Contributing Editor: Joan F. Hallisey
Classroom Issues and Strategies
With an adequate introduction to her life and works, Denise Levertov
is not a difficult author. Levertov can best be made accessible to students
when they are familiar with the poet's own prose reflections on poetry,
the role of the poet, and "notes" on organic form. You might
prepare an introduction to her work by making reference to her quite precise
discussion of these themes in The Poet in the World (1973); Light
Up the Cave (1982); and New and Selected Essays (1992).
Consider using tapes of Levertov reading her own poetry. The most recent
cassette, "The Acolyte" (Watershed), contains a fine sampling
from her earlier poetry through Oblique Prayers. Encourage students
to listen both to her poetry readings and interviews and to incorporate
information from them in class or seminar discussions and presentations
or as material for research papers. When students are doing a class presentation,
strongly urge them to be certain that their classmates have copies of the
poems they will be discussing.
Students respond favorably to Levertov's conviction that the poet writes
more than "[she] knows." They also respond positively to the
fact that an American woman "engaged" poet has spoken out strongly
on women's rights, peace and justice issues, race, and other questions
on human rights.
Students may ask you if Levertov is discouraged in the face of so much
darkness and disaster evident in the late twentieth century. This presents
a good opportunity to have the students examine "Writing in the Dark"
and "The May Mornings" ( Candles in Babylon, 1982) and
her essay "Poetry, Prophecy, Survival" ( New and Selected
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Levertov's work is concerned with several dimensions of the human experience:
love, motherhood, nature, war, the nuclear arms race, mysticism, poetry,
and the role of the poet. If you are teaching a women's literature course
or an upper-level course focusing on a few writers, several of these themes
might be examined. In a survey course, you might concentrate on three themes
that include both historical and personal issues: poetry, the role of the
poet, and her interest in humanitarian politics.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Levertov in "Some Notes on Organic Form" tells the reader
that during the writing of a poem the various elements of the poet's being
are in communion with one another and heightened. She believes that ear
and eye, intellect and passion, interrelate more subtly than at other times,
and she regards the poet's "checking for accuracy," for precision
of language that must take place throughout the writing not as a "matter
of one element supervising the others but of intuitive interaction between
all the elements involved"( The Poet in the World, p. 9).
Like Wordsworth and Emerson,
Levertov sees content and form as being in a state of dynamic interaction.
She sees rhyme, echo, reiteration as serving not only to knit the elements
of an experience "but also as being the means, the sole means, by
which the density of texture and the returning or circling of perception
can be transmuted into language, apperceived" (Ibid., p. 9).
You might point out that as an artist who is "obstinately precise"
about her craft, Levertov pays close attention to etymologies as she searches
for the right words, the right image, the right arrangement of the lines
on the page. It will be helpful for students to be able to recognize other
poetic techniques that Levertov uses in her poetry: enjambment, color,
contrast, and even the pun to sustain conflict and ambiguity. Levertov
will sometimes make use of the juxtaposition of key words and line breaks.
Levertov does not consider herself a member of any particular school.
Levertov has said, on several occasions, that she never has readers
in mind when she is writing a poem. She believes that a poem has to be
not merely addressed to a person or a problem out there; but must come
from in here, the inner being of the poet, and it must also address something
It is important to share Levertov's ideas with the students when you
discuss audience. One might stress the universality of some themes: familial
and cultural heritage, poetry, and the role of the poet/prophet in a "time
of terror." There is a "timeless" kind of relevance for
these themes, and they need not be confined to any one age.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
There is enough evidence to suggest that a fruitful comparison might
be made between several of Muriel
Rukeyser's finest poems ("Akiba," "Kathe Kollwitz"
[ Speed of Darkness, 1968], "Searching/Not Searching"
[ Breaking Open, 1973]) and some of Levertov's poems on comparable
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) What kinds of feelings do you have about the Holocaust? About
(b) What do you think the role of the poet should be today? Do you think
she/he should speak out about political or social issues? Why? Why not?
2. (a) Several of Levertov's poems can be used for a writing sample
and subsequent discussion at the beginning of the course. Brief poems that
students respond strongly to are: "The Broken Sandal" ( Relearning
the Alphabet ), "Variation on a Theme from Rilke" ( Breathing
the Water ), and "The Batterers" and "Eye Mask"
( Evening Train, 1992).
(b) One might give a short assignment to compare the themes, tone, and
imagery of Levertov's "The Broken Sandal" with Adrienne
Rich's "Prospective Immigrants-- Please Note."
(c) Examine several of Levertov's poems on poetry and the role of the
poet in light of Emerson's
call for the "true" poet in several of his essays, most notably
in "The Poet," "Poetry and the Imagination," and "The
Denise Levertov's The Poet in the World (1973); Light Up the
Cave (1982); and New and Selected Essays (1992) are essential
primary source materials for a deeper understanding of the poems included
in the text.
"The Sense of Pilgrimage" essay in The Poet in the World
and "Beatrice Levertoff" in Light Up the Cave offer valuable
background material for teaching "Illustrious Ancestors."
Levertov has acknowledged the significant influence of Rilke on her
poetry and poetics throughout her career, and several of her recent "Variation
on a Theme from Rilke" poems will be enriched by Edward Zlotkowski's
insightful essay "Levertov and Rilke: A Sense of Aesthetics"
in Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1992.
Audrey Rodger's Denise Levertov's Poetry of Engagement will be
helpful in discussing Levertov's understanding of the role of the poet
and her poetry of engagement.