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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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Donna Krolik Hollenberg

A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov

An excerpt from Donna Krolik Hollenberg’s biography: from Part Two: Chapter Seven

“The Poem Ascends”: Taking a Position (1960–1963)

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Back in Manhattan in September 1960, after the best summer of her life, Levertov noted the “strange contrast” between her growing good fortune and the ominous world news, where the intensification of the arms race between Russia and the U.S. and the collapse of a Paris meeting between Eisenhower and Khrushchev continued to make headlines.[1] This contrast would be short-lived, however. Before long, personal sorrow would make itself felt in ways she could not deny and would coincide with public calamity to change the scope of her poetry. But she could not be expected to predict this confluence in the excitement of her present happiness. For the next three years, her life would be enriched by increased literary activity, in the course of which she staked out her position in relation to various literary factions and made new friends, as well as by more comfortable living conditions and her husband’s success. She also continued to benefit from reconnection with her European roots, a process begun in earnest after her father’s death in 1954, when she began to read deeply in Hasidic literature. The poems in The Jacob’s Ladder (1961), which show the results of this immersion, represent a significant development in Levertov’s growth as a lyric poet. If in Overland to the Islands (1958) she found a way to represent symbolically the adventure of emigration from England to America, employing as a major trope, extension in space, and in With Eyes At the Back of Our Heads (1960) she articulated her individual relationship to the literary tradition, in The Jacob’s Ladder (1961) an engagement with time and eternity was integrated with these earlier accomplishments and she achieved a new plateau of moral responsibility.


The volume opens with “To the Reader,” a poem about simultaneity, in which our reading is gradually brought into synchrony with the actions, first, of an animal (“a white bear”), then of  “many gods,” and finally with a numinous cosmic force:


and as you read
the sea is turning its dark pages,
its dark pages (TJL, 1).


This poem is followed by “The Ladder,” a quotation from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, which serves as epigraph to the volume. An interpretation of the biblical story of Jacob’s vision, the “ladder” confers ethical obligations upon the beholder: “even the ascent and descent of the angels depend on my deeds” (TJL, 2). Here, as in the title poem and in other poems such as “The Depths,” Levertov is concerned with depth and elevation, with seeing man in a new perspective — vertically — in his relation to the divine. Her desired vocal register is “the uncommon speech of paradise” (TJL, 7).


In a 1968 essay that recalls the attitudes and realizations behind two more poems in this collection, “The Necessity,” and “Three Meditations,” Levertov expresses the task of the poet in religious terms:


The poet — when he is writing — is a priest; the poem is a temple; epiphanies and communion take place within it. The communion is triple: between the maker and the needer within the poet; between the maker and the needers outside him — those who need but can’t make their own poems (or do make their own but need this one too); and between the human the divine in both poet and reader. By divine I mean something beyond both the making and the needing elements, vast, irreducible, a spirit summoned by the exercise of needing and making. When the poet converses with this god he has summoned into manifestation, he reveals to others the possibility of their own dialogue with the god in themselves. Writing the poem is the poet’s means of summoning the divine; the reader’s may be through reading the poem, or through what the experience of the poem leads him to (PIW, 47).


Since she also believed that “the act of realizing inner experience in material substance is in itself an action towards others,” in this volume she continues the task of affirming a cultural lineage begun in such earlier poems as “Illustrious Ancestors” and “In Obedience” (PIW, 49). In several poems, she connects her self in the present not only with her European ancestors but with the origins of all things, an imaginative gesture which adds to her authority. In “A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England,” for example, remembering the parks of her childhood with their ancient trees and streams enables an imaginative link between her life in America and her ancestors’ emigration from “Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon” (TJL, 21). She empathizes with the difficulties and privileges of these immigrants who, “picking up fragments of New World slowly,” enable her now, herself  “in a far country,” to contemplate “the first river” and “the walls of the garden / the first light” (TJL,22). The biblical imagery in these last quotations reappears in “The Well” and “The Illustration,” important poems about the “origins — in memory and forgotten experience — of dream, vision, and synthetic intuitions” (PIW, 75). That Levertov’s sense of cultural lineage also included a moral obligation to speak about the destroyed, about a people at the point of extinction, is evident in the volume’s closing sequence, “During the Eichmann Trial,” her first overtly political poem.


