“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.
* * *
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.”
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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.
Gender roles certainly shaped her passionate and sadly truncated friendship with Duncan, even if she didn’t see it that way. She considered him a mentor despite his being only four years older than she was and, in retrospect, no more insightful. He presented his opinions as authoritative, she her authority as opinion. She theorized seldom, he wantonly. He never missed an opportunity to criticize her work, and she avoided nearly every one to criticize his or to respond to his criticism. “When I deeply admire a poem I have nothing to say about it,” she wrote, before writing much more in the evening. After he defended an early poem of his that she had called “selfindulgent,” she claimed to change her mind; they referred to the episode anxiously for years. He had a far thinner skin than he would admit: their friendship began to unravel in January 1966 when she sensibly objected to “the part about Humphrey’s head emerging from LBJ’s asshole” in a draft poem of his. He objected strongly and stridently to the political turn in her poetry, and everything went to hell. She would no longer defer to him. The great scholar of their work, Albert Gelpi, explains the falling-out in terms of ideology, but one can also see a woman growing to assert herself in ways that some thought impermissible for women. But did Levertov want the same for her poems?
* * *
The obvious answer is yes. The political poems of The Sorrow Dance are confrontational, deliberate and reasoned from broader ideas; they are everything un-“feminine.” They are also exhortations of a sort, and as poems rather weak.
Levertov wrote, in the midst of the Vietnam War, that we suffer from
the knowledge that humankind[…]still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.
The image of dead mothers’ milk on “still-alive babies” calls to mind the kosher prohibition not to cook a calf in its mother’s milk, alluding of course to the Shoah. What Levertov could not comprehend was how people could plan inhumanity—not just act cruelly on impulse, but schedule the “breaking open of breasts.” She insists on what she doesn’t understand and doesn’t try to imagine the aggressors’ perspective or motivations. The poem shows her frustration with suffering instead of disclosing her process of thinking about (or feeling) suffering and its causes.
“The Sorrow Dance” sequence begins with an image of horror and wonder:
A headless squirrel, some blood
oozing from the unevenly
lies in rainsweet grass
near the woodshed door.
The images are oil and water—the former harsh and uneven, the latter even and sweet. Whereas Levertov’s images of wonder often draw you in, her images of horror repeat her repulsion. “Hard rice / sprays out of the cooking pot / straight into the delicate jelly of eyes.” “It’s in America, everywhere, a faint seepage, / I smell death.” She imagines herself as a waitress at Nixon’s second inaugural dinner throwing napalm in the president’s face (“and his crowd leapt back from the flames with crude yells of horror,” while “Nixon’s friends and henchmen…fell in their own blood”). She often states her politics baldly (“There comes a time when only anger / is love”; “Goodbye to Tolerance”), the cumulative effect being a string of telegraphs about political convictions rather than tests of the truthfulness of her reactions (emotional or intellectual) to political conflicts.
Her first affecting expression of wonder and suffering at once was in a poem that wasn’t political at all: “Nightingale Road,” from 1978, about children dying of tuberculosis in late-nineteenth-century Wales, her mother’s country:
a regular choir they were[…]
and somehow as I’d be falling asleep
I couldn’t tell which was the music
and which was that golden hair they had,
and all with that milky skin. The voices
sweet and gold and shrill and the harps
flowing like milk.
Reading her words is like hearing “a regular choir,” with the vowel sounds repeated like voices and the consonants clinking like instruments, all a bit irregular in the way the ear wanders from one choral sound to another. The milk is at once an image of the children’s dying and an image of abundance, of their paleness and their “mam’s” nourishment. Levertov imagines the pain of losing their beauty and the consolation of remembering them by it.
Duncan wrote some of the notes she least forgave him for in response to her lines about the milk of smashed breasts: “having what root in you I wonder”? He speculated that she took a kind of Freudian “sadistic pleasure” in the skinned penises, as she found out years later from a published interview with him. This is clearly ridiculous—he was always a little ridiculous even when basically correct—yet he was right to look for the conflict in her inner life and was basically right that part of the impulse involved gender and aggression (even if her impulse was to write about aggression in ways her gender had pressured her not to). Levertov was a serious activist: an antiwar organizer, an environmental protester, a lifelong teacher of activism. The crux of her poems about politics is that she didn’t think through political conflicts in ways that resonated with the inner life that was the wellspring of her poetry. She wrote poems, and she wrote political poems.
