Book Review

Lives of a Poet: Denise Levertov

Lovers of Denise Levertov—and I am one—may wonder what has happened to her as a presence in contemporary American poetry since her death in 1997. That is, what has happened to her reputation? Certainly other poets of note in their lifetimes have experienced an eclipse once they were deceased; it seems to be a necessary period of forgetfulness, a sort of anti-wake, waiting for a new generation to stir up the ashes. But anyone who has loved the poetry of Denise Levertov knows that she began to suffer an eclipse well before she left us. Her circle of friends and admirers, to be sure, was wide, and her accolades and invitations to read and teach—at her death, she had a truly international following—continued to the end, but her poetry was no longer part of the conversation. I do not think anyone, even her most loyal readers, would argue with that. Some have claimed, not without justification, that her political activism, which never waned throughout her career, infected her poetry and turned it from art to agitprop. And yet, to look through any of the work during her most intense political engagement is to find superb things that ought to be cherished, and have been, by Levertov’s devotees, if not by the makers of literary opinion. It does appear, however, that Levertov lost the attention of many of those who read poetry because her own emphasis turned from the making of poems as art to what to her was the more crucial making of politically efficacious statement. At a certain point she declined to give poetry readings, in fact, because she found them ineffectual, even effete.

That is the prevailing theory of Denise Levertov’s relative obscurity. However, I want to propose three others, all implied in two recent biographies.[1] First of all, she did not engage modern feminism, including lesbian feminism, in a way that allowed her to assimilate it before it excluded her, more or less by her own desire. Second, she did not see the way Language poetry would ascend in the academy, even though some of the premier figures in the movement had been her students. Third, in her later years, she returned to the Christian faith of her childhood. One of the outstanding poets of her generation, a generation which continues in its old age to produce fine work, has suffered an eclipse because of choices she made necessarily, because she was the kind of person she was—gifted, strong, intransigent, principled, leftist, heterosexual, and sometimes just plain wrong. Another more minor detraction for this poet who made perfect, minimal lyrics, which appeared from New Directions in slim volumes with black-and-white photography on their covers, is bound to be the doorstop-sized collected poems,[2] which includes all of her published work. It is simply incongruous for a blunt brick of a book to be the ultimate representative of this honed and elegant poet. A better representative is the Selected Poems that New Directions brought out in 2002, with a foreword by her old friend, the poet Robert Creeley.

Denise Levertov was born Priscilla Denise Levertoff in Ilford, England, in 1923. Her sister Olga, older by nine years, began her young adulthood as a promising scholar but became increasingly troubled by mental illness and died in middle age. The romantic biographies of Levertov’s parents were enough to provide a model for both children. Her father, a Russian Jew, found Christ while in school in Russia and, after extensive travel in Europe, settled in England and became an important Anglican priest, scholar, and advocate for Christian-Jewish relations, what today might be called ecumenicism. His wife, a teacher whom he met in Constantinople, was from Wales and had an Evangelical Christian background. Both Olga and Denise were homeschooled, their father serving as an example of the scholarly life, their mother giving her daughters an eye for the details of nature and art. Both parents were political activists and anti-fascists. Though Denise became estranged from the church early in her teenage years, she never forsook her Jewishness, in part because family life was so imbued with Jewish culture, particularly her father’s brand of Hasidism with its love of dance and song. Denise, known to her family as Denny, was encouraged in dance, painting, literature, and received little or no training in math or science. Her first ambition was to be a ballerina, but she changed her aspiration to poetry early on. Those who knew her have observed that she never lost her upright dancer’s posture, even when sitting down. Some attribute her imposing presence, despite her diminutive stature, in part to her training as a dancer, and some also saw this distinctive erectness as a sign of her lifelong imperiousness.

During World War II, Denise Levertov served the British war effort as a nurse. This is not an aspect of her life that many readers of her work are aware of, but since both her biographers mention this experience, it is notable. Her 1992 book, Evening Train, looks retrospectively on this experience, and knowing of it helps to illuminate one of her finest poems, surely a part of the canon of her poetry, “The Malice of Innocence,” from her 1972 book Footprints. That Levertov had this experience of World War II, seeing and caring for the victims of combat, must have contributed to her many poems opposed to American war efforts, specifically the Vietnam War, and to all war eventually and any sort of assault on the individual by the oppressive state apparatus. Reading the biographies against Levertov’s collections of poetry reveals her to be one of the most autobiographical poets of her generation, and yet one never associated with Confessional poetry. She is a poet in the mode of her great model William Carlos Williams, for whom the writing of poetry was part of the stream of life’s events. Working as a nurse in a London hospital or working as an antiwar activist or becoming re-engaged with the practice and iconography of Christianity are all of a piece in her poetry.

