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Denise Levertov

Born October 24, 1923
Ilford, United Kingdom
Died December 20, 1997
Occupation Poet
Nationality American
Writing period 1946 to 1997
Notable award(s) Shelley Memorial Award

Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997) was a British-born American poet.

Contents

Early life and influences

Born in Ilford, Essex, England, her mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, was Welsh. Her father, Paul Levertoff, immigrated to England from Germany, was a Russian Hassidic Safardic Jew who became an Anglican priest. While being educated at home, Levertov showed an enthusiasm for writing from an early age. When she was five years old, she said later in life, she declared she would be a writer. At the age of 12, she sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot, who replied with a two-page letter of encouragement. In 1940, when she was 17, Levertov published her first poem.

During the Blitz, Levertov served in London as a civilian nurse. Her first book, The Double Image, was published six years later. In 1947 she married American writer Mitchell Goodman and moved with him to the United States in the following year. Although Levertov and Goodman would eventually divorce, they had a son, Nikolai, and lived mainly in New York City, summering in Maine. In 1955, she became a naturalized American citizen.

Levertov's first two books had concentrated on traditional forms and language. But as she accepted the U.S. as her new home, she became more and more fascinated with the American idiom. She began to come under the influence of the Black Mountain poets and most importantly William Carlos Williams. Her first American book of poetry, Here and Now, shows the beginnings of this transition and transformation. Her poem “With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads” established her reputation.

Later life and work

During the 1960s and 70s, Levertov became much more politically active in her life and work. As poetry editor for The Nation, she was able to support and publish the work of feminist and other leftist activist poets. The Vietnam War was an especially important focus of her poetry, which often tried to weave together the personal and political, as in her poem "The Sorrow Dance," which speaks of her sister's death. Also in response to the Vietnam War, Levertov joined the War Resisters League.

Much of the latter part of Levertov’s life was spent in education. After moving to Massachusetts, Levertov taught at Brandeis University, MIT and Tufts University. On the West Coast, she had a part-time teaching stint at the University of Washington and for 11 years (1982-1993) held a full professorship at Stanford University. In 1984 she received a Litt. D. from Bates College. After retiring from teaching, she travelled for a year doing poetry readings in the U.S. and Britain.

In 1997, Denise Levertov died at the age of 74 from complications due to lymphoma. She was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, Washington.

Political poetry

Both politics and war are major themes in Levertov's poetry. Levertov was published in the Black Mountain Review during the 1950s, but denied any formal relations with the group. She began to develop her own lyrical style of poetry through those influences. She felt it was part of a poet's calling to point out the injustice of the Vietnam War, and she also actively participated in rallies, reading poetry at some. Some of her war poetry was published in her 1971 book To Stay Alive, a collection of anti-Vietnam War letters, newscasts, diary entries, and conversations. Complementary themes in the book involve the tension of the individual vs. the group (or government) and the development of personal voice in mass culture. In her poetry she promotes community and group change through the imagination of the individual and emphasizes the power of individuals as advocates of change. She also links personal experience to justice and social reform.

Suffering is another major theme in Levertov’s war poetry. The poems “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival”, “Paradox and Equilibrium”, and “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions” revolve around war, injustice, and prejudice. In her “Life at War” Denise Levertov attempts to use imagery in her poetry to show the disturbing violence of the Vietnam War. Throughout these poems, she addresses violence and savagery, yet tries to bring grace into the equation. She attempts to mix the beauty of language and the ugliness of human horror. The themes of her poems, especially “Staying Alive” focus on both the cost of war and the pain the Vietnamese were suffering because of it. In her prose work, The Poet in the World, she writes that violence is an outlet. Levertov’s first successful Vietnam poetry was her book Freeing of the Dust. Some of the themes of this book of poems are the experience of the North Vietnamese, and distrust of people. She attacks the United States pilots in her poems for dropping bombs. Overall, her war poems incorporate suffering to show that violence has become an everyday occurrence. After years, of writing such poetry, Levertov eventually comes the conclusion that beauty and poetry and politics can’t go together (Dewey). This opened the door wide for her religious themed poetry in the later part of her life.

