience: Denise Levertov.” In Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century, edited by Diane Wood Middlebrook and Marilyn Yalom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985. Shows that Levertov awakens human sensitivity—male and female—by insisting on the sacramental quality of all physical presence. In poetry, she finds hope while facing the horrors of war in Central America, in Vietnam, and in American cities. Felstiner’s words on the oratorio El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation are particularly worthwhile.

Lacey, Paul A. “Denise Levertov: A Poetry of Exploration.” In American Women Poets, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1986. Considers the influence of Hasidism in Levertov’s poetry: She treats the miraculous in a matter-of-fact tone. Her weakness in the early poetry, Lacey says, stemmed from an inability to deal seriously with evil in the world. Later, however, she grew into the political consequences of what it means to be, as she says, “members one of another.”

Marten, Harry. Understanding Denise Levertov. Columbia: South Carolina University Press, 1988. One of the most important studies of Levertov in book form, Marten’s analysis covers four decades of poetry. Individual chapters give an overview, a history of the earliest poetry, an analysis of the volumes that established her reputation, a consideration of her public voice, and a discussion of spiritual dimension in her later development. The annotated bibliography of critical articles is particularly helpful.

Rodgers, Audrey T. Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993. Examines Levertov’s political commitment to antiwar themes in particular, placing poems on this topic in relation to Levertov’s earlier work and her life. The author had access to Levertov herself and to previously unpublished letters in the preparation of this study.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Denise Levertov. New York: Twayne, 1967. Although written when Levertov was in mid-career, this biography, survey of poems, and bibliography provide an excellent introduction to the poet’s life and work. Seven chapters discuss Levertov’s family and education in England, her poetic themes and forms, and influences from modernist poets. Includes a chronology and notes.