Denise Levertov: Artists, Pictures, Poems, and the Path to Conversion

By Block, Ed, Jr. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Denise Levertov: Artists, Pictures, Poems, and the Path to Conversion


Block, Ed, Jr., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


There is growing evidence that the influence of postmodernism is waning. Certain aspects of the career and posthumous reputation of the British-born, American poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997) may provide insight into this dynamic, and into the path to her conversion to Catholicism in 1990. Levertov lived and wrote through the zenith of High Modernism and into the postmodern decades, often standing steadfastly against some of those trends. Her arguments about art with fellow-poet Robert Duncan--who might be seen as an example of early postmodernism --constitute an important snapshot of those years.

Levertov was an avid though self-taught connoisseur of art and, especially toward the end of her long career, wrote a number of noteworthy poems on art and artists, reflecting a nuanced but--compared to Duncan --more traditional view of art. A number of these poems are explicitly religious in subject and motive. Her conversion came at the end of two decades during which she wrote poems with an increasingly spiritual dimension as well as poems about art and artists that blended discriminating artistic and religious insight. This essay proposes to examine Levertov and Duncan's arguments about art as a context for discussing some of the poems on art that she wrote after having freed herself from Duncan's influence, and as she found her way back to religious belief. Such a study will help readers understand how Levertov's aesthetic views and those poems about art define the ekphrastic spirit in her poetry. It will also show how this spirit helps explain the place of art in her conversion, and her subsequent success in the genre of religious poetry.

Emily Archer and Donna Hollenberg--but few others--have commented on the place of art in Levertov's work. But a survey of her published prose shows that, over the span of three decades, she refers to more than thirty-six different artists and/or artworks. Her correspondence with William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan (1) includes reference to another sixty-one. And a survey of her published poems shows that from "Kresch's Studio" in the early 1950s until "Southern Cross"--after a sculpture by American artist Philip McCracken in the posthumous volume, This Great Unknowing (1999) (2)--Levertov published numerous poems about specific artworks, photographs, or artists. There is also a class of poems inspired by art, even if they don't refer to particular artists or works. These poems, too, I would argue, are "ekphrastic in spirit." (3) These facts would suggest the need for a more sustained study of ekphrasis ("the verbal representation of visual representation" (4)) in Levertov's work than has been offered in the excellent, but somewhat narrow scholarship that has been done thus far.

The goal of this study, then, will be to suggest the appeal of art for Levertov, why it does not appear in her poetry sooner, and what an understanding of her ekphrastic poems contributes to a clearer understanding of her other work. A further benefit will be what we learn about how much, despite their disagreements over art and artists, Levertov learned from Robert Duncan about art. It is not enough to see how a common quest to convey "reality" motivated both poets, or how the achievement of something like "Romantic oneness" with the subject of the work underlies Levertov's poetic rendering of art. We need to see that certain historical factors, a preference for the "representational," and a quest for the transcendent all contribute to her fascination with art and artists and, as a result, motivate her best ekphrastic poems.

It is worthwhile to dwell briefly on the antecedents from which Levertov's interest in art derives. Hollenberg notes that--as a girl in London before WWII--Levertov wanted to be an artist. From references in Tesserae, (5) her collection of autobiographical sketches, we learn that she tried to take art lessons ("Meeting and Not Meeting Artists"). From other sketches in the same collection, one might conclude that her artistic taste ran to the mysterious (Salvator Rosa in "A Dance"), the fantastical (Watteau in "Two Ancients"), or the mystical (Chagall in "A Sack of Wings"). …

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