Religious influences

From a very young age Levertov was influenced by her religion and when she began writing, it was a major theme in her poetry. From her father she was exposed to both Judaism and Christianity. Levertov always believed her culture and her family roots had inherent value to herself and her writing. She also believed that she and her sister had always had a destiny pertaining to this. When Levertov moved to the United States, she became influenced by the Black Mountain Poets, especially the mysticism of Charles Olson. She also drew on the experimentation of Ezra Pound, and on the style of William Carlos Williams. She was also exposed to the Transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson. Although all of these things shaped her poetry, her conversion to Christianity in 1984 was the main influence in her religious writing. She became a Roman Catholic in the last decade of her life.

Religious themes

Denise Levertov wrote many poems with religious themes throughout her career. These poems range from religious imagery to implied metaphors of religion. One particular theme had been developed progressively throughout her poetry. This was the pilgrimage/spiritual journey of Levertov. Her earlier poems progress into deep spiritual understanding and truth in her recent poems.

One of her earlier poems is “A Tree Telling of Orpheus”, from her book Relearning the Alphabet. This poem uses the metaphor of a tree. The tree changes and grows when it hears the music of Orpheus. This is a metaphor to spirituality. Levertov was incorporating the growing to show how the tree is like faith, and as the tree goes through life we also go through life on a spiritual journey. Much of Levertov’s religious poetry was concerned with respect for nature and life. A lot of her themes were also about nothingness and absence.

In her earlier poems something is always lacking, searching, and empty. In “Work that Enfaiths” Levertov begins to confront this “ample doubt” and her lack of “burning surety” in her faith[2]. The religious aspect of this is the doubt vs. light debate. Levertov cannot find a balance between faith and darkness. She goes back and forth between the glory of God and nature, and has that doubt that constantly plagues her.

Her earlier religious poems are searching for meaning in life. She explores God as he relates to nothing, yet everything. As her poetry becomes more recent, a shift can be seen.

Some of her more recent books, A Door in the Hive, and Evening Train are full of poems that start to show a change. In these works cliffs, edges, and borders are all used to push for change in life. Once again, Levertov packs her poetry with metaphors. She explores the idea that there can be peace in death. She also begins to tie together that nothing is a part of God. "Nothingness" and darkness are no longer just reasons to doubt and agonize over. “St. Thomas Didymus” and “Mass” show this growth, as they are poems that lack her former nagging wonder and worry.

In Evening Train, Levertov’s poetry is highly religious. She writes about experiencing God. These poems are breakthrough poems for her [2]. She writes about a mountain. This mountain becomes a metaphor for life and God. When clouds cover a mountain, it’s still huge and massive and in existence. God is the same way, even when He is clouded, she says we know this. Her poems tend to shift away from constantly questioning religion and simply accepting it. In her most recent work, in “The Tide” Levertov writes about accepting faith and that not knowing answers is okay. She uses many paradoxes about faith in her poetry here. It marks the end of her "spiritual journey"[2].

Another way to look at Denise Levertov’s religious poetry is to reflect on her views on life and religion. Levertov’s heavy religious writing began at her conversion to Christianity in 1984. She writes a lot of metaphysical poetry to show her religious views. Denise begins to use Christianity to link culture and community together. In her poem “Mass” she writes about how the Creator is defined by His creation. She talks a lot about nature and individuals. In her most recent works, Levertov uses Christianity as a bridge in society. She sees that individuals and the public are related. She explores these relations in her poetry as they relate to Christians. She believes that the hostile environment of community can be changed by Christian values[3]. Levertov works this into her poems.

