A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov

A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov

A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov

A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov

Synopsis

This first full-length biography of Anglo- American poet and activist Denise Levertov (1923-1997) brings to life one of the major voices of the second half of the twentieth century, when American poetry was a powerful influence worldwide. Drawing on exhaustive archival research and interviews with 75 friends of Levertov, as well as on Levertov's entire opus, Donna Krolik Hollenberg's authoritative biography captures the full complexity of Levertov as both woman and artist, and the dynamic world she inhabited. She charts Levertov's early life in England as the daughter of a Russian Hasidic father and a Welsh mother, her experience as a nurse in London during WWII, her marriage to an American after the war, and her move to New York City where she became a major figure in the American poetry scene. The author chronicles Levertov's role as a passionate social activist in volatile times and her importance as a teacher of writing. Finally, Hollenberg shows how the spiritual dimension of Levertov's poetry deepened toward the end of her life, so that her final volumes link lyric perception with political and religious commitment.

Excerpt

“Take responsibility for your words,” Denise Levertov admonished her students in the late 1970s. She sat in her office in the erect posture of a ballet dancer, brown eyes sparkling, curly hair unruly, speaking to her graduate poetry seminar about Hopkins or Williams, or perhaps H. D. She chose her own words very carefully, often pausing between them, sometimes even calling our attention to their sounds: “Meeasure,” she said, mischievously drawing out the vowel sound in the first syllable, “it rhymes with pleeasure.” Once, after class, when I showed her a poem of my own that anticipated future changes in my life, she turned to me and repeated the word revolution, trilling the r and flashing her gap-toothed smile in conspiracy. “It’s from the Latin, revolvere,” she said, offering historical validation.

Many years passed before I understood the importance of that word to Levertov. Not only did it connote political activism and momentous cultural change, as in the Beatles’ song, but it also meant something more radical: a reawakening of the spirit, of understanding, of empathy, and of the capacity for transformation. This is what poetry achieves for both poet and reader. As Levertov said in the late 1960s, responding to the political crises swirling around her, “If I speak of revolution it is because I believe that only revolution can now save that earthly life, that miracle of being, which poetry conserves and celebrates.” The title of my biography, A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, reflects this range of meanings.

My book also attempts to portray Denise Levertov’s creative development. “Who am I?” was an endlessly generative question for this poet. When she was asked to contribute to a collection of self-portraits by writers in the early 1970s, Levertov sent a paragraph she had written as a writing exercise with her students . . .

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