In the summer of 1960 Levertov’s happiness was enhanced by a more commodious living arrangement. Not only had she and Mitch grown intellectually and emotionally over the summer, experiencing “new kinds of awareness,” they had also bought an old farmhouse in Temple, Maine where they planned to live at least six months of the year. They had grown increasingly fond of northern New England, having visited Vermont and Maine for part of each summer since 1949. Now they had a house and barn of their own on 45 acres of land not far from Ted Enslin, with whose help they had found a cabin to rent temporarily for $8.00 per month. Their new house at Temple was completely private, hidden from the dirt road that led past it. It lacked indoor plumbing, but it was a veritable mansion compared with the primitive accommodations at the two-room cabin, where the roof leaked so badly that Denise put out pots and pans to catch the dripping water. Also, the new house was only a short walk to Temple stream, a stony, quick trout stream meandering in the forest, where they could bathe nude in a refreshing whirl-pool, at one special rock ledge. Situated on a knoll, the house had two chimneys, two asymmetrical gables and beautiful views from the large windows. It “stands high so that one can see many miles away — wooded ranges, some pasture, a few distant farms,” Denise wrote to H.D.


Levertov had written regularly to the legendary older poet ever since their lunch the previous May in the atrium café of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the company of Robert Duncan, who provided the introduction. H.D. had made a rare trip to New York, from her home in Switzerland, to receive the first gold medal to a woman by the Academy of American Poets, an historic occasion made possible, in part, by the efforts of Professor Norman Holmes Pearson, her benefactor at Yale. Pearson wished also to put the reclusive poet in touch with members of the younger generation in America who would appreciate her legacy. He had commissioned Duncan to write an homage to H.D. for her birthday (which would become his H.D.Book) and had invited Levertov to read at Yale in February of 1961. His efforts were successful. After her meeting with H.D., Levertov recorded the event in a letter to Adrienne Rich, with whom she had become friends. After asking if Rich liked any of H.D.’s poetry, she confided, “Despite early pure-as-lily priggishness she is, I think, a very fine poet — who turned out to be a most charming and unpretentious old lady.”[2]


Levertov had given H.D. a copy of With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads, her first book published by New Directions, and H.D. had reciprocated by inviting Denise to tea in her hotel a few days after the ceremony at the Academy. H.D. had been  “touched to see so many people she had known when she was young,” Levertov wrote, and H.D. had given her a copy of the program and shown her the medal, which “wasn’t really gold, only silver-gilt.”[3] Most important, H.D. had also given Levertov a copy of her own recently published roman × clef, Bid Me To Live, about the painfully conflicted life of a woman writer in the context of the male literary avant-garde during World War One. Below her signature, H.D. had inscribed a line from Denise’s poem “A Ring of Changes,” one of whose themes was the tension between life and work in the sometimes pained marriage of two writers. The connection implied by this inscription was important to Denise who had had few women mentors besides her mother and older sister. Its subtext was, “I am a woman writer, like you, and I understand the complexities of your life.” The experience of reading H.D.’s novel was a high point of Levertov’s summer. She read it all one evening and part of the next day and found it completely absorbing, reporting to Robert Duncan, “I have not felt so permeated by a book since I read Dr. Zhivago.”[4] In subsequent letters to H.D., she is grateful for the older woman’s attention, sending new poems she thought H.D. would like.[5] In turn, H.D. tried to fulfill Levertov’s implicit desire for women mentors, noting that she had read Marianne Moore’s recent review of  Donald Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry: 1946—1960, and was glad to see Levertov favorably mentioned by her old friend Moore.