Accomplishments

Levertov wrote and published 20 books of poetry, criticism, translations. She also edited several anthologies. Among her many awards and honors, she received the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Lannan Award, a Catherine Luck Memorial Grant, a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Bibliography

Poetry

The Double Image (1946)
The Sharks (1952)
Here and Now (1956)
Overland to the Islands (1958)
With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959)
The Jacob's Ladder (1961)
O Taste and See: New Poems (1964)
The Sorrow Dance (1967)
Life At War (1968)
At the Justice Department, November 15, 1969
Relearning the Alphabet (1970)
To Stay Alive (1971)
Footprints (1972)
The Freeing of the Dust (1975)
Life in the Forest (1978)
Wedding-Ring (1978)
Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960 (1979)
Candles in Babylon (1982)
The May Mornings(1982)
Poems 1960-1967 (1983)
Oblique Prayers: New Poems (1984)
Selected Poems (1986) ISBN 0906427851
Poems 1968-1972 (1987)
Breathing the Water (1987)
A Door in the Hive (1989)
Evening Train (1992)
A Door in the Hive / Evening Train (1993) ISBN 1852241594
The Sands of the Well (1996)
The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature (1997)
The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes (1997)
Living

Prose

The Poet in the World (1973)
Light Up the Cave (1981)
New & Selected Essays (1992)
Tesserae: Memories & Suppositions (1995)
The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams, edited by Christopher MacGowan (1998).
The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, edited by Robert J. Bertholf & Albert Gelpi. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Translations

In Praise of Krishna: Songs From the Bengali (1967)
Selected Poems by Eugene Guillevic (1969)
Black Iris: Selected Poems by Jean Joubert (Copper Canyon Press, 1989)

References

  1. ^ Levertov, Denise; Selected Poems; p. 210. ISBN 9780811215541
  2. ^ a b c Gallant, James. "Entering No-Man's Land: The Recent Religious Poetry of Denise Levertov." Renascence 50 (1998): 122-134.
  3. ^ Dewey, Anne. "The Art of the Octopus: The Maturation of Denise Levertov's Political Vision." Renascence 50 (1998): 65-81.

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

To leave the open fields
and enter the forest,

that was the rite.
Knowing there was mystery, they could go.

Denise Levertov (24 October 192320 December 1997) was a British-American poet.

Contents

Sourced

Praise
the invisible sun burning beyond
the white cold sky, giving us
light and the chimney's shadow.
  • To leave the open fields
    and enter the forest,

    that was the rite.
    Knowing there was mystery, they could go.

    Go back now! And he receded among the multitude of forms, the twists and shadows they saw now, listening to the hum of the world's wood.

    • "The Novices" (1960)
  • Praise
    the invisible sun burning beyond
    the white cold sky, giving us
    light and the chimney's shadow.
Acknowledgement, and celebration, of mystery probably constitutes the most consistent theme of my poetry from its very beginnings.
  • Acknowledgement, and celebration, of mystery probably constitutes the most consistent theme of my poetry from its very beginnings. Because it is a matter of which I am conscious, it is possible, however imprecisely, to call it an intellectual position; but it is one which emphasizes the incapacity of reason alone (much though I delight in elegant logic) to comprehend experience, and considers Imagination the chief of human faculties. It must therefore be by the exercise of that faculty that one moves toward faith, and possibly by its failure that one rejects it as delusion. Poems present their testimony as circumstantial evidences, not as closing argument. Where Wallace Stevens says, "God and the imagination are one," I would say that the imagination, which synergizes intellect, emotion and instinct, is the perceptive organ through which it is possible, though not inevitable, to experience God.
    • A Poets View (1984)

With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959)

I like to find
what's not found
at once, but lies

within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.

  • I like to find
    what's not found
    at once, but lies

    within something of another nature,
    in repose, distinct.

    • Pleasures
  • I like the juicy stem of grass that grows
    within the coarser leaf folded round,
    and the butteryellow glow

    in the narrow flute from which the morning-glory
    opens blue and cool on a hot morning.

    • Pleasures

O Taste and See : New Poems (1964)

The world is
not with us enough.
O taste and see.
  • The world is
    not with us enough.
    O taste and see.
    • This a response to William Wordsworth's famous statement: "The world is too much with us late and soon."

