Catholic Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook

By Mary R. Reichardt | Go to book overview
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DENISE LEVERTOV (1923–1997)

BIOGRAPHY

Denise Levertov, one of America’s foremost contemporary poets, was born in Ilford, Essex, England, in 1923. Her religious heritage was a rich one, simultaneously Jewish and Christian. Her father Paul Levertoff was a descendant of Schneour Zalman, the founder of Habad Hasidism. He was a Russian Jewish scholar who converted and later became an Anglican priest. He wrote throughout his life about the connections between Judaism and Christianity. He also created liturgies to which he welcomed Jews at St. George’s, Bloomsbury, and he helped Jewish refugees in London during World War II. 1

Levertov’s Welsh mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, was raised a Congregationalist and was, like her husband, involved with political and human rights’ issues; she canvassed on behalf of the League of Nations Union and worked on behalf of German and Austrian refugees from 1933 onward. So it was natural that an interest in humanitarian politics came early into Levertov’s life.

Levertov believed that inherited tendencies and the cultural ambiance of her own family were very strong factors in her development. She felt that her father’s background in Jewish and, after his conversion, in Christian scholarship and mysticism, along with his fervor and eloquence as a preacher, ignited her imagination, even though as a child she refused to recognize that fact. She admitted in a 1986 interview for Sojourners (“‘Invocations of Humanity’: Denise Levertov’s Poetry of Emotion and Belief”) that although she rejected her parents’ world as restrictive and embarrassing, she could not help seeing, despite her teenage doubts, that the church services were beautiful with their candlelight and music, incense and ceremony, and stained glass, and she treasured the incomparable rhythms of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (Hallisey, p. 33). Similarly, Levertov felt that her mother’s Welsh inten-

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