Music and dance both contributed to Levertov’s artistic formation, along with a love of the poet Rilke and the poets of the Romantic tradition, in particular Keats, the most musical of them all. Coming to the U.S. after meeting the young American novelist Mitchell Goodman in 1947 while both were traveling on the Continent, she gravitated to the poets of the William Carlos Williams tradition, in particular Kenneth Rexroth, who admitted to a personal infatuation with her, and Robert Duncan, who served as a mentor with whom she eventually broke. Mitchell Goodman like herself was Jewish, leftist, an aspiring writer. Their rocky marriage produced one child, Nikolai, who went through periods of estrangement from both parents but was with each of them when they died months apart in 1997. When Levertov and Goodman settled in New York in the early 1950s, she found her own poetics increasingly drawn to those of the Black Mountain School, though she never taught there. Robert Creeley was a natural friend and engaged Levertov more than any other in questions of rhythm and the line, though he and George Oppen both questioned her lyric tendencies, and Creeley gave her practical advice about the overly poetic resolutions of her poems. She became lifelong friends with Adrienne Rich, who noted that her English Victorianism was actually a sustaining characteristic. This makes sense if we remember that her parents’ activism was an extension of the Victorian desire to improve both self and society.

Interestingly, as Levertov found her way in the New York literary scene, she judged the poets of the New York School “rather slick” and “pretentiously avant-garde.” She also had her doubts about the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and the lifestyle of the Beats, including their experimentation with drugs. What she brought with her from England was the discipline of a young artist looking for the stability to practice her art and pursue her activism. And yet she didn’t bring much of a sense of humor or irony with her, an odd wrinkle in one who was essentially English and Jewish. Levertov grew up in a patriarchal household in a male-dominated society, like many another woman artist of her generation, and naturally inclined toward male mentors. Though she never subscribed to the feminism so important to her generation, when her mentors, like Robert Duncan, expressed their disappointment in the direction of her work, particularly in her political activism, she broke with them rather than submit to their criticism. When Adrienne Rich wrote, as an expression of her own burgeoning feminism, that “the dutiful daughter of the fathers is only a hack,” could she have been referring to Denise Levertov? Some of Rich’s associates might have thought so. However, Levertov appears to have chosen her mentors for what they could teach her and what she could teach them. This remained true throughout her life, including her relationship with her last mentor, Father Murray Bodo, when she was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Her take on all orthodoxies, including those she accepted, was always unorthodox and personal.

Coming to America when she did, married to an American, connected to and influenced principally by American poets, Denise Levertov found the opportunity for a career as a poet. New Directions, William Carlos Williams’ publisher, took her on as an author, she became part of the growing network of readings and conferences on college campuses, and eventually she held several academic posts. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a heady time for poetry as various camps and schools vied with and against the standards and establishments of the New Criticism. It was the era of the anthology wars. New Poets of England and America edited by Donald Hall, Louis Simpson, and Robert Pack, with its emphasis on poets writing in traditional verse who were heirs to the New Criticism, was followed by New American Poets edited by Donald Allen, which included the various strains arrayed against the so-called academic poets of the first anthology. Allen grouped the poets in his anthology according to Black Mountain Poets, New York School Poets, Beat Poets. Levertov found herself included among Allen’s Black Mountain Poets, largely because of her and their affinity for William Carlos Williams. Looking back on this period, one can see that the prize was not only acknowledgement from the always small readership for poetry, but also a position in the academy and the poetry establishment. Levertov was in particular a beneficiary. She became, for a time, poetry editor of The Nation, an advisory editor for W. W. Norton, and in 1962 received a Guggenheim fellowship in poetry, the first of many significant honors she would receive throughout her career, along with numerous academic appointments, both with tenure and as a visiting lecturer.

A distinction between the two biographies is that one of the biographers, Donna Krolik Hollenberg, was a student of Denise Levertov when she taught at Tufts. Her biography also situates Levertov’s poems in the various stages of her life, quoting generously, a strategy that Dana Greene does not follow. Though neither biographer appears to be writing anything like a hagiography or a debunking, it is Hollenberg who gives the clearest idea of what it was like to be in Levertov’s presence, this studious and dynamic mentee who became a powerful and at times overbearing mentor. Hollenberg records one particularly mortifying scene between Levertov and a graduate student who was writing a critical paper on Robert Bly. Taking exception to the student’s view, Levertov informed her in front of her classmates that she should not be in graduate school. While Hollenberg attributes the behavior to stresses in Levertov’s life—her mother’s death in 1977, her estrangement from her son, the end of her marriage, even department politics—she also remembers that she and her fellow students felt relieved when Levertov resigned from teaching at Tufts.