The Secret

Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
poetry.

I who don't know the
secret wrote
the line.

Full text online
  • Two girls discover
    the secret of life
    in a sudden line of
    poetry.

    I who don't know the
    secret wrote
    the line.

  • I love them
    for finding what
    I can't find,

    and for loving me
    for the line I wrote,
    and for forgetting it

    so that

    a thousand times, till death
    finds them, they may
    discover it again, in other
    lines

    in other
    happenings. And for
    wanting to know it,
    for

    assuming there is
    such a secret, yes,
    for that
    most of all.

A Tree Telling of Orpheus (1968)

As he sang
it was no longer sounds only that made the music:
he spoke, and as no tree listens I listened...
  • I was the first to see him, for I grew
                        out on the pasture slope, beyond the forest.
    He was a man, it seemed. . .
He told of journeys,
of where sun and moon go while we stand in dark,
of an earth-journey he dreamed he would take some day
deeper than roots ...
  • Then as he sang
    it was no longer sounds only that made the music:
    he spoke, and as no tree listens I listened
    , and language
                        came into my roots
                                    out of the earth,
                        into my bark
                                    out of the air,
    into the pores of my greenest shoots
                gently as dew
    and there was no word he sang but I knew its meaning.
  • He told of journeys,
                        of where sun and moon go while we stand in dark,
                        of an earth-journey he dreamed he would take some day
    deeper than roots ...

    He told of the dreams of man, wars, passions, griefs,
                        and I, a tree, understood words – ah, it seemed
    my thick bark would split like a sapling's that
                                                                grew too fast in the spring
    when a late frost wounds it.
Fire he sang,
that trees fear, and I, a tree, rejoiced in its flames....
  •                                              Fire he sang,
    that trees fear, and I, a tree, rejoiced in its flames.

    New buds broke forth from me though it was full summer.
                        As though his lyre (now I knew its name)
                        were both frost and fire, its chords flamed
    up to the crown of me.
                        I was seed again.
                                            I was fern in the swamp.
                                                                            I was coal.
In the forest
they too had heard,
and were pulling their roots in pain
out of a thousand years' layers of dead leaves...
  • And I
            in terror
                            but not in doubt of
                                                                what I must do
    in anguish, in haste,
                            wrenched from the earth root after root,
    the soil heaving and cracking, the moss tearing asunder —

    and behind me the others: my brothers
    forgotten since dawn. In the forest
    they too had heard,
    and were pulling their roots in pain
    out of a thousand years' layers of dead leaves,
                    rolling the rocks away,
                                                breaking themselves
                                                                    out of
                                                                            their depths.
We have stood here since,
in our new life.
We have waited.
  •                                                     The music reached us.

    Clumsily,
                stumbling over our own roots,
                                                            rustling our leaves
                                                                                in answer,
    we moved, we followed.

  • By dawn he was gone.
                                    We have stood here since,
    in our new life.
                            We have waited.
                                                        He does not return.
Perhaps he will not return. But what we have lived comes back to us. We see more. We feel, as our rings increase, something that lifts our branches, that stretches our furthest leaf-tips further.
  • It is said he made his earth-journey, and lost
    what he sought.
                                It is said they felled him
    and cut up his limbs for firewood.
                                                                And it is said
    his head still sang and was swept out to sea singing.
  • Perhaps he will not return.
                                                But what we have lived
    comes back to us.
                            We see more.
                                                    We feel, as our rings increase,
    something that lifts our branches, that stretches our furthest
                                                                                                        leaf-tips
    further.
  • The wind, the birds,
                                                    do not sound poorer but clearer,
    recalling our agony, and the way we danced.

