Journey into Mystery
Dana Greene’s Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life, a biography of Anglo-American poet Denise Levertov’s (1923-1997) long and complex journey as a poet, woman and searcher brings alive the writer’s lifetime vocation as a “celebrant of Mystery.” For Levertov, the life of the imagination was a “form of grace” that led her, as Dana Greene sums it up, “to live with the door of one’s life open to the transcendent.” This vocation drove Levertov to leave her Russian-Welsh parents in England when she was 23 to work in Europe, where she met Mitch Goodman, an American writer who hastily married her and brought her to New York, where she transformed herself into the leading American woman poet of her generation. When she died in Seattle in 1997, she had published 24 books of poetry, four books of essays, 25 interviews and earned endless honorary degrees and poetry prizes.
Levertov spent much of her life trying to reconcile in poems and essays the personal conflicts of her families and the social conflicts of the 1960s. Her father, a Jewish Russian emigrant to England who became an Anglican priest, remained a distant and enigmatic presence in Levertov’s childhood until his death in 1954; her mother, an ardent Christian unable to understand Denise or her neurotic older sister, alienated both her daughters by her tendency to dominate them. Denise was educated at home by her well-read parents and her own interest in poets, from George Herbert to the Victorians, along with inspiration from reading Rainer Maria Rilke and a letter she received from T. S. Eliot, to whom she had sent an early poem when she was only 12. Her marriage to Goodman brought together two very different writers who never overcame their rivalries and eventually divorced in 1975, leaving their conflicted son Nikolai to his own life as an artist.
Greene is at her best in showing how Levertov grew from a young poet of ideals in the Romantic tradition to a poet of “ordinary life” and Americanized language, under the influence of mentors she met around New York—William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth and Muriel Rukeyser. Levertov burst on the poetic scene with five books between 1956 and 1960, a success that alienated her husband, whose war novel was rejected several times before appearing in 1961. The only woman poet anthologized in New Poets of England and America in 1962, she moved from writing with “wonder and awe” about her love of life to confronting the conflicts in her personal world and to pursuing “the eternal questions.” After receiving critical praise for a decade, she was surprised to receive mixed reviews of her poetry of the mid ‘60s, in which she moved into the public poetry of protest against the Vietnam War, environmental degradation and American politics. This poetry also lost her the support of her mentor Robert Duncan, who accused her of self-righteous sloganizing.
After the break-up of her marriage and the end of the war, Levertov found stability in teaching at Tufts University and later at Stanford. But she drifted into a mid-life period of infatuations, self-doubt and loneliness. Out of this, as Greene shows in the most sensitive part of the biography, she “came into a new country” by building new friendships and following “the thread” of her poetry that linked her writing and life to “Mystery.” In the 1980s, she began, like C. S. Lewis before her, to realize that many of her readers and friends were people of faith—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Eileen Egan, Wendell Berry and many others. At Tufts and Stanford, she began attending religious services and reading spiritual writers. While composing a long poem on the doubting apostle St. Thomas, she migrated from lack of faith to “gratitude for life” and eventually decided “to act as if she believed.” This gradual transformation showed up in her acclaimed book of poems Oblique Prayers in 1984.
As she continued reading authors like Julian of Norwich, Pascal, Dom Herder Camara and Basil Pennington, she began to make retreats with Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., Murray Bodo, O.F.M, and others. These led her to seek reconciliation with her family and alienated writers and, eventually, with God. After moving to Seattle in 1989, she decided to learn more about the Catholic Church, which she joined in 1990, finding a home in St. Joseph’s Parish, where two Jesuits and a woman spiritual director helped her as she made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
This spiritual journey also prepared her to witness more explicitly to her faith in her poetry, in particular in meditative poems about Mount Rainier, which she could see from a park on Lake Washington near her house in south Seattle. As Levertov received numerous awards and honorary degrees in her later years, she continued to write essays on poetry, moving from an emphasis on the importance of meshing the meaning with the form of a poem (what she had called ‘organic form’ in an earlier essay) to the importance of expressing her “primary wonder” at the very existence of anything at all, which for her was a sign of divine Mystery.
This movement into Mystery also assisted her as she dealt privately with lymphoma in her last years. This final illness, which led her to decline an invitation to become America’s poet laureate, evoked a sense in Levertov of the preciousness of her own life (and of that of her ex- husband, who died in Massachusetts in early 1997). In a last interview with Image magazine, she affirmed the need for poetry in a computerized era and her own faith and hope in her share in the Resurrection, both of which inspired her to write 40 poems that were published after her death in December 1997.
In this biography, Greene, who has written lives of other spiritual thinkers like Evelyn Underhill and Maisie Ward, shows from Levertov’s private diaries and journals the close connection between her personal struggles, her poetic maturation and her spiritual transformation. As Levertov admitted in an interview around 1982, “My religious faith is at best fragile, but if, in fact, that which I hope is true is true, then I think God’s mercy may prevent the annihilation of our planetary life.... I also have strongly the sense of...the first shoots of some different consciousness, of moral evolution.” This statement echoes the theme of one of her best poems, “Beginnings,” written the same year: “We have only begun to know/ the power that is in us if we would join/ our solitudes in the communion of struggle.”