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Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life

Dana Greene
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 360
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    Denise Levertov
    Book Description:

    Kenneth Rexroth called Denise Levertov (1923-1997) "the most subtly skillful poet of her generation, the most profound, . . . and the most moving." Author of twenty-four volumes of poetry, four books of essays, and several translations, Levertov became a lauded and honored poet. Born in England, she published her first book of poems at age twenty-three, but it was not until she married and came to the United States in 1948 that she found her poetic voice, helped by the likes of William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley. Shortly before her death in 1997, the woman who claimed no country as home was nominated to be America's poet laureate._x000B__x000B_Levertov was the quintessential romantic. She wanted to live vividly, intensely, passionately, and on a grand scale. She wanted the persistence of Cezanne and the depth and generosity of Rilke. Once she acclimated herself to America, the dreamy lyric poetry of her early years gave way to the joy and wonder of ordinary life. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, her poems began to engage the issues of her times. Vehement and strident, her poetry of protest was both acclaimed and criticized. The end of both the Vietnam War and her marriage left her mentally fatigued and emotionally fragile, but gradually, over the span of a decade, she emerged with new energy. The crystalline and luminous poetry of her last years stands as final witness to a lifetime of searching for the mystery embedded in life itself. Through all the vagaries of life and art, her response was that of a "primary wonder."_x000B__x000B_In this illuminating biography, Dana Greene examines Levertov's interviews, essays, and self-revelatory poetry to discern the conflict and torment she both endured and created in her attempts to deal with her own psyche, her relationships with family, friends, lovers, colleagues, and the times in which she lived. Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life is the first complete biography of Levertov, a woman who claimed she did not want a biography, insisting that it was her work that she hoped would endure. And yet she confessed that her poetry in its various forms--lyric, political, natural, and religious--derived from her life experience. Although a substantial body of criticism has established Levertov as a major poet of the later twentieth century, this volume represents the first attempt to set her poetry within the framework of her often tumultuous life.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09421-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-4)

    Furtively, Denny Levertoff¹ dug out the poems she had stashed between sofa cushions and sent them off to T. S. Eliot, editor of Criterion. Her parents knew nothing of this until weeks later when Eliot’s response arrived.² It was 1936, and she was only twelve, but desire and embryonic talent had already coalesced in a “secret destiny.” She was an artist, and for the next six decades that ambition would direct her life.

    Levertov published her first book of poems at age twenty-three, but it was not until she married and came to America that she found her poetic voice,...

  6. 1 “A Definite and Peculiar Destiny” 1923–1946
    (pp. 5-25)

    From a very young age Denise Levertov had a definite sense of her “peculiar destiny,” a personal myth that derived from her ancestors, Schneour (Schneur) Zalman, the Rav of Northern White Russia,² who was reputed to understand the language of birds, and Angell Jones of Mold, a Welsh tailor, who stitched meditations into coats and britches. She believed that these ancient ones were joined to her by a “taut” line across almost three centuries. They inspired her to make, as these ancestors did

    poems direct as what the birds said,

    hard as a floor, sound as a bench,

    mysterious as...

  7. 2 In Search of Voice 1947–1955
    (pp. 26-49)

    The girl who sailed for Holland in January 1947 was barely twenty-three. She left England presumably for adventure, but in doing so she also escaped. She had no suspicion that by year’s end her life would change irrevocably.

    Her hastily arranged job as an au pair was seemingly a means to an end — the opportunity to travel. But the adventure began inauspiciously. Holland was cold, damp, and ravaged by war. She did not like the food or the Dutch, whom she considered tactless and dull.² Her employers were kind, however, and her work of giving English lessons to three teenage...

  8. 3 The Making of a Poet 1956–1961
    (pp. 50-72)

    High in the mountains of Greece a perilous road leads to Delphi, the sacred center of the world, the place where heaven and earth meet. There in 1961 Denise Levertov took her “final vows” to poetry at the shrine of Apollo, praying that the flame of the poem be kept alive in her. Although she became violently ill when she drank water from a nearby brackish spring, she nonetheless sang and danced. She speculated that perhaps it was not Apollo who heard her, but another god, Dionysus, the one she claimed as name-patron.² She was thirty-eight, and the power of...

  9. 4 “A Cataract Filming Over My Inner Eyes” 1962–1967
    (pp. 73-93)

    How to be an artist and person — how to live with joy and sorrow in difficult times — this was the conundrum that dominated Denise Levertov’s life for more than a decade. Her resolution was to be “poet in the world,” but this was costly. She longed for “claritas,” but war on the macrocosmic level and marital discord in the microcosm distorted her vision.

    The decade of the 1960s began well enough. It was an auspicious time to be a poet. Poetry magazines, publishing houses, poetry readings, and writer-in-residence programs at colleges and universities proliferated, allowing for greater exposure for poets,...