In fact, Levertov was the only woman Moore had quoted in her review of this ground-breaking anthology. Its purpose was to introduce a varied group of emerging American poets whose common characteristic was “a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse,” following the practice and precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, but there were only four women among its forty-four poets.[6] (The other three were Helen Adam, Barbara Guest, and Madeline Gleason.) Levertov could add this sign of recognition to her first award, also received over the summer, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry Magazine for “With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads.” This honor, along with an increasing number of readings in prestigious venues — Princeton and NYU in March, with David Ferry and David Ignatow respectively and then Harvard in April — made her more determined than ever to be independent of current trends and poetic dicta. She even distanced herself from poets of the Black Mountain College group with whom she was associated and who, influenced by Charles Olson, regarded “composition by field” as an improvement upon inherited forms. Levertov defended Olson’s statement on “Projective Verse” rather half-heartedly in a letter to Adrienne Rich, who had been dismayed at the “slovenly” prose of some of the statements of poetics in Allen’s anthology.[7] She argued that its main point needed to be reiterated despite the unintelligibility of Olson’s prose style, but she also confided that “much of his poetry is bombastic, overly didactic, willfully oblique, mannered,” and she agreed with Rich’s objection to those contributors (mainly Beat poets) who were “dogmatically against revision.”[8]


Levertov’s letters to Rich during the summer express pleasure at having a woman poet friend with whom she could discuss the life of poetry from a shared vantage point. The two had met in 1959 through their husbands, who were former Harvard classmates, and they were immediately drawn to each other. Rich was six years younger but they were both accomplished poets with at least two published books (Levertov had three) and they were both married with children, then an uncommon position for serious women writers. Furthermore, “each had been praised by a different cohort of older male poets,” a prerequisite then for validation and success: Levertov, most notably by Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Duncan and Rich by W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell. [9]  They soon exchanged drafts of poems and compared responses to earlier poets they both loved, “like Hopkins, Blake, Rilke, Lawrence, Hardy.” When possible, they also introduced each other to their male mentors. When Levertov read at Harvard in April, 1960, sponsored by the college’s literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate, she and her eleven-year old son, Nikolai, stayed with Rich and her husband, Alfred Conrad, and their three sons in Cambridge. Rich and her husband were in the audience at the reading and so was Robert Lowell, to whom Rich introduced Levertov at the reception following. At about the same time, Levertov facilitated a meeting between Robert Duncan and Rich when Duncan visited the Boston area. Recalling that meeting, which took place in her Cambridge kitchen where she was also tending a sick child, Rich mentioned the disjunction she felt between his world, where the life of poetry was clearly paramount and her world, where the claims of motherhood superceded all others. As she put it,


It was clear he inhabited a world where poetry and poetry only took precedence, a world where that was possible. My sharpest memory is of feeling curiously negated between my sick child, for whom I was, simply, comfort, and the continuously speaking poet with the strange unbalanced eyes, for whom I was simply an ear.”[10]


Levertov and Rich also debated about contemporary poets and poetics, questioning each other’s assumptions, clarifying their respective viewpoints, and learning from each other. Like members of the Black Mountain group who followed in the footsteps of Pound and Williams, Levertov eschewed traditional metrics. She defined literary form as a process of recording apperception and she based line-breaks and stanza-breaks on the music of colloquial speech. After the Allen anthology appeared, Rich took issue with this Black Mountain attitude, claiming that the poets who were most important to her on both sides of the Atlantic had “lost nothing if and when they engaged themselves within formal schemes.”[11] Even such apparent innovators as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, she wrote, based their daring departures on the hymnal, in Dickinson’s case, and in Whitman’s, the King James version of the Bible as well as “the rhythmic pulsation of the ocean — two sources of auditory enrichment which have nothing to do with breath or colloquial speech.” Rich found the “ear for spoken cadences” overvalued by Black Mountain poetics, considering it a relatively minor asset compared with the art by which some poets could create mood and shifts of feeling “through the manipulation of cadences which could never have existed spontaneously.” Rich thought that Whitman and Wallace Stevens were “the two great (non-living) American poets,” and although she agreed that “a totally structured metric is more and more in abeyance today,” she argued that in the best poets its residue is nevertheless still very much present. Rich found herself unable to respond to much of the poetry in the anthology, although she thought “pieces of Duncan very beautiful,” and she wrote that Levertov was “by far the strongest and most distinguished talent included.” She praised her as one of those rare poets “who seem to have an innately fine ear and whose measure is completely original and self-sustaining,” wondering whether her “English Victorian literary background” wasn’t “working secretly to counterbalance [her] American discoveries.”