Yet Levertov’s and Duncan’s disagreements were broader than politics. She was self-directed but not self-critical and would not scrutinize her own motivations unless pressed to do so by others, which meant she often wrote poems lacking the depth required by her mythic description of poetry:
The experience of poetry provides, like the mirror of Perseus, a means for human consciousness to transcend the linear and by fitful glimpses, at least, to attain a vision of ultimate harmony, of reconciliation, not exclusion nor dilution.
These remarks, from “Horses With Wings,” an essay on her beloved myths, are the stuff of myth themselves. Poems in their clarity can help us see chaos, the dark unconscious, Medusa, which we could not see otherwise. Without real inner conflict, the poem is just another shield.
Levertov’s small quotient of self-doubt was the armature of her ambition. Worry about yourself little, worry little about how you’re seen. Give in to wonder too easily, think that others will too. Levertov didn’t make an effort to be noticed in the ways artists so often have—offering polemics, cultivating signature tics, drawing critical lines in the sand as exercises in self-promotion. For all her exceptional taste, her taste-making was never provocative, even when critical. One never gets the sense that she writes about herself or her family to confess anything, or that she wrote about “buttocks” and “cunts” in the early 1960s to shock anyone. The pose of her ambition was opposite that of T.S. Eliot, who began to cultivate the myth of himself in his 20s, publishing few poems so as to shield his reputation. She seemed to publish everything, without much regard for all but a few readers. The quest is everything to the pilgrim, and readers’ tastes and mores were not her guide.
* * *
Levertov was true to herself, with an integrity that deepened with her conversion to Christianity beginning in the late 1970s. She had been something of a spiritual polyglot: a lapsed Anglican whose father, a converted Hasid and an Anglican priest, had passed along his mystical inclinations but not his religious dogma and rituals. She maintained a vague faith along with her skepticism, but she did not practice her faith until she gradually converted to Catholicism. If she didn’t agree with all of its edicts—notably about sex out of wedlock—she still took its theology seriously and gained emotional discipline from its spiritual discipline. This was to the great benefit of her poems. Pilgrim and visionary may look the same; their inner lives are anything but.
In Breathing the Water (1987), Levertov illustrates faith as looking at stained glass from inside a cathedral: it lights up only inside, but only with light from outside. For Levertov, for whom the “acknowledgement, and celebration, of mystery probably constitutes the most consistent theme of my poetry from its very beginnings,” faith made all the difference between looking for mystery in what she saw and looking at mystery through what she saw. Her early work describes the glass, her later work the light permeating it.
Levertov writes gorgeously about the frustrations and fulfillments of daily spiritual life: longing for God and missing Him, seeing Him and not seeing Him. In “Suspended,” she writes: “I had grasped God’s garment in the void / but my hand slipped / on the rich silk of it.” “Rich silk” is a perfect description of the indescribable, Keats’s “feel of not to feel”: something like silk, but immaterially richer and fleeting. She describes it casually enough for us to mistake it as an ordinary object, a mistake we have to make to feel it as extraordinary, too. This metaphysical image is much easier to trust than a similar fantastical one from 1964:
a spring night entered
my mind through the tight-closed window,
a loose Russian shirt of
She thought of her conversion as gradual but indispensable for the strength that faith gave her: it pressed her to question herself, even as it helped her ease into the parts of herself that she doubted. Her emotions gained a complexity that was lacking in her early work: wonder and terror, wonder and levity. (The moon disappears from her kitchen just before she thought it fit “to offer honey-mead or slivovitz,” a drink from either side of her heritage.) The changes wrought by her faith were far from total: her political poems did not gain strength with her other work. “They have refined the means of destruction,” she wrote, “abstract science almost visibly shining, / it is so highly polished.” Ever the activist, she is not one of them, and with no temptation for the writer, there’s no salvation for the reader either. Imagining cruelty and death may have helped her political writing less than it enriched the rest of her writing by expanding Levertov’s sense of her own capabilities:
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart
Writing about the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, she feels spiritual guilt where she never felt political guilt.