  10. 5 “Staying Alive” 1968–1971
    (pp. 94-112)

    As “poet in the world,” Denise Levertov’s writing reflected the great social upheaval in American society in the late 1960s. But that upheaval, focused as it was on the Vietnam War, does not explain her sense of personal anxiety. Overwrought, fretful, and needy, she contemplated an accidental suicide.² In a letter to Duncan she described her battered state:

    Well, I am in pain and sometimes don’t know where to turn, as if all salt had lost its savor, but perhaps indeed my life has deepened as it has darkened. I want to say Pray for me, but to whom. I...

  11. 6 Endings 1972–1975
    (pp. 113-122)

    The years between 1972 and 1975 were a period of critical endings for Levertov, an extraordinary time of emotional turmoil and confusion. Three centrifugal forces — the end of the Vietnam War, her break with Duncan, and her divorce from Mitch — could have overwhelmed her. In the end they did not. She survived, and haltingly searched for a new life. Two books of poetry appeared. Footprints (1972) and The Freeing of the Dust (1975) both attested to her longing for freedom and desire to leave the past behind, and a collection of essays, The Poet in the World (1973), established her...

  12. 7 Coming to a New Country 1976–1981
    (pp. 123-143)

    There was much broken, much that needed mending, not only in the world, but in Levertov’s life. On January 4, 1976, on her way to visit her mother in Oaxaca, she recorded in her diary a reflection on her previous year. She noted she spent Christmas at the Yaddo artists’ community in Saratoga Springs and New Year’s at home in Somerville reading Simone Weil.² In chronicling the previous year’s significant events, she listed: her divorce in December; the publication of The Freeing of the Dust; receiving tenure at Tufts; and her ongoing relationships with Jon Lipsky and Stephen Peet.³ There...

  13. 8 “The Thread” 1982–1984
    (pp. 144-162)

    “The Thread,” a poem of the 1960s, reflected Levertov’s ongoing awareness of her vocation. In the early 1980s at age sixty, the tug was there again. In this case it was a silent ineluctable shift from the doubt that grounded her lifelong agnosticism toward a tentative religious faith. This resulted not from some dramatic conversion but from “faithful attention” to living out her vocation as a poet. Already by 1977 she was aware that writing had some link to what she understood as religious experience. When interviewed she said: “I would say that for me writing poetry, receiving it, is...

  14. 9 “Making Peace” 1985–1988
    (pp. 163-181)

    Denise Levertov spent decades opposing war. Now in the late 1980s she proposed an alternative — making peace. In the poem by that name, she analogizes peacemaking to poem-making. She calls peace “a presence,” “an energy field” that is more than the absence of war. Peace might be realized if “we restructured . . . our lives,” “questioned our needs, allowed / long pauses.” Peace, like the poem, is possible because of imagination and a willingness to venture into the unknown. It is the poets who “must give us / imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar / imagination of...

  15. 10 The Borderland 1989–1992
    (pp. 182-198)

    Levertov was a peripatetic who changed residence more than twenty times, not including shuttling from Somerville to Stanford for eight years, fifteen years of summering in Maine, and numerous trips to Mexico to tend to her mother. She traveled abroad often, visiting more than sixteen countries,² sometimes multiple times, and was frequently on the road with poetry readings and lecturing. She claimed to be on a journey and to have no home.³ She was adamant that leaving Somerville would not be difficult; after all, her friendships were long distance.

    While her commitment to an artistic journey seemed to make place...

  16. 11 Bearing Witness 1993–1996
    (pp. 199-215)

    Levertov’s “intimation” that there might be something else awaiting her was soon affirmed. In early May 1993, after her decision to retire from Stanford, she learned that a biopsy of an ulcer revealed she might have non-Hodgkins lymphoma.² Paradoxically this news was energizing and prompted her to resolve to use her time well. She felt grateful she had been given the chance to experience beauty and to enrich the lives of many wonderful friends. Life had not cheated her, and she had no regrets. She was particularly thankful that she had enough financial resources to pass on to Nikolai. Consoled,...

  17. 12 “Once Only” 1997
    (pp. 216-230)

    The deaths of En Potter and Steve Blevins, Mitch’s life-threatening cancer, and her own increasing weakness and worsening health chastened Levertov. Although she always had a sense of the perishability of life, neither her diaries nor poems of this period show a preoccupation with death. A few of her closest friends knew of her lymphoma, but most did not. If asked about her illness, she brushed aside the query. Her sense of privacy kept her guarded. But mostly she appears to have been incapable of acknowledging that she would not live. “You know,” she wrote in 1960, “I’m telling you,...

    (pp. 231-234)

    Denise Levertov wanted to be remembered for her poetry, the “autonomous structures” that would be appreciated on their own terms and would last. In comparison to her art, she considered her life fleeting and insignificant. As a consequence she was suspicious of biography and insisted that if a poet’s biography were to be written, it had to focus on the work itself. Even then she was leery of the genre and recoiled from it.

    Yet her actions suggest otherwise. She offered her archive to Stanford, although she claimed the sale of personal correspondence appalled her. She believed diaries were tools...

  19. NOTES
    (pp. 235-278)
    (pp. 279-298)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 299-307)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 308-313)