Pleased by this praise and stimulated by Rich’s critique of Black Mountain poetics, Levertov carried the debate forward. In her reply, written after another letter in which Rich mentioned reading William Carlos Williams, Levertov agreed that it was an asset to have grown up in a literate European atmosphere before coming to America, but she thought Williams should be included with Stevens as one of the “greats.” In fact, the two poets complemented each other, she wrote; each had what the other lacked. She, too, admired Whitman, whose Specimen Days she had been reading, but she thought Rich mistaken in preferring her work to Duncan’s, insisting that his had more “weight and density.” Also, in response to Rich’s comment that the first part of her new poem, “In Memory of Boris Pasternak” was “sentimental,” Levertov defended it on the basis of its having been based on a real experience, a deeply felt message from the dying Russian novelist (“I feel that we shall be friends”) whose letter she cherished. She wrote, “I think it is the rationalist in you that is objecting to the mystic in me,” and compared their debate to a similar one between Whitman and Emerson. It reminded her of “the unusual, non-rancorous (and stimulating) quality of our disagreements.”[12]


Although she had emphasized Williams’ importance in her response to Rich, this exchange probably enabled Levertov to clarify her position in relation to him and to become more independent. In a strong letter to Williams written one month later, she defended the diction in her poem, “The Jacob’s Ladder.” She could not always put Williams’ ideas about the American idiom first in her work, she wrote, because that would mean denying the great European poets who were an important part of her inheritance. She reminded him that, in fact, her “daily speech is not purely American,” and though viewing herself as an American poet more than anything else, she’s a “later naturalized, second-class citizen, not an all-American girl.” She continues, “& I’m darned if I’m going to pretend to be anything else or throw out what other cultural influences I have in my system, whatever anyone says.”[13] Her exchanges with Rich probably also contributed to Levertov’s refinement of Olson’s ideas about “breath-spaced lines” in her 1965 interview, “Line-breaks, Stanza-spaces, and the Inner Voice” (PIW, 23).


Levertov had replied to Rich in 1960 after returning from a visit to her mother in Oaxaca in mid July. She had traveled twelve hours by bus from Mexico City through the mountains, where the landscape in some places “resemble[d] those Chinese landscapes of endless peaks and clouds and ravines,” [14] and was moved to write a few poems in the first days after her arrival. These were later published  in the group, “Five Poems from Mexico” (TJL, 28—30). She had been particularly grateful to find her mother in good health after the death of Mitch’s mother in February. Denise had loved and admired Adele Goodman, describing her as “one of the kindest people I ever expect to meet,” and she shared Mitch’s grief.[15]  In contrast, Beatrice Levertoff’s much cherished garden was in full bloom, a sign of her successful adjustment. There were “roses, geraniums, fuschia, calla lillies and shamrock among bamboo, lime-trees, and tree-high rubber-plants,” she wrote. There was also an unexpected new shared interest. Her mother had always loved history and historical fiction and she had recently read Ernst Kantorowitz’s Frederick the Second, which Denise borrowed while she was there. It was of special interest to her because Robert Duncan had studied with Kantorowitz at Berkeley and she found it fascinating, “especially the chapters on the intellectual curiosity and the breadth of knowledge there was at the Sicilian court.” While in Oaxaca, she attended the festival, “El Lunes del Cerro,” during which Indians from all over the region celebrate their pre-Columbian origins, and she was sufficiently impressed by their handicrafts to attempt, in her poem “The Weave,” which is “intentionally adjectival,” to recreate the effect of “a close-woven tapestry in varied colors.”[16] The visit had been further enhanced by the presence, for a week, of her good friends Jerome (Jerry) and Diane Rothenberg, for whom she enjoyed playing guide. Diane was an anthropologist and Jerry had been doing translations from Garibay’s version of the Nahuatl poems.[17] They shared Denise’s interest in ancient Native American civilization in Mexico, evident in her earlier poem, “The Artist,” which was based on a Spanish translation of a Toltec codice (Eyes, 84).


On this trip to Oaxaca, Levertov  also visited the church of Santo Domingo with its two tiers of frescoes high on the walls of the nave, the lower ones of New Testament subjects and the upper ones, of Old Testament subjects. Among the latter she found the fresco, “Jacob’s Dream,” the inspiration for her poem, “The Jacob’s Ladder,” which she began in that church.[18]  As in the fresco, where stone stairs on a diagonal from bottom left to top right dominate the picture space, her poem focuses on the stairway. She stresses its materiality as well as the differences between angels and human beings:


The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence
for angel’s feet that only glance in their tread, and need not
touch the stone.

