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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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John Felstiner

“that witnessing presence”:

Life Illumined Around Denise Levertov


“So a poet, although often impelled . . . to write poems of pure celebration, is driven inevitably to lament, to anger, and to expression of dread.” Driven, says Denise Levertov (1923–1997), because “although we humans are a part of nature ourselves, we have become . . . an increasingly destructive element within it, shaking and breaking the ‘great web’ — perhaps irremediably.”

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Shortly before she died, Levertov gathered nature poems from her career, in The Life Around Us. “I decided not to group them separately — praise-poems in one clump, laments and fears in another,” but to let poems in one vein or the other follow along with “those in which celebration and the fear of loss are necessarily conjoined. I believe this flux and reflux echo what readers also feel in their response to ‘the green world.’”


Join celebration to lament, like the Psalms, as Levertov knew well. Based at Stanford where she taught for a twelve years, “In California” tests praise with anger, dawn light “emblazoning” palm and pine with pesticide “poking” at weeds and moss. Posing “deep oakshadow, airy / shadow of eucalyptus” against bulldozers, “babel of destructive construction,” she finds a phrase for it all: “Fragile paradise.”


Who can utter
the poignance of all that is constantly
threatened, invaded, expended,
and constantly
persists in beauty,


she asks at the end,


Who can utter
the praise of such generosity
or the shame?


Her poem has already answered that psalmlike question.


“My mother was descended from the Welsh tailor and mystic Angel Jones of Mold, my father from the noted Hasid, Schneour Zalman, ‘the Rav of Northern White Russia’.” Levertov herself, born in Essex outside London, attended only ballet school, did lessons at home, and was greatly read to in “a house full of books.” She traces her spiritual, earthly, verbal fervency to that Christian-Judaic legacy, as in “Illustrious Ancestors”: “thinking some line still taut between me and them,” she summons up the mystical Russian rabbi who understood the language of birds, and the Welsh tailor whose meditations “were sewn into coats and britches.”


I would like to make . . .
poems direct as what the birds said,
hard as a floor, sound as a bench,
mysterious as the silence when the tailor
would pause with his needle in the air.


Another poem, “The 90th Year,” credits her mother:


It was she
who taught me to look;
to name the flowers when I was still close to the ground,
my face level with theirs.


Under “the roar / of mowers / cropping the already short / grass of lawns,” “In California” clings to “miner’s lettuce, / tender, untasted.”


Paul Levertoff, Denise’s father, had broken with his parents and Judaism “to be, as he believed, the more fully a Jew,” she says. Ordained an Anglican priest, he published a book when she was five, St. Paul in Jewish Thought, which at one point focuses on a certain Jewish quality: “This union of a deep faith in God with the highest concentration of human energy.” He goes on, uncannily in 1928, to as much as foretell Denise Levertov’s poetic creed: “Jewish materialism is religious materialism, or, rather, realism. For every idea and every ideal the Jew demands a visible and touchable materialization.” Given “the highest spiritual truth,” he must “see and feel its real working. He believes in the invisible . . . but he desires that this invisible should become visible and reveal its power; that it should permeate everything material.”


This desire, which so impressed Paul Levertoff, would permeate poem after poem by his daughter. “For Instance,” opening The Life Around Us, recalls to herself a


of lichened stone, or some old shed
where you took refuge once from pelting rain
in Essex, leaning on wheel or shafts
of a dusty cart, and came out when you heard
a blackbird return to song though the rain
was not quite over; and, as you thought there’d be,
there was, in the dark quarter where frowning clouds
were still clustered, a hesitant trace
of rainbow; and across from that the expected
gleam of East Anglian afternoon light, and leaves
dripping and shining. Puddles, and the roadside weeds
washed of their dust. Earth,
that inward cry again —
Erde, du liebe...


Those last words belong to one of Levertov’s guiding spirits, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “Earth, you belovèd.”


A “gleam of East Anglian afternoon light, and leaves / dripping and shining” — that’s what her father meant. The “real working” of spirit illumines poem after poem:


Trunk in deep shade, its lofting crown
offers to each long day’s
pale glow after the sun
is almost down, an answering gold —

*                          *                          *
Small town, early morning.
No cars. Sunlit
children wait for the green light.

