Something Extraordinary: Denise Levertov’s perennial appeal

In his elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” the British poet W. H. Auden says of the Irish poet, “He became his admirers.” That is the case with every writer when he or she dies. It is almost 17 years since the British-born American poet and Catholic convert Denise Levertov died. Now she has become her admirers. And they are us. Elsewhere in the poem on Yeats, Auden says, more bluntly: “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living.” This, too, is a way of referring to a poet’s reputation. Ms. Levertov’s words are transformed by our understanding of them. To change the metaphor, her words—her poems, her reputation—are like a child of 16; young and still vulnerable.

It is now for us to ask: What is her enduring worth? With two biographies now off the press (one by Dana Greene, the other by Donna K. Hollenberg) and the Collected Poems (edited by Paul Lacey and Anne Dewey, published by New Directions) now available, such an assessment has yet to be made. And on us depends the future, the fortune of her words, her reputation. We can put the question another way: Why would a poet who began publishing poems in the late 1940s—but who continued to publish until her death in 1997—be worth reading today? To answer briefly: She is worth rereading and remembering now because of her continued relevance to the 21st century.

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Born in Ilford, in northeast London, in 1923, she began writing early, sending poems to T. S. Eliot, who sent a letter in return praising them. As a young woman she was also a would-be artist and dancer, a daughter, a sister, a nurse and an early activist (she and her older sister Olga sold the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, on the streets of London during World War II).

After the war, she married a G.I. and moved to the United States, where the poet Kenneth Rexroth introduced her to American readers in 1949. Through her correspondence with William Carlos Williams and her association with Black Mountain poets like Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, she quickly became American in idiom, if not in sensibility. Her decades-long correspondence with Duncan (published in 2004) recorded their friendship and their evolving—and finally diverging—aesthetic and political views.

An early volume, With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads shocked William Carlos Williams with its insights into women’s experiences. The title poem of the 1964 volume, O Taste and See, seemed religious, even for the agnostic she claimed to be. During the 60s and early 70s, she became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and traveled to Hanoi with a fellow activist-poet, Muriel Rukeyser. In the later 1960s she described her life as a pilgrimage and wrote poems with titles suggesting religion or belief: “Psalm,” “Tenebrae,” “Chant” and “Gathered at the River.”

In the early 1980s she began attending religious services at different churches, preferring those with good liturgy and music. The volume Candles in Babylon is notable for the long “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus,” usually considered the beginning of the spiritual quest that would bring her to Catholicism in 1990. Oblique Prayers includes, besides the title poem, “St. Peter and the Angel” on a story from the Acts of the Apostles. Then, from Breathing the Water on, every volume she published—including the posthumous This Great Unknowing—contains a number of poems expressing her growing faith. A poet, ecologist, spiritual pilgrim, friend and unconventional feminist, she ended her life as a Catholic and the author of many enduring religious poems. She died of lymphoma in December 1997.

The World Around Her

Denise Levertov read and acknowledged the influence on her of the world’s great poets: John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Rainer Maria Rilke, William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda and Paul Célan. Where does she stand among them? Perhaps it is still too soon to tell. Like that 16-year-old in my original metaphor, her reputation has yet to “grow up.”

She is no Yeats, no Wallace Stevens, no William Carlos Williams, no T. S. Eliot—at least not yet. But neither is she insignificant. She published 19 volumes of poems, primarily in the form of the short, open-form lyric (she called it “organic form”). That is the form that had its rise in the English Renaissance, with Sir Thomas Wyatt, Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare. That tradition continued in Robert Southwell, S.J., George Herbert and Thomas Vaughan. She knew, loved and loosely imitated many of their poems.

What particular insights or revelations does her work offer that perhaps no other poet’s work affords? Attuned to almost every imaginable aspect of the natural world—trees, flowers, animals and birds—she wrote poems about them all. Alert to the environment and topography (she loved the mountains), she re-created those experiences in her poems. Alive to friends, acquaintances and strangers, she wrote compellingly about those relationships. Attentive to the present moment, even as she revered the past and looked with apprehension to the future, she was fascinated like a child, for instance, by the vertiginous experience of falling yet being suspended. Describing how she would jump off a swing when she was a child, she says, “I let go and flew!/ At large in the unsustaining air...and fell, Icarian, dazed” (“Animal Spirits,” This Great Unknowing). It was the same feeling she transformed into a powerful religious experience in the late poem “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being” (Sands of the Well).

