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A Poet's Revolution

A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov

Donna Krolik Hollenberg
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 532
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  • Book Info
    A Poet's Revolution
    Book Description:

    This first full-length biography of Anglo- American poet and activist Denise Levertov (1923-1997) brings to life one of the major voices of the second half of the twentieth century, when American poetry was a powerful influence worldwide. Drawing on exhaustive archival research and interviews with 75 friends of Levertov, as well as on Levertov’s entire opus, Donna Krolik Hollenberg’s authoritative biography captures the full complexity of Levertov as both woman and artist, and the dynamic world she inhabited. She charts Levertov’s early life in England as the daughter of a Russian Hasidic father and a Welsh mother, her experience as a nurse in London during WWII, her marriage to an American after the war, and her move to New York City where she became a major figure in the American poetry scene. The author chronicles Levertov’s role as a passionate social activist in volatile times and her importance as a teacher of writing. Finally, Hollenberg shows how the spiritual dimension of Levertov’s poetry deepened toward the end of her life, so that her final volumes link lyric perception with political and religious commitment.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95478-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-6)

    “Take responsibility for your words,” Denise Levertov admonished her students in the late 1970s. She sat in her office in the erect posture of a ballet dancer, brown eyes sparkling, curly hair unruly, speaking to her graduate poetry seminar about Hopkins or Williams, or perhaps H. D. She chose her own words very carefully, often pausing between them, sometimes even calling our attention to their sounds: “Meeasure,” she said, mischievously drawing out the vowel sound in the first syllable, “it rhymes with pleeasure.” Once, after class, when I showed her a poem of my own that anticipated future changes in...


    • 1 “The walls of the garden, the first light”: Beginnings (1923–1933)
      (pp. 9-34)

      Ilford, Essex, with its two large parks, east and west of the River Roding, is notable for its semirural setting, yet it is only fourteen kilometers northeast of central London. A spirited six-year-old, Denise Levertov could easily walk the three blocks from her home at 5 Mansfield Road to the gates of Valentines Park, with its cultivated lawns and ample pleasure grounds. There, along the Long Water canal, she could wander alone among the stately London plane trees she grew to love and, seated in a leafy alcove, admire their reflection in the green water. Or she could pause in...

    • 2 “When Anna Screamed”: Levertov’s Response to Nazi Oppression (1933–1939)
      (pp. 35-47)

      Olga’s influence upon Denise was not confined to the arts. Her brilliance, energy, and magnanimity, as well as her increasingly distressing behavior, left a complicated legacy of pride and sorrow that Denise would later express in her “Olga Poems.” Like her parents, Olga was committed to peace and justice, and when Hitler became chancellor in 1933 and the first German refugees arrived in England, she engaged in anti-Fascist activities. By this time, Beatrice participated in the League of Nations Union, which tried to win support for the league by informing the public, and Paul spoke regularly at the Hyde Park...

    • 3 The Double Image: Apprenticeship during World War II (1939–1946)
      (pp. 48-80)

      In September 1939, as World War II began, the Legat School of Ballet was evacuated from London to Seer Green, Buckinghamshire, a village fifty miles northwest of the city. The evacuation measure had been taken to protect schoolchildren from the anticipated bombing of London, but that fall, in what came to be called “the phony war,” little happened besides the annoyance of blackouts and air-raid sirens. Sixteen-year-old Denise, who had never lived away from home, relished the move at first. Not only would she be able to study ballet intensively with the formidable Madame Legat, but she could also continue...

    • 4 “Recoveries”: Abortion, Adventure, and Marriage (1947–1948)
      (pp. 81-112)

      Levertov arrived in Holland by boat in January 1947, during one of the coldest winters in European history. She was met by her employers, Jerry and Dini Lavies, friends of George Woodcock, who took her to their farmhouse in Reeuwijk, a rural area outside Gouda. The population of Reeuwijk was a mixture of city people who had weekend houses before World War II, where they resided full time during the war, and small farmers who scraped by, doing odd jobs and hiring out boats in summer. “The house stood on a tree-screened island of land at the centre of three...

  6. PART TWO. A COMMON GROUND (1949–1966)

    • 5 “Dancing Edgeways”: Coming of Age as a Poet in the New World (1949–1955)
      (pp. 115-144)

      Levertov’s decisions to marry an American, emigrate to the United States, and bear a child were central after the war. She soon made friends with young writers and painters in the United States, energetically embracing the task of absorbing American culture while maintaining a connection with her European roots. Since American speech patterns were different from British ones, this meant learning to hear and speak in a new way. The poetry and presence of William Carlos Williams became crucial in this regard, as did the support of such contemporaries as Cid Corman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jonathan Williams, Robert Creeley, and Robert...

    • 6 “The True Artist”: Levertov’s Engagement with Tradition (1954–1960)
      (pp. 145-165)

      Levertov’s postwar life in New York City was not only a period of friendships and growth, it was also marked by loss and marital tension, especially when her father died in 1954 and her mother came to live with her and Mitch. To accommodate this new situation, the family moved to Mexico for two years in the mid-1950s, and Beatrice Levertoff remained there until her death. These circumstances are evident in individual poems inHere and Now and Overland to the Islands.In her fourth book,With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads(1960), the first in whichshe...

