“The audience sounds quite frightening & what if they ask me clever questions?” So Denise Levertov confided in a letter to Robert Duncan about a reading he had arranged for her in San Francisco. It was December 1957, and Levertov was 34, a recent bohemian emigrant from England living with her American husband, Mitchell Goodman, and their son in a railroad flat on 15th Street in Manhattan. She had published all of two books, one of them not mature work. William Carlos Williams was “a little in awe” of her; she was scared to read her poems in public. When she wrote to Duncan, she was making her way back from Oaxaca, Mexico, where for a few months she had kept at bay the high costs and close confines of New York as well as the stress of living there with her boisterous boy and the envious Goodman, a frustrated writer with whom she was to have a “hellish” time when they returned to Manhattan later in the winter. “There are so many pressures on me,” Levertov told Duncan. “I am only half here.” She would publish nearly twenty more books of poems.
In Duncan’s first letter to her, in 1953, he wrote, “You cld have / knockd me over with a feather-weight / of words.” He was responding to poems such as “The Shifting” (“The shifting, the shaded / change of pleasure // soft warm ashes in place of fire /—out, irremediably”). Levertov, the self-described “happy / old-fashioned artist, sassy and free,” began her career with a kind of artist’s creed: “Let’s go—much as that dog goes, / intently haphazard.” She was after wonder, not order, and she would follow her nose. Birds, lovers, dogwoods, violets, Central Park in winter and the supermercado in Guadalajara: she found and sang the joy in all of them. Duncan thought her poetry evoked her pleasures so deftly that a poem she wrote about a bird might as well have flown by him. She wandered and wondered; for her, that’s what a poet does.
It is tempting to say that her sensibility changed with her seventh book, The Sorrow Dance (1967), her first attempt to depict the full horrors of war—but no matter how political her poetry became, how abstract, strident or Catholic over the course of her fifty-year career, she never abandoned the sense of being most herself when fancy-free and windblown, as if the slaughter in Vietnam were an unwelcome stop on her afternoon walk. Even with her feet on the ground, she seemed to have her heart in the clouds. She saw her life as a spiritual quest and cast herself as a pilgrim, not a visionary—as someone who sees for herself and not for others. This faithfulness to herself can seem like self-absorption, but in reading her voluminous and deeply uneven Collected Poems, one can trace the integrity in the life of her work. It is major work played in a minor key, with her quest sometimes going astray in the maze of her wanderings.
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Levertov’s sense of having a minor ambition can be traced to a letter of Duncan’s from early in their long correspondence, in which he shared some of the notes he’d written about her poems for an essay on them. His attitude toward her was reverential; the notes were not. “Of Denise Levertov’s work: when I consider her work in regard to my feeling of the course…of poetic energies in history it seems minor: I do not have the sense of great alterations…in the possibility of what a poem might be.” Lacking the grand ideas and ambition of “a Pound or an Olson,” her writing was “limited in its imagination and energies to the immediate”: a practitioner’s work, not a theorist’s. He didn’t mean this as a slight, he added: his own work was also minor (in this sense), and her poems were “major” for him, “both in her use of language toward the poem and in her poetry as it opens fresh routes and particular insights in experience.” In conclusion, “She presents a challenge.”
She did not challenge this appraisal. “Poets like Pound & Olson,” she wrote, in notes to herself that she passed along to Duncan, had a “scope & power of intellect” that she lacked: “a masculine intellect” in which “a sense of total order…exists as a matter of course,” and that projects its idea of order far and wide. With her “feminine intellect,” she lacked “the intellectual energy…to create a system of general ideas,” and she couldn’t project onto others’ experiences because she simply didn’t “know how things are for others or in other areas.” She couldn’t tell them what to do, “unable to grasp large areas of what is.”
“The major poet I see as tall,” she wrote, “eating the treetop leaves like giraffes and the prehistoric tall ones, able to see a long way, to see the path he made coming thru’ the forest, how it turns, the pattern it makes & its direction, seeing & knowing that he sees.” She was in the weeds.
With her books and awards, her divorce from Goodman in 1975, her editorships and professorships, Levertov eventually shed her early self-effacing affect, or pose. But it remained the pose of her ambition: personal, intuitive, haphazard; “feminine” rather than “masculine.” Levertov consistently denied that her gender inhibited her writing: “I didn’t suppose my gender an obstacle to anything I really wanted to do.” “That genre may be determined by gender [is] an idea I find extremely foreign to my own experience,” she said; while her gender may not have determined what she wrote, it played a role in shaping her sense of herself. “In childhood dream-play” she was “always / the knight or squire, not / the lady,” but she was a woman, a wife and a mother in 1950s America. She was quick to spurn poems about women’s issues for mattering more as political statements than as art (“something menstrual or hysterical about them”), but she didn’t flinch from trying to justify the aesthetic value of poems about war, climate change and American race relations—political issues that she cared about more and was more willing to think about, and thereby admit as legitimate experiences of private life.