She was a somewhat unconventional feminist in the early 1960s, writing poems about women’s bodies and women’s fraught relationships with men. The first, “Our Bodies” (Poems 1960-1967), contemplates her own body and how its “nipples, navel, and pubic hair/ make anyway a/ sort of face.” In the second she ponders “Those groans men use/ passing a woman on the street/ ...to tell her she is a female/ and their flesh knows it...” (“The Mutes,” Poems 1960-1967).

A special mark of her significance is this: Unlike Eliot, Yeats or Pound (who were accused of totalitarian politics), she stood from the start, like Neruda, Pasternak and Mandelstam, with the poor and oppressed. She even wrote the text for an oratorio commemorating Óscar Romero, the slain Salvadoran archbishop. Almost to the end of her life, she wrote poems exposing the evil of war. And in a poem called “The Certainty,” written in the early 1990s during the First Gulf War, she seems to describe smart bombs or even cyber weapons: “Immaterial weapons/ no one could ever hold in their hands/ streak across darkness...to arrive/ at targets that are concepts” (Evening Train). And “The Youth Program“ is prescient about how technology has transformed war, describing how children’s video games “are already/ putting them ahead” and how they have “attained/ new speeds of reflex” (Evening Train), anticipating the pilots who would one day guide drone strikes in Pakistan from airbases in California.

A poem titled “Misnomer” challenges the expression “the art of war” by reflecting on Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches for “machines of destruction.” The poem scorns the idea that those designs are the work of genius. Instead, she says Leonardo “was not/ acting in the service of art, he was suspending the life of art/ over an abyss, as if one were to hold/ a living child out of an airplane window/ at thirty thousand feet” (Evening Train).

In the same late collection, Evening Train, which is one of her best, she includes a poem about AIDS (“Mid-American Tragedy”) that uses pop culture to satirize parents’ denial of their son’s disease. She puts herself in the parents’ perspective, “he’s our kid,/ Mom and Dad are going to give him/ what all kids long for, a trip to Disney World.” The rest of the poem evokes a picture of the son, “his wheelchair strung with bottles and tubes, glass and metal glittering in winter sun....” Next to this poem is “The Batterers,” which shocks by comparing spousal abuse with the destruction of the earth. But even in her satiric and protest poems, she was more like the Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who anthologized her work in his A Book of Luminous Things. Denise Levertov maintained the ability to vilify evil without losing the self-possession and innocence that make her poetry forever “young.”

Some of her most enduring poems will be those, like “The Batterers,” that call our attention to the plight of our planet. “Tragic Error” rewrites Genesis, saying “subdue was the false, the misplaced word in the story.” Instead, she says, “Surely we were to have been/ earth’s mind, mirror, reflective source.” Our task was “to love the earth,/ to dress and keep it like Eden’s garden” (Evening Train).

Like many a creative person, Ms. Levertov could be prickly, opinionated and intense. Her literary executor, Paul Lacey, noted that because she was largely self-educated, that opinionatedness could take curious forms. But in her art, the extinguishing of ego, the focus of attention on the specific situation or experience that called forth her poetic gift—in this, the poet overcame the person. And in the poems that resulted she gave us great gifts of insight, wisdom, joy and love. Whether she was watching a dog, an armadillo, her newborn son or a demonstration at a nuclear power plant, we are there, with the speaker, reliving the experience.

Also of enduring importance is her relation, through poetry, to language. From early on she said that poetry is a means “to a saner state in the midst of our being.” We get there through language carefully, thoughtfully and respectfully used. She said, paraphrasing the philosopher Martin Heidegger, that “to be human is to be a conversation,” and that “any use of language is an action toward others.” Little wonder that her words still speak so directly to us.

Denise Levertov was fond of quoting the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth: “Language is not the dress but the incarnation of thought.” Whether it is a “found” poem—made of news clips from the First Gulf War (“News Report: September, 1991,” Evening Train)—a close look at a flower or an enigmatic meditation on the moon (“Mass of the Moon Eclipse,” This Great Unknowing), her poems are always rich linguistic explorations, full of mystery. Mystery and spirit are everywhere in her poems, and even if the reader does not share the specific beliefs that many of her poems imply, he or she can attest to the presence of something numinous, something almost uncannily “other” that makes them fascinating.