*                          *                          *
Pale, then enkindled,
summits of palm and pine

*                          *                          *
all night the glitter
of all that shines out of itself
crisps the vast swathes of the current.


These glints and glimpses, giving the world around us “that attention to detail which is a species of love” (Bill Alfred), become more and more vulnerable, more shadowed, throughout her career.


Precarious thus precious moments begin and end “An English Field in the Nuclear Age,” as in her handwritten draft, working “To render it!” by deep indents and abrupt line breaks, italics, spacings, parentheses:


To render it! — this moment,                                                    
haze and haloes of                          
sunbless’d particulars . . .

Denise Levertov, ĞAn English Field in the Nuclear Ageğ, manuscript. Courtesy of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Denise Levertov, "An English Field in the Nuclear Age," manuscript.
Courtesy of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.



What fends off disaster are “centuries furrowed in oakbole, this oak, / these dogrose pallors.” Finally she notices


how among
thistles, nettles, subtle silver
of long-dried cowpads,

gold mirrors of buttercup satin
assert eternity as they reflect
nothing, everything, absolute instant,
and dread

holds its breath, for
this minute at least was
not the last.


Sheer craft proves these lines: the half-rhymed texture of “thistles, nettles” met by “subtle silver,” the run-on buckling “subtle silver” to “long-dried cowpads.” A late revision made that extra breathtaking break, so that “dread // holds its breath” while an exquisite timing metes out one more moment saved.


“Only connect”: Levertov prized E. M. Forster’s motto. Connect the illumined pines with the pesticide, an English field with the nuclear age. In that intolerable dimension where greed and carelessness violate earth’s integrity, her mentor was not Rilke but the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:


My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,              
  All felled, felled, are all felled.


This, in 1879, when wasting of the land was not well recognized.


And for all this, nature is never spent;
   There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.


With Hopkins she shared a faith that the freshest language for God’s created world might possibly begin reclaiming it.


To bear that faith through a time of war, as Levertov unflaggingly did, makes for poignant political poetry. Her earliest published verse, “Listening to Distant Guns,” stems from 1940 when she was sixteen and the Germans attacked British troops at Dunkirk.


The roses tremble; oh, the sunflower’s eye
Is opened wide in sad expectancy.
Westward and back the circling swallows fly,
The rooks’ battalions dwindle near the hill.


And in “Christmas 1944,” “Who can be happy while the wind recounts / its long sagas of sorrow?” Her rhymed and measured stanzas would vanish soon after the war. So would the humanizing of nature, but not its witness to human ill.


Wherever calamity takes place, the presence of nature holds out someplace to turn. Yeats counters the violent Irish rebellion with a “living stream,” moorhens calling moorcocks. Edward Thomas tracks a kestrel overhead the week German shells kill him in 1917. From World War I trenches, Isaac Rosenberg hears “night ringing with unseen larks.” If you ask “why his poems / don’t tell us of dreams, and leaves, / and great volcanoes in his native land,” writes Pablo Neruda (another inspiration for Levertov), “Come see / the blood in the streets” of Spain’s civil war. Robert Lowell fearing nuclear war gazes at an “orange and black oriole’s swinging nest.” An Arab woman’s “kilo of ripe figs” counterbalances the day’s crushing news in Shirley Kaufman’s Jerusalem.


Levertov’s Vietnam-era collection The Sorrow Dance struggles to imagine how
once, “water buffalo stepped surely along terraces” and “peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies.” Then “bombs smashed those mirrors.”


Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
in our bodies along with all we
go on knowing of joy, of love.


Honesty taking on the brunt of awareness — a form of responsibility.


“The Pulse,” seaside and intimate, barely seems to concern Vietnam:
Sealed inside the anemone
in the dark, I knock my head
on steel petals
curving inward around me.


Her sense of peril lodges in a colorful invertebrate. Then its “petals,” really tentacles, open onto radiant images,


the air they call water,
saline, dawngreen over its sands,
resplendent with fishes.
All day it is morning,

all night the glitter
of all that shines out of itself
crisps the vast swathes of the current.
But my feet are weighted:
only my seafern arms
my human hands
my fingers tipped with fire
sway out into the world.


