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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Denise Levertov
(1923 - 1997)

Denise Levertov, one of America’s foremost contemporary poets, was born in Essex, England; was privately educated except for ballet school and a wartime nursing program; served as a nurse during World War II; and emigrated to the United States in 1948. She has taught at Vassar, Drew, City College of New York, M.I.T., Tufts University, Brandeis University, and retired as a full professor at Stanford University in 1994. Levertov has been a scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, has received the Lenore Marshall Prize for poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award, and is a member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters.

Levertov was influenced by the poetry and poetic theory of William Carlos Williams. And though she was earlier considered an “aesthetic compatriot” of some of the poets of the Black Mountain School, later she did not consider herself today part of any particular “school” of poetry. She brings her own unmistakably distinctive voice to poems concerned with several dimensions of the human experience: love, motherhood, nature, war, the nuclear arms race, mysticism, poetry, and the role of the poet. Levertov cites a William Carlos Williams verse in her essay “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival”: “It is difficult / to get news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” She tells us in this essay that people turn to poems for “some kind of illumination, for revelations that help them to survive, to survive in spirit not only in body.” She believes that these revelations are usually not of the unheard of but of what lies around us, unseen and forgotten—like “Flowers of Sophia” in her most recent volume of poetry. And she believes that poems and/or dreams, as she poignantly muses in “Dream Instruction,” can “illuminate what we feel but don’t know we feel until it is articulated.”

“Poetry, Prophecy, Survival” reiterates a theme that Levertov articulates on several occasions throughout her career: the poet or artist’s call “to summon the divine.” She speaks clearly of this “vocation” in “The Origins of a Poem” and “The Sense of Pilgrimage” essays in The Poet in the World (1973); in “On the Edge of Darkness: What Is Political Poetry?” in Light up the Cave (1981); and in “A Poet’s View” (1984). Levertov’s awareness of the truly awesome nature of the poet’s task is evident in “A Poet’s View”:

To believe, as an artist, in inspiration or the intuitive, to know that without amount of acquired craft or scholarship or of brilliant reasoning will suffice, is to live with a door of one’s life open to the transcendent, the numinous. Not every artist, clearly, acknowledges that fact—yet all, in the creative act, experience mystery. The concept of ‘inspiration’ presupposes a power that enters the individual and is not a personal attribute; and it is linked to a view of the artist’s life as one of obedience to a vocation.1

Levertov’s poems, most notably those since The Jacob’s Ladder in 1958, reflect her serious commitment to this concept. In “Dream Instruction,” one observes the poet’s sensitive awareness of the rich depth of her inheritance and the important influence of the “cultural ambiance” of her family—those other “travellers / gone into dark.” Her father Paul Levertoff’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish, and, after his conversion, Christian scholarship and mysticism, and her mother Beatrice Levertoff’s Welsh intensity and lyric feeling for nature are significant parts of the poet’s finest works.

An interest in humanitarian politics came early into Levertov’s life. Her father was active in protesting Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia; both he and her sister Olga protested Britain’s lack of support for Spain. Long before these events, her mother canvassed on behalf of the League of Nations Union; and all three worked on behalf of German and Austrian refugees from 1933 onward. (One is not surprised, then, to find among her more recent poems wrenching reflections on the Gulf War.) This strong familial blend of the mystical with a firm commitment to social issues undoubtedly contributed to Levertov’s being placed in the American visionary tradition. Rather than deliberately attempting to integrate social and political themes with lyricism, her approach is to fuse them, believing as she does that they are not antithetical. And as is evident in her poetry of the last several years, though Levertov’s range of subject matter remains by no means exclusively “engaged,” she believes, as she tells us in “Making Peace,” that “each act of living / [is] one of its words, each word / a vibration of light—facets / of the forming crystal.” So she continues with other such poets as Pablo Neruda and Muriel Rukeyser to confront social and political issues of our time. Levertov was named sixty-first winner of the Academy of American Poets Fellowship in 1995.

Joan F. Hallisey
Regis College
1See New and Selected Essays, 1992, p. 241.

In the Heath Anthology
Illustrious Ancestors (1958)
A Solitude (1961)
A Woman Alone (1978)
The May Mornings (1982)
Making Peace (1987)

Other Works
The Double Image (1946)
Here and Now (1957)
Overland to the Islands (1958)
The Jacob's Ladder (1958)
With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads (1959)
O Taste and See (1964)
The Sorrow Dance (1966)
Relearning the Alphabet (1970)
To Stay Alive (1971)
The Poet in the World (1973)
Footprints (1975)
The Freeing of the Dust (1975)
Life in the Forest (1978)
Collected Earlier Poems, 1940-1960 (1979)
Candles in Babylon (1982)
Light up the Cave (1982)
Poems, 1960-1967 (1983)
Oblique Players (1984)
Breathing the Water (1987)
Poems, 1968-1972 (1987)
A Door in the Hive (1989)
Evening Train (1992)
New and Selected Essays (1992)
Sands in the Well (1996)

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The Day the Audience Walked Out on Me, and Why
A scan of Levertov's poem as it was first typed.

Denise Levertov Papers
Describes the Stanford University collection and includes a biographical sketch and bibliography.

Modern American Poetry
Criticism, biography, an introduction to the themes in her work, book jacket scans, and more.

Poet's Choice by Robert Haas
Haas discusses and provides the text of three Levertov poems.

The Academy of American Poets
A biography, list of works, and selected poetry.

Secondary Sources