The Freeing of the Dust (1975)

Conversation in Moscow

One must imagine,
One must deeply imagine
that great Attention
  • To me it seems perhaps
    Kropotkin understood half
    of what we need to know,
    and Lenin perhaps
    knew half, and true revolution ... true revolution
    must put these two halves together?
I am not joking. I'm speaking
of spirit. Not dogma but spirit. The Way.
  • To serve the people,
    one must write for the ideal reader.
    Only for the ideal reader.
    And who or what is that ideal reader? God. One must imagine,
    One must deeply imagine
that great Attention
Only so,
In lonely dialog,
can one reach the people.
  • I am not joking. I'm speaking
    of spirit. Not dogma but spirit. The Way.
  • The poet
    never must lose despair.
  • all of us know he means
    we mustn't, any of us, lose touch with the source,
    pretend it's not there, cover over
    the mineshaft of passion
If there is bliss,
it has
been already
and will be; out-
reaching, utterly.
Blind
to itself, flooded
with otherness.

Freedom

  • Leaps of nerve, heart —
    cries of communion: if there is bliss,
    it has
    been already
    and will be; out-
    reaching, utterly.

    Blind
    to itself, flooded
    with otherness.

The Freeing of the Dust

Let Ariel learn
a blessing for Caliban
and Caliban drink dew from the lotus
open upon the waters.
  • Let Ariel learn
    a blessing for Caliban
    and Caliban drink dew from the lotus
    open upon the waters.
  • pure dust that is all
    in all.    Bless,
    weightless Spirit. Drink
    Caliban, push your tongue
    heavy into the calyx.

The Wealth of the Destitute

  • I am tired of 'the fine art of unhappiness'.

Oblique Prayers (1984)

Alone and free to resume
the ecstatic, dangerous, wearisome roads of
what he had still to do,
not till then did he recognize
this was no dream.
  • Delivered out of raw continual pain,
    smell of darkness, groans of those others
    to whom he was chained —

    unchained, and led
    past the sleepers,
    door after door silently opening —
    out!

    • St. Peter and the Angel
  • And not till he saw the angel had left him,
    alone and free to resume
    the ecstatic, dangerous, wearisome roads of
    what he had still to do,
    not till then did he recognize
    this was no dream.
    • St. Peter and the Angel
  • He himself must be
    the key, now, to the next door,
    the next terrors of freedom and joy.
    • St. Peter and the Angel

A Door in the Hive (1989)

Flickering Mind

You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow.
You the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
  • Lord, not you,
    it is I who am absent.
  • Not for one second
    will my self hold still, but wanders
    anywhere,
    everywhere it can turn. Not you,
    it is I am absent.
  • You are the stream, the fish, the light,
    the pulsing shadow.
    You the unchanging presence, in whom all
    moves and changes.

    How can I focus my flickering, perceive
    at the fountain's heart
    the sapphire I know is there?

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell

Down through the tomb's inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber...
  • Down through the tomb's inward arch
    He has shouldered out into Limbo
    to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber...
If mortal sight could bear to perceive it, it would be seen His mortal flesh was lit from within, now, and aching for home.
  •             Didmas,
    neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
    still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
    no one had washed and anointed, is here,
    for sequence is not known in Limbo;
    the promise, given from cross to cross
    at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
  • All these He will swiftly lead
    to the Paradise road: they are safe.
    That done, there must take place that struggle
    no human presumes to picture:
    living, dying, descending to rescue the just
    from shadow, were lesser travails
    than this: to break
    through earth and stone of the faithless world
    back to the cold sepulcher, tearstained
    stifling shroud; to break from them
    back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
    the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
    wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
    streaming through every cell of flesh
    so that if mortal sight could bear
    to perceive it, it would be seen
    His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
    and aching for home. He must return,
    first, in Divine patience, and know
    hunger again, and give
    to humble friends the joy
    of giving Him food — fish and a honeycomb.

Sands of the Well (1994)

  • Rain-diamonds, this winter morning, embellish the tangle of unpruned pear-tree twigs; each solitaire, placed, it appearrs, with considered judgement, bears the light beneath the rifted clouds — the indivisible shared out in endless abundance.
    • Bearing the Light

External links

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