Levertov’s Many Faces

Labels like feminist, ecologist, activist and spiritual seeker touch only a part of who she was and what she has bequeathed. Like the many individuals—friends, mentors and models—she celebrated, and like the persons we are, Denise Levertov resists classifications. The reality of the person is always greater, other, more complex and intimate than the words in which we try to express the reality, that identity which today is under siege. As the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor says, “our identity is deeper and more many-sided than any of our possible articulations of it” (Sources of the Self). So with her poems, and their delicacy, the mystery of what inheres beyond, beneath or between the words—that is what we shall value for years to come.

On Ms. Levertov’s relation to nature, the novelist Wallace Stegner (founder of the Stanford writing program, where she taught for many years) once observed that we, his fellow Americans, cannot look at anything (he meant primarily the land and wilderness) without wanting to use it, own it and reshape it to our needs, desires or fantasies. Denise Levertov, on the other hand, in sympathy with Stegner, could—in the immortal words of the Beatles—“Let it be.” In one of her greatest poems, “Open Secret,” written in Seattle about Mount Rainier, she says, “I have visited other mountain heights./ This one is not, I think, to be known/ by close scrutiny...” (Evening Train). This reverent restraint is part of what we learn from her.

Whether it is Hopkinsian inscape or Keatsian negative capability, her best poems embody an experience in which seer and seen, object and subject, become one in the articulation, in the enactment of the poem. She makes present the encounter: with a friend, with her sister, with Mount Snowdon in Wales, which she experienced in the company of her mother and then memorialized in “An Instant” (Collected Earlier Poems).

What we know of Denise Levertov’s indebtedness to Rilke tells us that another of the qualities that she appreciated, and that she offers to us today as a gift, is a greater appreciation for silence and solitude and a consequent suspicion of the culture, the technology and the politics (in its broadest meaning) that seek to tear us from ourselves in ways that are not “selfless” in the way I described earlier. In “Those Who Want Out,” she criticizes today’s technocrats who dream of escaping the earth. The poem reaches its supremely ironic climax as the poet enters the technocrats’ minds: “Imagine it, they think,/ way out there, outside of ‘nature,’ unhampered,/ a place contrived by man, supreme/ triumph of reason” (A Door in the Hive). The poem ends with the speaker’s monitory statement, which also expresses the poet’s own ecological consciousness: “They do not love the earth.” It is probably no wonder that Ms. Levertov had little use for “virtual reality,” which she criticized in an interview with the magazine Image.

In The Sovereignty of Good, the late philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch describes attentiveness. Attentiveness, she says, “entails the transformation of everyday consciousness into an unpossessive, almost aesthetic mode of contemplation...and [we] begin to free ourselves from the selfishness of everyday consciousness.” Denise Levertov, like the spiritual writer Kathleen Norris, implies that attentiveness is akin to prayer, if it is not prayer itself. In the end, perhaps the poet’s greatest quality, her greatest gift, is to teach us about such attentiveness. At its root, the word means to listen. We all know people who are good listeners. We also know how often people today—in private as well as in public life—fail to listen.

As we continue to read Denise Levertov’s poems almost 17 years after her death, perhaps we can learn that quality of attentiveness to which she points in her poem “Once Only.” She reminds us that experiences we would like to revisit or re-experience were probably valuable precisely because they were “What it was that once.” In the end she counsels: “Try/ to acknowledge the next/ song in its body-halo of flames, as utterly/ present, as now or never” (This Great Unknowing).

In “Translucence,” one of the best poems in her posthumous collection (from which Paul Lacey chose the volume’s title), the speaker celebrates “the new life” she sees in those whom she calls holy: “This great unknowing/ is part of their holiness.” These are individuals through whose “translucence,” she says, “resurrection” reveals itself. “They are always trying/ to share out joy as if it were cake or water,/ something ordinary, not rare at all.” Such is a measure of the vision Denise Levertov offers to our overwrought and overstimulated world.

Two poems by Denise Levertov.

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