Denise Levertov's Ambivalence about Feminist Poetry: Biographical Context, Interpretive Possibilities

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IN her late essay, "The Last of Childhood--For Jean, In This Life or The Next, Denise Levertov remembers a painful rift with Jean Rankin, then her best friend, over an issue feminist critics would relate to the social construction of gender. Denise and Jean were aged 9 and 8, respectively, when they formed a "Secret Society (of two) called the Adventure Seekers," and enjoyed prowling around the local parks. Sometimes they pretended to be Robin Hood and Little John; other times they paddled and splashed in a shallow river. On the day they quarreled, to Denise's dismay, Jean was "reluctant to take off her shoes and socks and tuck her skirt into her knickers" (Tesserae 61). Jean said that now that they were older "it was not ladylike to mess about in the stream" (Tesserae 61). Denise was indignant and launched into a lecture, arguing that Jean's concept of what was ladylike was "absurd and narrow-minded," and that "the only kind of ladylikeness that had any value was to be honorable and chivalrous, like a Knight of the Round Table" (Tesserae 61). Further, she brought her mother into it, saying her mother was not a "lady" in "that stupid way" and, worst of all, she insisted that if Jean didn't retract her silly announcement and "take her shoes off and get into the stream," she'd "never speak to her again." Although Jean looked miserable at this ultimatum, she was unwilling to comply, and Denise, filled with "passionate anger," trudged back home on a separate street. Even when Jean's mother called ten days later to say Jean missed her very much, Denise, who was also lonely, refused to relent. Although the two met casually as young adults, they never redressed this quarrel, which Denise deeply regretted many years later. She felt her "unkindness and hardness of heart" were a source of "just remorse," and her essay is a public apologia she hopes her friend will read (Tesserae 63).

If one knew nothing else about Levertov's life and work, one might think, on the basis of her pre-pubescent aversion to the cultural stereotypes around "proper" feminine behavior, that she must have later been an avid participant in the Women's Movement and considered herself a feminist poet. But that is not the case. As she put it in a 1979 interview with Fay Zwicky, although she acknowledged that the Women's Movement affected her life, she had not had what she called an "active connection" with it. She thought some of the poetry that emerged from it very bad because it was written by people who are "feminists first," who think of poetry as a "vehicle for their feminism" (qtd. in Brooker 117). Although obviously in favor of poetry by women, she objected to the concept "Women's Poetry," because "it is used by some feminist groups to mean poetry by women for women," thus limiting the audience. She felt that the Arts must transcend gender: "If it's a good work of art, then it's for anyone that wants it." In her opinion, one should not "utilize" an art, but "serve" it. "The art is greater than oneself, something sacred--not something to be ... manipulated." Later in this interview, she voiced two other objections. First, she believed that the second wave of the Women's Movement grew out of and at the expense of the protests against the Vietnam War. It seemed to her to be "extraordinarily white-middle-class privilege-type thinking" to drop one's attempts to stop the Vietnam war when Vietnamese children are being napalmed, and say that one's priority is women's liberation. Second, she thought that the "radical Lesbians" had come to dominate the Women's Movement, which she found offensive because a Women's Movement has to be for all women: according to Levertov, there shouldn't be an attitude that says that you are not a feminist if you're not lesbian. Further, in her 1982 essay "Genre and Gender v. Serving an Art," she rejected the existence of a poetics that is specific to women. Although she frequently portrays female experience and writes explicitly in a woman's voice, she wrote, "I don't believe I have ever made an aesthetic decision based on my gender" (New and Selected Essays 102). …