Free for just this moment, she says “I sing.” But


the petals creak and
begin to rise.
They rise and recurl
to a bud’s form

and clamp shut.
I wait in the dark.


Rather than blatant horror, she shuts an anemone bud on what can’t be expressed.


“Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.” Levertov in 1959 says that poems, no matter if driven by dread or outrage, must keep an “inner harmony.” She held to a principle of organic form, passing from Coleridge and Emerson through Whitman, Hopkins, and others. Poems of environmental awakening give that much more weight to the word “organic.” Robert Frost’s apple-picking, William Stafford’s “sharp swallows in their swerve,” Levertov’s anemone petals evolve a growth of their own: “form is never more than a revelation of content.”


Here we see “the most powerful influence on my poetry,” William Carlos Williams. In his “Young Sycamore,” a single free-verse sentence exfoliates from trunk to tip, forming a new sense of this tree. “Spring and All” moves through “dried weeds” until newly rooted plants “grip down and begin to awaken.” Arriving in the U.S. in 1948, Levertov came to value “as poetry” Williams’s idiomatic speech, his local (New Jersey) inspiration, and “a Franciscan sense of wonder” at common things that “deepened for me . . . some latent capacity in myself to see the world more freshly.” Meanwhile the older poet welcomed in her writing an “energy and chained power,” plus her American standpoint as against expatriates like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot.


After Williams died, Levertov composed “a kind of flower-sketch of Bill” for his widow Flossie, set by a river near his home:


Brown and silver, the tufted
rushes hold sway
by the Hackensack

and small sunflowers
freckled with soot
clamber out of the fill.


Amid “crude industrial debris” these sunflowers carry “in each disk / of coarse yellow” a smile, “almost / a boy’s grin.” She also had in mind the “Sunflower Sutra” of another Williams protégé, Allen Ginsberg chanting his holy golden sunflower “poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke.” Tenacious like sunflowers, her dogrose and buttercup, oakshadow and summits of palm and pine resist a more and more denatured world. That “flux and reflux” of celebration and dread, as she put it, kept her voice sane.


In her mid-sixties Levertov moved to Seattle, living near a large semi-wild park on Lake Washington. She continued to teach and help younger poets, while working against war, nuclear proliferation, environmental wastage. When local citizens “daylighted” a suffocated urban stream, she wrote how “fish and waterbugs swim again in its ripples.” Her poem is posted there. Settling into the terrain, she greeted its “generous” presence with crisp verse: dark silent woods under “winter sunlight favoring / here a sapling, there an ancient snag, / ferns, lichen,” the lake “always ready to change its skin / to match the sky’s least inflection,” and above all, the mountain.


Mount Rainier’s 14,400-foot volcanic peak south of the city, seldom fully visible, astonished her. Like Hokusai’s “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” Levertov in poem after poem, while never naming Rainier, records its changing aspects:


The mountain comes and goes
on the horizon,                          
a rhythm elusive as that of a sea wave
*                          *                          *
The mountain absent,
a remote folk-memory
*                          *                          *
the mountain revealing itself unclouded, its snow
tinged apricot as it looked west


Far but not too far from Marianne Moore’s octopus Rainier, Levertov sees an “Animal mountain” of clefts and creases, a “snowwhite foam mirage,” “obdurate, unconcerned,” sensing too its “slopes of arid scree” and “scarring roads.”


Throughout her chronicle runs a sense that revealed or hidden, massive stone and snow or ethereal vapor, this everpresent mountain has a more-than-natural reality. Her own awareness reflects its silent witness to human transience, like the “Fields of Gazing Grain” along Emily Dickinson’s path toward eternity. Sometimes,


I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day


so as to see Rainier. Saying why she must go down to the shore or up the road, Denise Levertov’s words speak for her task as a poet of nature, religion, politics, personhood:


to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

John Felstiner’s books include Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu; Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew; Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan; and Can Poetry Save the Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems (Spring 2009). Denise Levertov lived across a green field behind his house during her years at Stanford.

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