* * *
Throughout Levertov’s changes of heart, her sensitive ear was a constant. Meter was her early métier. In her third collection, Overland to the Islands (1958), she demonstrated an exceptional talent for drawing together patterns of speech and formal patterning, William Carlos Williams’s knack for duration of speech with the conventional forms of her first book, the stilted The Double Image (1946). We learn of “the banquet of mangoes and /bridal cake,” ten syllables that would be ungainly in one line of pentameter but that are striking in two lines, because the unexpected line break lets both “mangoes and” and “bridal cake” scan as proper dactyls, strengthening “bri” and weakening “cake.” The sounds convey the casual opulence she writes about, sound following sense as in so many lines from those years: “A dance in the garden / to welcome the fall” (the latter line’s rhythms following along with the former’s as if they were dancing imperfectly); the sharply broken iambic pentameter of “To hell with easy rhythms— / sloppy mules”; the line break in “As you read, a white bear leisurely / pees.”
Early on, the thrust of much of her sound is to throw off the ear’s expectations, but just so; what we read is more lush than what we thought we’d see, and would seem a little too pretty if the sounds didn’t seem to well up organically. (“Organic” was her name for the kind of form she valued, although she almost gave up the term in 1986 after it had been “taken up by the shampoo manufacturers.”) Here is New York in the summer:
On the kitchen wall a flash
of pigeons, a spiral
celebration of air
Here is an almost impossibly intricate “Canticle” from Mexico, which would have sounded like Peter Piper picking peppers if she had been any less careful:
and from the altar
of excrement arises
of orange and purple
At times in her early writing, the sound effects do more than prolong pleasure, such as in the poems about her struggling marriage in O Taste and See (1964). About her husband’s attractiveness, she writes: “A long beauty, what is that? / A song”: the second line’s shortness elongates “song” so that it doesn’t quite fit with “long,” as if she’d meant to reassure herself but couldn’t quite. She pictures herself and her husband “looking for joy, some joy / not to be known outside it” (their marriage): “two by two in the ark of / the ache of it.” How to capture the longing in the way the line draws out her “ache”?
Her marriage aside, Levertov all too often strikes the same note in her early poems: description, more or less vivid, and the insistence on some mystery behind it, in which she finds joy. “What gay / desire! It’s their festival / ring game, wassail, mystery” (1957). Her doors “want / in all their wooden strength / to fly off on the whirlwind into / the great nothingness” (1958). “True magic exceeds all design” (1960). “Here is a mystery, // a person, an / other, an I” (1961). Of “two girls” who “discover / the secret of life / in a sudden line of / poetry,” she writes that she loves them for “assuming there is /such a secret, yes, / for that / most of all” (1964). She sees a work of art that means “a mystery” leading “to wonder,” writing “I know / no interpretation of these mysteries…. // so that my heart leaps / in wonder.” She badly wants to see something mysterious, not to investigate it but to wonder at it, and she doesn’t successfully re-create the mysteries she hasn’t tried to comprehend. “When the white fog burns off, / the abyss of everlasting light / is revealed,” she writes, and we’re left to take her word for it.
Compare this reaching with the assurance of a late poem, “Abruptly,” from the tour de force Evening Train (1992):
The last warm day, I caught,
that high shrilling like thin
wires of spun silver, glint
of wheeling flight—some small tribe
the moon was full; by morning
autumn had come.
No mystery is mentioned, but the full moon, in between the frenetic exodus of birds and the calm autumn, feels laden with missing significance and sustenance, like an “abyss of everlasting light.”
Levertov published the last book of her lifetime a half-century after her first. Her quest had taken her as far west as Seattle, in whose wilderness she found symbols of her conflicted mortality. An owl, for instance, offers “Fair Warning,” boding at once ill and well: “his call a falling of mournful notes, / his tone much like the dove’s.” She imagines her death in “What Harbinger?”:
Glitter of grey
the waveless, dark,
A boat is moving
slowly, but who
is rowing and what
it brings I can’t
This is at once the river Sharon and any runoff flowing down from Mount Rainier. Levertov’s life and work are suffused with her myths.