    • 7 “The Poem Ascends”: Taking a Position (1960–1963)
      (pp. 166-197)

      Back in Manhattan in September 1960, after the best summer of her life, Levertov noted the contrast between her growing good fortune and the ominous world news, where the intensification of the arms race between Russia and the United States and the collapse of a Paris meeting between Eisenhower and Khrushchev continued to make headlines.¹ This contrast would be short lived, however. Before long, personal sorrow would make itself felt in ways she could not deny and would coincide with public calamity to change the scope of her poetry. But in the excitement of her present happiness, Denise could not...

    • 8 “To Speak of Sorrow”: Levertov’s Emergence as a Social Poet (1963–1966)
      (pp. 198-220)

      Robert Duncan’s superior understanding of Levertov’s work reflected a shared concept of the poet’s task. Both poets saw themselves as servants of Poetry’s power, not as masters of it. Both believed in words as powers rooted in a mysterious source, rather than as tokens employed at will. Out of need, the poet accesses this source by closely attending to his subject. “Writing poetry was a process of discovery, revealinginherentmusic,” Levertov wrote.¹ It was then the poet’s obligation as a craftsman to realize that music in the poem. Later, in the seventies, after their friendship had ceased, Levertov described...

  7. PART THREE. LIFE AT WAR (1966–1974)

    • 9 “Revolution or Death”: Living in the Movement (1966–1970)
      (pp. 223-264)

      In 1966, Levertov was interviewed by public television for a series on American poetry featuring individual poets, live and up close.¹ The setting was Levertov’s Greenwich Street apartment in New York City, where she was filmed in black and white, sitting at a round table with her students, as if conducting a poetry workshop.The interviewer, anonymous and off camera, began with questions about Levertov’s early life in England, moved on to her marriage to an American, and led up to her most recent poetry. She was then asked to read selections from her work, which she did later in another...

    • 10 “The Freeing of the Dust”: The Revolution Hits Home (1970–1974)
      (pp. 265-292)

      In the summer of 1970, when Levertov went abroad to recuperate, America was in turmoil. On April 30, President Richard Nixon had sent troops into Cambodia.Two days later, a meeting of student leaders at Yale called for a national student strike. Desperate to effect change, students flung themselves into the revolutionary maelstrom. There were demonstrations at over half of the nation’s campuses, many of which closed. Then, on May 4, at Kent State University in Ohio, armed National Guard units were mobilized to stop militant war protestors and four students were killed, a tragedy repeated at Jackson State College in...

  8. PART FOUR. SLEEPERS AWAKE (1975–1988)

    • 11 “A Woman Alone”: Beginning Again (1975–1981)
      (pp. 295-324)

      There is a note of bravado in Levertov’s claim, during her divorce, that she has more assets than her husband of twenty-seven years, but she would have been the first to admit that professional success and financial security do not easily replace emotional attachment or even sexual self-confidence. She deplored the loneliness of not being most important to anyone, but she vowed not to take refuge in any new romantic relationship until she had learned to be more independent. Yet the flow of energy within her remained strong, and she felt reassured of her desirability after a visit in the...

    • 12 “The Task”: Social Protest and Liberation Theology (1982–1988)
      (pp. 325-366)

      The shift toward religious faith dramatized in “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” did not relieve Levertov’s anxiety. She continued to regret the lack of any sustained intimacy in her life. None of her love affairs had lasted, except for the romantic friendship with Stephen Peet, and Nikolai’s estrangement was increasingly painful, particularly after he became seriously ill in 1982. At the political level, increased U.S. involvement in the civil war in El Salvador seemed a continuation of American foreign policy in Vietnam, which she had bitterly opposed, and the nuclear threat persisted. She deplored the denial of...

  9. PART FIVE. RESETTLING (1989–1997)

    • 13 “Of Shadow and Flame”: The Re-cognition of Identity (1989–1992)
      (pp. 369-406)

      We see Levertov now in chiaroscuro. In her sixties, she gradually became immersed in shadow and darkness as she began to feel intimations of mortality, heightened by the death of close friends and by her own deteriorating health and fading physical attractiveness. Levertov remained a fighter, however, who drew upon powerful spiritual resources honed over a lifetime. In her seasoned heart and hand, shadow and darkness yielded new depths unavailable to a younger person, giving her poetry a radiant glow.

      Again, Levertov reevaluated the role of the poet in society. It is thus not surprising that she framed her 1989...

    • 14 “Beauty Growls from the Fertile Dark”: Facing Death (1992–1997)
      (pp. 407-444)

      Levertov continued to travel and write in the last five years of her life, even as the embrace of darkness tightened. Memories of beloved people and places brought spiritual sustenance, and as she began to face death, she sought an increasingly structured devotional life, pursued with the aid of spiritual advisers and friends, some of whom also helped her to strengthen her relationship with her son. The landscape of the Pacific Northwest also continued to sustain her. Earlier, Levertov’s view of Mount Rainier and proximity to Seward Park had inspired among the most enduring symbols of her late poetry, in...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 445-482)
    (pp. 483-492)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 493-515)