Though Levertov’s attitude toward fellow poets, friends, and students was often polarized by her certainty that she was correct, her poetry from 1962 to 1972, the years of her antiwar activism, reflects a seamless artistry. Robert Duncan, a spiritual mentor if anything, objected to her activism, not because he favored the war, but because as an anarchist, he saw such activity as an unconscious expression of personal psychology and a distraction from one’s art. He went so far as to represent his former mentee as the destructive female figure, Kali. The rupture this created between him and Levertov was never really repaired, though efforts were made by each of them to do so until Duncan’s death. While it is true that some of Levertov’s poetry of the Vietnam War period suffered from a sentimentalizing of the Vietnamese, as in the poem “What Were They Like?” in 1967’s The Sorrow Dance, in the same volume there is “Life at War,” a great cautionary poem of the deformation of the spirit caused by America’s endless military conflicts. Being constantly at war infects all manner of expression and action so that, as the poem concludes:

nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have.

It is telling, however, that Robert Creeley himself, in his introduction to the Selected Poems, reserves special praise for those of Levertov’s poems which speak “particularly of what being a woman constitutes” and singles out “Hypocrite Women,” “Losing Track,” “The Ache of Marriage,” and “Stepping Westward”—all except “Stepping Westward” poems from the early 1960s, before The Sorrow Dance, the book which announced her full engagement with the antiwar movement. “Stepping Westward,” while included in The Sorrow Dance, looks back to the pastoral lyricism (the title is from Wordsworth) and the emphasis on the feminine which first brought her the attention of the American male elders:

What is green in me
darkens, muscadine.


If woman is inconstant,

good, I am faithful to


ebb and flow, I fall
in season and now


is the time of ripening.
If her part


is to be true,
a north star,


good, I hold steady
in the black sky


and vanish by day,
yet burn there


in blue or above
quilts of cloud.


There is no savor
more sweet, more salt


than to be glad to be
what, woman,


and who, myself,
I am, a shadow


that grows longer as the sun
moves, drawn out


on a thread of wonder.

This is the poet whom Kenneth Rexroth compared to Dante’s Beatrice and with whom via their correspondence he fell in love. But when the didactic and strident, as he perceived them, emerged in her poetry, like Duncan—like many of Levertov’s male advocates—he was turned off and turned away.

Levertov felt this disaffection keenly and, because of her own strength of will, responded angrily. It is illuminating to put this conflict beside her conflict with the emergence of feminism in the 1970s, as the Vietnam War comes to an end. Second wave feminism, as it is now called, raised issues for Levertov to which she responded with her typical emphasis on her own identity, claiming for example that she had never made “an aesthetic decision” based on her gender. She went further in this regard, stating she was neither a “woman poet” nor a “man poet,” but simply “a poet.” Privately she shared her concern that what she called “lesbian feminists” were creating a “new sexism.” Still, she based part of her objection to feminism on its being derived from the experiences of the privileged, white middle class and justified her own heterosexuality by saying that even though she liked men that didn’t mean she believed “in their continued dominance of society.” She was not the only woman writing poetry at the time who refused to be defined by feminist politics. Elizabeth Bishop declined to be included in anthologies that included only women poets. But Levertov’s reaction is of a piece with her own sense of herself and her achievement and, unfortunately, suggests a blindness on her part to her initial success in the male-dominated world of poetry once she came to the United States. It is also troubling to see her struggle to comprehend the lesbianism of her old friend Adrienne Rich and to learn that she never recognized that her friend and fellow activist Muriel Rukeyser was also a lesbian. Was this willful blindness? Yes, apparently, but only in part. She also saw feminist poetics as a form of Confessionalism, a kind of writing, with its emphasis on shame, regret, and self-exposure, for which she had no use. It could be argued that these are the responses of an artist who thought of herself as essentially representative, with a set of values which because it derived from her own genius had an unquestionable integrity. She was correct, as in her politics. Others who thought otherwise were not correct. Her greatest strength may be seen as her greatest flaw.

