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Denise Levertov, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

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Kevin Gallagher


Introduction to Denise Levertov Feature


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Google “Denise Levertov,” ask people about her, or dig around in all sorts of anthologies and it takes a while to get a repeat description of her. She was at least five different poets during her career and has become widely acclaimed for at least four of them. Not so for a lot of poets. Most chisel away a career refining and protecting their method throughout, and their deathbed poems look a lot like their first.


When I was having lunch with a well-known poet who will go unnamed, that poet sneered at the thought of spending time on Levertov. Then however he leaned back and said, “Ah, but she could have been a great formal poet in the English tradition. Why, I even assign a poem or two from time to time from The Double Image. If she had kept that up she could have surpassed Geoffrey Hill.” To the unnamed poet, Denise Levertov is a minor but significant “cooked” poet.


On the other hand, Kenneth Rexroth, writing in 1957, said, “Denise Levertov is incomparably the best poet in what is getting to become known as the new avant-garde.” Donald Allen thought so too, including her in the path-breaking New American Poetry anthology. It is the ten-year period from 1957 to 1967 that Levertov’s critical acclaim is clustered (but is not limited to then). Though she never visited there, in the anthology and forever afterwards she was linked to the Black Mountain school. Indeed, the four core or best of that school are often referred to as Olson, Duncan, Creeley, and Levertov.


It is often remarked that Olson and Duncan more often than not followed a more Pound-like tradition of weaving big narratives with grand references to myth and history. Creeley and Levertov were seen as more as next steps after Williams for their short lyric quality. Levertov’s work, the only woman poet in the group and one of but a handful in the anthology, may be considered more complex and developed than Creeley’s. A few years back New Directions released The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams. The book gives keen insight into her transition from an English to an American ear and sensibility.


“Scenes from the Life of Pepper Trees,” written while Levertov was living in Mexico, is one such poem:


The yellow moon dreamily
Tipping buttons of light
Down among the leaves, Marimba
Marimba — from beyond
The black street.
                                       Somebody dancing
                                       Getting the hell
Outta here.


One can listen to Levertov reading this and other poems at the 1963 Vancouver Poetry conference, also attended by Olson and Creeley:


It was during this period that Levertov wrote “Some Notes on Organic Form,” her essay that said traditional forms and free verse alike were not the best way forward for poetry in her time. Instead, each poem was a templum, a meditation or contemplation where content arises and then the keen poet crafts a particular form to meet that temple and preserve it on a page and with voice. James Laughlin, who published all but Levertov’s first two books of poetry, said that the essay “is the clearest statement I know on the poetic structure which now informs so much of the best contemporary poetry.”


Levertov’s correspondence with Duncan however may be the second most exciting book of letters in twentieth century poetry, first being the Pound-Williams in my opinion. The correspondence takes place largely throughout these ten years, beginning with a rich back and forth about the poetics of the day, their lives, their friendship, and their own work. Without giving it all away, all this unravels as Levertov becomes more engaged with anti-Vietnam efforts.


In the past five years there has been a renewed interest in these poems given the renewed interest in unjust war on the part of the United States. During the Vietnam War Levertov was one of the most sought after poets to read and speak at rallies, and she tirelessly was involved in these efforts. There are courses across the country on the poetry of protest. Just as Levertov is taught in classes about avant-garde poetry in places like Buffalo, she’s also canonized in classes on the poetry of protest, “burned human flesh is smelling in Vietnam as I write.” Anne-Marie Cusac, former editor and Contributing Writer to The Progressive, has an essay in this collection titled “Reading Levertov in Wartime,” notes that this spark in Levertov’s work stayed alive even up to the Gulf War in 1991.


Later in her life she moved to the Pacific Northwest, and there she moves into a more spiritual set of poems in nature. Hence, one can find Levertov poems in all sorts of anthologies and leaflets about nature and environmentalism. In this collection John Felstiner reflects on this period of her life. These poems have a lot of readers but have received far too little criticism. There is an essay to be written examining the western nature poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and Sam Hamill. In each one will find a spiritual affinity for the west. And indeed at least in Rexroth, Snyder, and Hamill much of that spirituality is expressed and reinforced through a Buddhist sensibility. In an essay for this feature Sam Hamill reflects that at one point he even said to Levertov that “Denise, you’ve become a Buddhist!” So add her too.


During her last years Levertov’s spirituality became manifest in Catholicism. These poems can be found in Christian churches across the world and like the others in anthologies of religious poetry. In this collection José Rodríquez Herrera, Levertov’s Spanish translator, pays homage to this period of her work and discusses why he chose Sands of the Well to be the work he translated.


So Levertov had numerous careers as a poet, and each has made a lasting mark on a different poetry community. This collection has at least one discussion of each of these periods, except a discussion of her neo-Romantic British period. Here you’ll find memoirs and reflections on her work by friends, criticism by scholars and biographers who may have never known her, and tributes from afar.

Kevin Gallagher is a poet living in Boston, Massachusetts. His recent books are Looking for Lake Texcoco (Cy Gist) and Isolate Flecks (Cervena Barva). He guest edited a feature on Kenneth Rexroth for Jacket in 2004.

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

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