It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a doubtful, a doubting
night gray.

A stairway of sharp
angles solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next, giving a little
lift of the wings:

and a man climbing
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past him.
             The poem ascends (TJL, 39).


When regarded as a view of her poetic project, Levertov’s emphasis on the materiality of the ladder may intentionally echo the Objectivists’ program which, in George Oppen’s words, emphasized the “objectification of the poem, the making of an object of the poem” (Rothenberg, II, 92). However, Levertov’s materialism is also religious materialism. Her elaboration of the stone’s “glowing tone” is informed by other aspects of the biblical story of Jacob. When he awakens, Jacob will make the stone he placed under his head as a pillow into a sacred pillar, a witness to his dream and the accompanying divine promise (Genesis 28:18). Also, Levertov’s imagery of struggle (scraped knees, “groping feet”) suggests Jacob’s later grappling with a supernatural figure, out of which will come God’s blessing and Jacob’s new name “Israel,” soldier of God (Genesis 32:28, 30 and 48:15—16). In fact, Jacob’s earlier history as the younger twin of Esau, who gained his father Isaac’s blessing through an act of deception encouraged by his mother, also had resonance for Levertov. Although she had lost touch with her older sister Olga during this interval, her sister’s gifts and misfortunes were never far from consciousness. In this poem, she affirms an artistic destiny that is fraught with obligations as well as privileges.[19]


[1] DL to HD, 19 Sept. 1960, letter in “‘Within the world of your perceptions’: The Letters of Denise Levertov and H.D.,” ed. Donna Krolik Hollenberg, in Paideuma 33: 2&3 (Fall and Winter 2004), 247–271. All quotations in this paragraph are from this letter.

[2] DL to Adrienne Rich, 23 May 1960, ms at Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

[3] DL to Adrienne Rich, 31 May 1960, ms at Schlesinger Library, Harvard University. The next quotation is also from this letter.

[4] DL to Robert Duncan 19 June 1960, in Bertholf and Gelpi, eds. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004). All citations to the correspondence between Levertov and Duncan are to this edition.

[5] DL sent H.D. the following poems: “The Depths,” “…Else a Great Prince in Prison Lies,” “The Thread,” “Luxury,” and “The Presence.”

[6] Donald Allen, ed. Preface, The New American Poetry, 1945–1960 (New York: Grove Press, 1960), xi.

[7] Adrienne Rich to DL, 5 July 1960, ms at Special Collections, Stanford University.

[8] DL to Adrienne Rich, 19 August 1960, ms at Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

[9] Adrienne Rich, “Denise Levertov,” unpublished ms, used with Rich’s permission. Unless otherwise indicated, quoted passages in the rest of this paragraph are from this source.

[10] Adrienne Rich, “A Communal Poetry,” What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (NY: Norton, 1993), 166.

[11] Adrienne Rich to DL, 5 July 1960, ms at Special Collections, Stanford University. The immediately following quotations are also from this letter.

[12] DL to Adrienne Rich, 17 August 1960, ms at Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

[13] DL to WCW, 21 September 1960, in The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams, ed. Christopher MacGowan (NY: New Directions, 1998), 100–101.

[14] DL to HD, 15 July [1960], op. cit. Unless otherwise indicated, the other quotations in the paragraph are from this source.

[15] DL to Jehanne Deutschbein Marchesi, 25 February [1960]; ms. property of Jehanne Marchesi.

[16] DL to Adrienne Rich, 23 July [1960], ms at the Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

[17] DL to James Laughlin, 10 August 1960, ms at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[18] DL to William Carlos Williams, 21 September [1960], in The letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams, ed. Christopher MacGowan (NY: New Directions, 1998), 100–102.

[19] For discussion of the ladder as a symbol of hierarchy, see Jerome Mazzaro’s essay, in Little and Paul, 215–223.

Donna Hollenberg, Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, has published three books on H.D. and many essays on other twentieth-century poets. Her current book, the first biography of Denise Levertov, is close to completion.

Photo, top: Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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