Another “mistake” that she may have made was not to recognize, while she taught at Berkeley, a post she held before going to Tufts, that her class consisted of future Language poets like Rae Armantrout. While Armantrout remained a friendly correspondent throughout Levertov’s life, her aesthetics and those of Language poetry, in Levertov’s view, valued style over content. This, too, is an interesting conundrum. When Levertov came on the American scene she had already made the transition from traditional verse to a verse more in line with the experimental style of William Carlos Williams. Other prominent members of her generation of American poets would make this transition later, in the 1950s and 1960s: Robert Lowell in Life Studies in 1959, W. S. Merwin in The Moving Target in 1963, and Adrienne Rich in Necessities of Life in 1966. In a demonstrable sense, Levertov was already there. Her argument with the American experiments of style, whether they were the New York School or the Beats or the incipient Language poets was that poetry, no matter in what form it may be written, was always a matter of content. A poem was an expression of strong feeling, which for her was the wedding of Keatsian lyricism with Williams’ vernacular free verse line. Being the strong willed and integrated person she was, when she saw that lyric aspiration contradicted and undermined, she had to object. It is tempting to compare her to her countryman, Philip Larkin, who said memorably in his Paris Review interview over thirty years ago that form was nothing to him, content was everything. This was not how she thought, in fact. Her goal was music, but her master was Williams. Every poem had to find its own form, and as her friend Robert Creeley had implied, form grew out of content. She never would have thought, like Larkin, that the verse form, as a vessel of tradition, could take care of itself. Nevertheless, I think she should be valued for her principled stand against Language poetry. Considering the ascendency of Language poetry in the academy and in the poetry establishment generally, her opposition to it appears to be one more reason for her eclipse.

It could be that Denise Levertov’s last mistake (and it should be clear that the word is meant ironically) was a return to the Christianity of her parents and her childhood, but with the difference of her full maturity as an adult. We begin to see the movement toward a renewed faith after the death of her mother in 1977. By that time, of course, Levertov’s father had been long deceased as had her beloved, unstable older sister; she was divorced from Mitchell Goodman and going through a period of estrangement from her son. She was living in Palo Alto while at Stanford, her last teaching post, and becoming more and more interested in correspondence with writers she knew to be Christian, like Wendell Berry, who shared her activist political views as well. She made what her biographer Dana Green calls a Pascalian wager, to “act like a Christian.” Her poetry from 1982 until her death became increasingly reflective of her engagement with Christianity, in particular Roman Catholicism. Levertov had long admired the devotional poetry of the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, having adopted his terms “inscape” and “instress” for one of her finest essays on the poetic process, “Some Notes on Organic Form.” Now she came to understand that poetry was work that, in her word, “enfaithed.” Her collections Candles in Babylon in 1982, Oblique Prayers in 1984, and Breathing the Water in 1987 take us up to her reception into the Roman Catholic Church in 1990. Remarkable poems from these books include “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” (“I believe the earth / exists, and / in each minim mote / of its dust the holy / glow of thy candle.”), the wonderful ekphrastic “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velazquez)” (“She listens, listens, holding / her breath. Surely that voice / is his—”), and “Annunciation” with its frank Mariolatry (“Bravest of all humans, / consent illumined her”). I would put the lyricism of these poems, all devotional in nature and written in the last fifteen years of her life, against any being written today.

In 1993, after having retired from Stanford and moved to Seattle, she received her diagnosis of lymphoma. She lived with her cancer, as privately as possible to hear her biographers tell it, keeping even from friends the direness of her condition, which eventually destroyed her digestive system. Hollenberg’s account of the scene at her deathbed, when her son Nikolai began a spontaneous chant about his mother in her honor, may move one to tears. While both biographies give us plenty of details about Levertov’s love affairs, her unhappy marriage, problems with her son, the sadness of her own attitude toward aging alone without male companionship, the difficult person she could be as a friend and teacher, her attachment to a doll, Monkey, which lasted from childhood to old age, all the sorts of things that I suppose we need to know, it is Hollenberg’s account that gives us the fullest portrait of this complicated and brilliant woman. It may be that in the many details of her life we can see the reasons for her successes and failures. Now, however, so many years after her death, I hope these biographies can be read for an understanding of the ground—the content—from which extended and grew her extraordinary and enduring lyric gift.

[1] DENISE LEVERTOV: A Poet’s Life, by Dana Greene. University of Illinois Press. $35.00.
A POET’S REVOLUTION: The Life of Denise Levertov, by Donna Krolik Hollenberg. University of California Press. $44.95.
[2] THE COLLECTED POEMS OF DENISE LEVERTOV, ed. and annotated by Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey, with an introduction by Eavan Boland. New Directions. $49.95.