Denise Levertov, 1923–1997
During the course of a prolific career, Denise Levertov created a highly regarded body of poetry that reflects her beliefs as an artist and a humanist. Her work embraces a wide variety of genres and themes, including nature lyrics, love poems, protest poetry, and poetry inspired by her faith in God. “Dignity, reverence,and strength are words that come to mind as one gropes to characterize . . . one of America’s most respected poets,” wrote Amy Gerstler in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Gerstler added that a “reader poking her nose into any Levertov book at random finds herself in the presence of a clear uncluttered voice—a voice committed to acute observation and engagement with the earthly, in all its attendant beauty, mystery and pain.”
World Literature Today contributor Doris Earnshaw once described Levertov as being “fitted by birth and political destiny to voice the terrors and pleasures of the twentieth century. . . . She [had] published poetry since the 1940s that [spoke] of the great contemporary themes: Eros, solitude, community, war.” Although born and raised in England, Levertov came to the United States when she was twenty-five years old, and all but her first few poetry collections have been described as thoroughly American. Early on, critics and colleagues alike detected an American idiom and style in her work, noting the influences of writers like William Carlos Williams, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Kenneth Rexroth, Wallace Stevens, and the projectivist Black Mountain poets. With the onset of the turbulent 1960s, Levertov delved into socio-political poetry and continued writing in this sphere; in Modern American Women Poets Jean Gould called her “a poet of definite political and social consciousness.” However, Levertov refused to be labeled, and Rexroth once described her in With Eye and Earas “in fact classically independent.”
Because Levertov never received a formal education, her earliest literary influences can be traced to her home life in Ilford, England, a suburb of London. Levertov and her older sister, Olga, were educated by their Welsh mother, Beatrice Adelaide Spooner-Jones, until the age of thirteen. The girls further received sporadic religious training from their father, Paul Philip Levertoff, a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England and became an Anglican minister. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Carolyn Matalene explained that “the education [Levertov] did receive seems, like Robert Browning‘s, made to order. Her mother read aloud to the family the great works of nineteenth-century fiction, and she read poetry, especially the lyrics of Tennyson. . . . Her father, a prolific writer in Hebrew, Russian, German, and English, used to buy secondhand books by the lot to obtain particular volumes. Levertov grew up surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages.” It has been said that many of Levertov’s readers favor her lack of formal education because they see it as an impetus to verse that is consistently clear, precise, and accessible. According to Earnshaw, “Levertov seems never to have had to shake loose from an academic style of extreme ellipses and literary allusion, the self-conscious obscurity that the Provencal poets called ‘closed.'”
Levertov had confidence in her poetic abilities from the beginning, and several well-respected literary figures believed in her talents as well. Gould recorded Levertov’s “temerity” at the age of twelve when she sent several of her poems directly to T. S. Eliot: “She received a two-page typewritten letter from him, offering her ‘excellent advice.’ . . . His letter gave her renewed impetus for making poems and sending them out.” Other early supporters included critic Herbert Read, editor Charles Wrey Gardiner, and author Kenneth Rexroth. When Levertov had her first poem published in Poetry Quarterly in 1940, Rexroth professed: “In no time at all Herbert Read, Tambimutti, Charles Wrey Gardiner, and incidentally myself, were all in excited correspondence about her. She was the baby of the new Romanticism. Her poetry had about it a wistful Schwarmerei unlike anything in English except perhaps Matthew Arnold‘s ‘Dover Beach.’ It could be compared to the earliest poems of Rilke or some of the more melancholy songs of Brahms.”
Poem: The Annunciation by Denise Levertov
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lecturn, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent. God waited.
She was free
to accept or refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another in most lives?
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes..
She had been a child who played, ate, spelt
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumpf.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
a simple, “How can this be?”
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –
but who was God.