The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov
Born in Essex, England in 1923, and having lived for brief periods in Holland, France, Italy, Mexico, and most of her adult life in the United States, Denise Levertov viewed herself as “a trans-Atlantic poet.”
Her final years (1991–1997) spent in Seattle, Washington, reminiscent of her childhood home, gave her a stunning view of Lake Washington and Mount Rainier. Her life work which included three books of essays and memoirs and the 20 books of poetry collected in this huge volume is her own mountain of work. From its vantage the dedicated reader can now view her panorama of her achievement as one of the main figures of 20th century poetry.
Such prolific writing came natural to her, as she declared in “The Cloak:”
And I walked naked
from the beginning
arrogant in innocence.
The sheer range and volume of this work, revealing a book about every two years of her adult life, requires a journey for the reader, one best made with an accompanying biography or chronology of the poet’s life.
Fortunately two biographies appeared last year: Dana Green’s Denise Levertov: A Poet's Life and Donna Krolik Hollenbert’s A Poet's Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov. The former is more readable, the latter more comprehensive.
The very comprehensiveness of this new collection begs the question of audience intent. Certainly this book should be in all libraries of contemporary poetry, and clearly for the avid reader of poetry it too is a must. This reviewer approached it a book a day with accompanying biography reference over a period of a month.
Evan Boland’s introduction identifies “Levertov’s signature way—that is, from headlong syntax and conversational wildfire” and praises how “she emerges from these pages as the maker of a fluid, mercurial lyric that is often breathtaking. She also emerges as a hero of the ethical imagination.”
The poems in this book do not repeat but continue to explore personal and mythical depths while also engaging in pressing social issues of peace and justice. One finds telling images of animal presence and the beauty and wisdom of nature placed next to poems that witness the human waste of life. Her wonderfully sonic verse ranges from lyric wonder to direct confrontation. Thus was her life—consciousness and conscience—and thus is her verse.
Levertov had begun writing quite young and at age 12 sent off poems to T. S. Eliot who responded with praise. She first came on the scene in England with the 1946 publication of The Double Image (Cresset Press), poems in the neo-romantic vein of the times, many from her experience of nursing the wounded in bombed out London.
She emerged on the American scene as one of a few women in New British Poets edited by Kenneth Rexroth for New Directions Publishing. From this period “The Shadow” represents her combining nature and life: “The green of day assumes in dreams the shade/ of eloquence I need, to tell how love/ can lay the ghosts of childhood with a smile.” These early poems move from a distant abstraction towards a firmer grounding in concrete image.
Following a European romance and marriage to Mitch Goodman, an American GI and writer, she moved from France to Italy, then to America and the streets of Greenwich Village in 1948. Subsequent to friendships with mentor William Carlos Williams, and with Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, her verse appeared in the Black Mountain Review. In the 1950s a long manuscript was then split into her next two books: Here and Now (1956) in City Lights Pocket Poets Series and Overland to the Islands (Jonathan Williams, 1958).
Her approach had broadened and under the influence of Williams become much more conversational, though notably British. The poems of Here and Now are of people and places, as in “Jackson Square,” “The Lovers,” “Marriage,” and “Central Park, Winter, after Sunset.”
Overland to the Islands is more focused on nature and place. Using the open form of organic verse, she blends music and ideas in a lyric flow. “At Supermarket in Guadalajera, Mexico,” “The Springtime,” and “Merritt Parkway” are memorable examples. In the latter she dances the words down the page:
As if it were
forever that they move, that we
Under a wan sky where
as the lights went on a star
pierced the haze & now
above our six lanes
the dreamlike continuum . . .
Clearly she had come to embrace the page as energy field, internalizing the natural images into a moving consciousness.
In a volume of this size, there is so much to cover that any review may sound like a personal version of “Selected Poems.” And so one can best serve the reader by noting the evolution of the poet through her various books.
Denise Levertov was very much a poet of her time and place, moving through various wars (all of which she actively protested in her verse and her life, several times being arrested). Though poems of witness and protest can be found in virtually all of her books, To Stay Alive (1971) is structured as a notebook of these engaged poems. In it she asks, “Is there anything/ I write any more that is not/ elegy?” and in the long multi-sectioned “Staying Alive” poem she confesses her solidarity with all those who speak out:
—what I hold fast to, grip
in my fist for amulet, is my love
of those who dare, who do dare
to struggle, dare to reject
unlived life, disdain
to die of that.
This volume also includes her “Life at War” and “What Were They Like?” two of the strongest poems ever written against the war in Vietnam or anywhere else. Later volumes will take stands against our involvement with nuclear arms, and in El Salvador, and both Gulf Wars.
Another level of progression is through her personal growth and her relationships with her son, her husband Mitch Goodman and various young admirers (see “Marriage,” “The Ache of Marriage,” “Divorcing,” “Living Alone,” “Libation,” and the “Lovers” poems), and through a long working out of her ties to her parents (see “Daughter” poems, “Death in Mexico,” and “A Soul-Café”), and to her older sister Olga (see the long “Olga Poem” and “A Note to Olga”).
Her personal poems all have an authenticity; we witness her struggles with loneliness and love, and her evolving spiritual depth. At her father’s death in 1954, she began a search back to her religious roots, yet remained agnostic until sometime after the death of her mother in 1977 when she slowly begins to progress in her religious faith.
In her “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” (1982) written in the form of a mass she joins with doubting Thomas but moves toward a spiritual reawakening in the poem’s conclusion. The 1984 Oblique Prayers volume moves her into stronger alliance with key elements of Christianity as in “Presence,” “Gathered at the River,” “O God of the Gods,” “The Avowal,” and “Oblique Prayers.”
In subsequent volumes of Breathing in Water (1987), A Door in the Hive (1989), Evening Train (1993), and Sands of the Well (1996) she blends awareness poems of nature, relationships and art with those of social protest and deep spirituality. By 1990 she had moved to Seattle and joined the Catholic Church, finding her own individual faith within the broader orthodoxy of the church. Striking poems of spiritual growth are “A Blessing” for Joanna Macy, “The Servant Girl at Emmaus,” the “Book of Hours” poems in alliance with Rilke. In “Flickering Mind” she dares to speak to God, confessing her long denial yet deep connection and in “The Love of Morning” she exclaims:
God has saved the world one more day.
even with the leaden burden of human evil;
we wake to bird song.
Significant here is this binding of spirituality to nature, for Levertov is ever the poet of the natural world. The poem “Concurrence” reveals this vision and stance where the corrupt world of man is held in contrast to the purity of nature.
Each day’s terror, almost
a form of boredom—madmen
at the wheel and
stepping on the gas and
the brakes no good—
and each day one,
sometimes two, morning-glories
faultless, blue, blue sometimes
flecked with magenta, each
lit from within with
the first sunlight.
As Paul Lacey concludes in the book’s Afterword, hers is “a poetics of presence” and a vision “responsive and responsible to community.” Rightly he praises how her “every grace, every eloquence is hard-won.”
Denise Levertov is able to unite thought and feeling in a lyric yet in engaged poetry that makes her writing not only unforgettable but at the foreground of contemporary verse. This book is a mountain of solid achievement, one well worth the climb.