Denise Levertov (1923–1997)Denise Levertov is an acclaimed American poet despite her birth and early years in Britain. Her family background was extremely important to her (her father was a rabbi and then an Anglican priest, and her poetry is influenced by both traditions, as well as by her mother’s Welsh background). Her first book was published in England when she was 23, and she moved to New York in 1948, having married the American writer Mitchell Goodman. Not long after her arrival, the American poetry scene exploded with rebellion against the New Critics and their followers. Levertov found herself in the middle of this, and her poetry was stimulated by her fellow poets, including friendships with William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan (who introduced her to H. D., another influence).
The Double Image. London, The Cresset Press, 1946.A native Englishwoman, Levertov published her first formal and romantic book in London. Levertov described breaking into print in an almost accidental manner:
I had just succeeded in landing a nursing job I wanted, at St. Luke’s Hospital, Fitzroy Square; and so carried on a wave of my satisfaction about that, I walked into the offices of The Cresset Press, which I caught sight of at the corner of the square upon completing my successful interview with the matron of St. Luke’s. Accidentally, I entered by way of the stockroom, and a packer there let me ascend to Irene Calverley’s office. She was courteously but firmly instructing me that this was not the way to approach a publisher when something—my youthful appearance (I was twenty-one but looked seventeen) or crestfallen expression—made her decide to look into my ill-typed manuscript anyway. She then told me to leave the package and my address and phone number with her. A few days later she called to say John Hayward had read the poems and accepted them for publication. I remember going into a church somewhere in Soho to kneel in awe because my destiny, which I had always known as a certain but vague form on the far horizon, was beginning to happen.
Here and Now. San Francisco, City Lights, 1957.
Overland to the Islands. Highlands, NC, Jonathan Williams, 1958.
In the mid 50’s (when I was living in New York City) I received a letter from Weldon Kees, who was only a name to me, saying that he’d read and liked my work and wanted to publish a book of it in a small press series he and a printer friend were planning. I was delighted and sent him a manuscript with which he was pleased. But before the book went into production came news of his death, or at least of his presumed death by a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge. I never met him. Perhaps a year later, one “Larry Ferling,” as Lawrence Ferlinghetti then called himself, wrote to say that my poems had come into his hands after Weldon Kees’s death and that he would like to publish them; he was just starting the City Lights Series then.
Not much later Jonathan Williams wrote to say he would like to do a book. Because the Kees/Ferlinghetti offer had come first, I offered Ferlinghetti first choice of all the poems I had by then accumulated (a somewhat larger group than the original Kees project) and gave Jonathan “the rejects” plus what still newer work I had done in the intervening months. Thus, poems that should really have been in a single book together because of their relationships were arbitrarily divided between Here and Now and Overland to the Islands. Robert Duncan, who had read them all in typescript, pointed out to me that I should not have let either book be so loosely, thoughtlessly thrown together; and for the first time I realized that a book of separate poems can in itself be a composition, and that to compose a book is preferable to randomly gathering one.
—Denise Levertov in the Author’s Note to Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960 (New Directions, 1979)
With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads. New York, New Directions, 1959.Levertov’s fourth book of poems was published by New Directions, Kenneth Rexroth having introduced publisher James Laughlin to Levertov’s poetry. She was to stay with New Directions throughout the remainder of her life. Poet Jean Garrigue characterizes Levertov’s poetry in a review in Chelsea magazine in 1960:
Denise Levertov is concerned with making a certain kind of poem and achieving a certain kind of aesthetic effect by means of it. So far as I see it, it is a kind of askance impressionism, proceeding by indirections indirectly and by allusion, pitched in a low key, the approach quasi-conversational, informal, deliberately casual, rather intimate—a low key, yet by means and manner of juxtaposition striving to move into the high key of perception, “The quick of mystery” as she says, into that surprise that gets the poem off the ground into the shimmer and tremor of Possibles.
The Jacob’s Ladder. New York, New Directions, 1961.In a letter to her mentor William Carlos Williams, Levertov takes issue with his comments about the “American Idiom” and the title poem of the volume:
For me, personally, I cannot put the idea of American idiom first. For you it has been a focus, almost a mission. But each person must know his own needs. My need and desire is in each poem to find the tone and measure of what I feel, whether the language, word by word or measure by measure, strikes the reader as “American” or not. That poem you were distressed by, “The Jacob’s Ladder,” has to be the way it is because it sounds the way I think and feel about it, just as close as I can make it.Later when they met, Williams was to tell Levertov that he liked the poem and ask her to read it to him no less than four times.
And I believe fervently that the poet’s first obligation is to his own voice—to find it and use it. And one’s “voice” does not speak only in the often slipshod, imprecise vocabulary with which one brings in the groceries but with all the resources of one’s life, whatever they may be.
O Taste and See. New York, New Directions, 1964.
The Sorrow Dance. New York, New Directions, 1966.
To Stay Alive. New York, New Directions, 1971.
The sense of community, of fellowship, experienced in the People’s Park in Berkeley in 1969, deepened and intensified under the vicious police attack that for middle-class whites especially, was so instructive. The personal response that moves from the identification of my lost sister, as a worker for human rights, with the pacifists ‘going limp’ as they are dragged to the paddywagon in Times Square in 1966, to the understanding by 1970 that “there comes a time when only anger/ is love,” is one shared by many of us who have come bit by bit to the knowledge that opposition to war, whose foul air we have breathed so long that by now were are almost choked forever by it, cannot be separated from opposition to the whole system of insane greed, of racism and imperialism, of which war is only the inevitable expression. —Denise Levertov, “Author’s Preface,” To Stay Alive (1971).Levertov’s books of this time were controversial.
Life in the Forest. New York, New Directions, 1978.
Candles in Babylon. New York, New Directions, 1982.
Oblique Prayers. New York, New Directions, 1984.
Breathing the Water. New York, New Directions, 1987.
Pavese’s beautiful poems are about various persons other than himself; though he is a presence in them also, their focus is definitely not autobiographical and egocentric and in his accompanying essays he speaks of his concept of suggesting a narrative through the depiction of a scene, a landscape, rather than through direct recounting of events as such.These poems enlighten her own increasingly strong “decision to try to avoid overuse of the autobiographical, the dominant first-person singular of so much of the American poetry—good and bad—of recent years.” A combination of concord and acceptance is increasingly evident in Levertov’s work of the eighties, in which she moves to “the position of Christian belief.” She opines:
Where Wallace Stevens says "God and the imagination are one," I would say that the imagination which synergizes intellect, motion and instinct, is the perceptive organ through which it is possible, though not inevitable, to experience God.
—Denise Levertov, “Statement on Poetics,” from Donald Allen’s New American Poetry (1960)
—Denise Levertov, in The Sullen Art, interviews by David Ossman (1963).
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