Places Where the Mountains Sing to Each Other

Article excerpt

Dana Greene's book is filled with 20th-century poets--and Catholic spiritual leaders who peopled the church before, during and after the Second Vatican Council. This was the church world that poet Denise Levertov, the subject of Greene's biography, entered. It is a world that will be familiar to many readers, a world remembered with joy.

While this is definitively Levertov's story, her remarkable life, part of the canon of 20th-century American poets, is also a story of political activism and resistance to the Vietnam War, and of the poets who were participants in those years, and like herself went to jail for their convictions. The activists enriched her life and work.

Levertov was English. She had no formal education, except for a stint in nurses' training in England. Yet a depth of learning illuminates her writing. She grew up in a home surrounded by books and music, an appreciation of art, a talented older sister--and interesting parents. Her mother's ethnic background was Welsh, her father a Russian Jew. He converted to Christianity and was ordained in the Anglican church. Her desire to know was nourished in the domestic space created by her parents, although they were unable to inculcate a sense of religious piety in either of their daughters. Levertov was impressed, however, with the beauty of the liturgy and of church architecture, which touched her deeply.

If there is an ideal environment for a poet it probably isn't a cramped Greenwich Village apartment. Levertov, at her kitchen table, conjured up places of seclusion and delight to write such lines of lyrical truth as:

  but the uncommon speech of paradise tongue in which oracles
  speak to beggars and pilgrims speech akin to light with which
  at day's end and day's renewal, mountains sing to each other
  across cold villages.

One can more easily imagine its composition in a calm, quiet pastoral setting. Levertov, of necessity, tended her craft--more properly her vocation--during the early years of marriage and motherhood in a small, crowded Greenwich Village apartment where her husband, Mitch Goodman, was often depressed and her small son was given to tantrums. Earlier, Levertov had romanticized a life in New York City, but found the city filled with "materialistic hordes of people."

Biographer Greene (disclosure: we are friends) uses the lens of place to gain some understanding of Levertov's development as both a person and a poet. Everything Levertov accomplished--and it was considerable--happened in the mesh of domesticity. A Maine farmhouse where the family spent summers and some holidays offered an alternative to the high energy life of the "city that never sleeps. …