Denise Levertov Today

By Block, Edwin | The World and I, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Denise Levertov Today


Block, Edwin, The World and I


The Collected Poems (New Directions) of the late British-born, American poet, Denise Levertov, appeared in November, 2013. Along with two biographies (by Dana Green and Donna Hollenberg) that also appeared in 2013, Levertov, her life, and her poetry have now become accessible to a new generation of readers. What will they find?

Born in 1923, Levertov and her older sister Olga were home-schooled by their Welsh mother and Hasidic Jewish father. Paul Levertoff converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest while remaining a respected scholar of Hasidic Judaism. The family read books aloud, and the two girls danced and wrote. Denise even took art lessons for a time. But it was to poetry that she would devote her life, believing she had a vocation to be a poet. Levertov's mother taught Denise to observe the world around her. Levertov knew the names of many plants and animals that inhabited the parks and gardens around their London suburb home, where she and her sister and their friends loved to roam. Home-schooling made Levertov a life-long learner. Throughout life she read widely but deeply in literature, philosophy, art history, and a number of other subjects that caught her interest, or fueled a passion.

Olga--nine years older than Denise--went off to join the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Olga's estrangement from the family and her later life became a source of anguish to Denise for years. Levertov herself lived through WWII in England, even being sent at first as one of the children sheltered from the Blitz in the English countryside. Later she served in the Civilian Nursing Reserve, her experiences providing material for some of her early poems. She also became romantically involved with various young artist types with whom she spent her days off in the London cultural scene.

After the war she worked as an au pair in Holland (where she had an abortion, having gotten pregnant by one of her London boyfriends) and traveled with a girlfriend through France, Italy, and Switzerland. In Geneva she met and soon married a former GI, Mitchell Goodman, and together they moved to the United States in 1949. There she met and corresponded with William Carlos Williams who, along with Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, represented the cutting edge of Modernist American poetry. She also began a friendship with Black Mountain poet, Robert Creeley, and a decades-long friendship and correspondence with San Francisco poet, Robert Duncan.

Levertov nurtured her poetic vocation with the letters and poetry of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the poems of English Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the letters and poems of the Romantic poet, John Keats. She avidly read the English essayist John Ruskin on art and nature. Encouraged in her poetry by radical writer and artist, Herbert Read, Levertov perhaps began her own political education at this time. Later in life she admired the example of Chilean poet, diplomat, and political radical, Pablo Neruda.

Her earliest poetry (published in England after the war) was neo-Romantic in character. "Fear of the Blind" is the first of several poems that show her debt to Rilke. Poems like "Sarneno" and "Folding a Shirt" display the perceptual detail that would become her trademark. The latter--which handles terza rima with skill--begins:

   Folding a shirt, a woman stands
   still for a moment, to recall
   warmth of flesh; her careful hands

   heavy on a sleeve, recall
   a gesture, or the touch of love,
   she leans against the kitchen wall,

   listening for a word of love,
   but only finds a sound like fear
   running through the rooms above.

She published The Double Image in 1946 and Here and Now in 1957-- with the help of San Francisco poet and translator, Kenneth Rexroth.

But Williams--and America--transformed her style, and some of her first "American" volumes, With Eyes at the Back of our Heads and O Taste and See, turned heads in her adopted homeland, not least the head of Williams, who saw a challenge in its strong female voice. …

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