[La Chascona was the Santiago home of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda—a home in which portraits of Walt Whitman adorn the study]
At the feet of her Welsh mother, Denise Levertov (1923-1997) absorbed the works of Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy. Her father, an Anglican parson, had been raised a Chasidic Jew. Levertov sent some of her poetry to T.S. Eliot when she was 12 years old. His response? Two pages of “excellent advice” and encouragement to continue. Her first poem to be published appeared in Poetry Quarterly when she was 17.
During the Blitz, Levertov braved the bombings to serve as a civilian nurse in London. Her first book, “The Double Image” was released in 1946—leading to her identification with a group of poets called the “New Romantics.” The next year she married American writer Mitchell Goodman (later a codefendant in the 1968 Trial of Dr. Benjamin Spock)—moving to the States in 1948. Living in New York City, they spent summers in Maine. Upon moving to the U.S., Levertov was introduced to the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as well as the work of William Carlos Williams.
Through her husband’s friendship with Robert Creeley, Levertov became associated with the Black Mountain group of poets—particularly Creely, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson—who had formed the fabled, experimental school in North Carolina dedicated to John Dewey’s principles. Springing forth from the school, these poets were joined by Jonathan Williams and Ed Dorn. An editor of the Black Mountain Review, Creeley acted as a bridge between this group and the Beat poets (such as Allen Ginsberg) when he moved to San Francisco. While Levertov was published in the Black Mountain Review and acknowledged the influences of her peers, she dismissed the idea that she was a member of any “poetic school.”
Levertov’s first American book “Here and Now” was published in 1956, the very year she attained U.S. citizenship. She had developed an open, experimental style—moving away from previous fixed forms—and became an important voice in the American avant-garde. Her output during the fifties and sixties gained the recognition of poets such as Kenneth Rexroth and William Carlos Williams as well as her “colleagues” Creeley and Duncan. “With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads” (1959) brought her into the canon of American poets—leaving her British origins behind.
We know Levertov as a deeply socially committed poet. This was established during the 1960s, when issues related to civil rights, the Vietnam War, social change, and feminism came to the fore in her work. “The Sorrow Dance” (1967)—with its two “psalms”—poured forth her respective rage and sadness toward the Indochina conflict and the death of her older sister. Her progressive credentials were firmly established: From 1963 to 1965 Levertov served as poetry editor of The Nation and from 1975 to 1978 at Mother Jones. With such colleagues as Muriel Rukeyser, she took on issues such as nuclear disarmament and U.S. intervention—even being arrested in civil disobedience actions.
It was, as a 16 year old, in 1975, that I discovered Denise Levertov. Her wonderful book “To Stay Alive” (1971) “called” to me from the shelf in the bookstore of Muskegon Community College. I was entranced by and fell in love with her highly lyric verses juxtaposed with bits of prose. It was the first book of poetry I ever purchased. Its vision, “conversations,” and weariness remain an inspiration.
Around the time I “found” Denise Levertov, she created “Freeing the Dust” (1975), which won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Besides her 20 plus books of poetry, Levertov authored four books of prose and translated three volumes of poetry (including works by Eugène Guillevic, Alain Bosquet, and Jean Joubert). She taught at Stanford University from 1982 to 1993 and spent the last decade of her life in Seattle, Washington, during which time she published “Poems 1968-1972” (1987), “Breathing the Water” (1987), “A Door in the Hive” (1989), “Evening Train” (1992), and “The Sands of the Well” (1996).
For decades she had admired the work of and was influenced by Paul Claudel (1868-1955) whose verse dramas espoused his devout Catholicism and broached the sacred and sensuous. In a parallel to her father’s spiritual search and ultimate conversion from Chasidic Judaism to Anglicanism, Levertov made her own spiritual journey—being received into the Roman Catholic Church during those Seattle years. At the age of 74, she died from complications of lymphoma.