Denise Levertov (24 October 1923 – 20 December 1997) was one of the most acclaimed American poets of the 20th century
She was born and grew up in Ilford, Essex, a suburb to which Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland moved after arriving in the East End of London. Her father, Paul Levertoff, had been a teacher at Leipzig University and as a Russian Hassidic Jew was held under house arrest during the First World War as an ‘enemy alien’ by virtue of his ethnicity. He became a believer in Yeshua in 1895 and moved to England, where he became an Anglican priest and pioneering Hebrew Christian, translator of the Zohar, and writer. Her mother, Beatrice Adelaide (née Spooner-Jones) Levertoff, came from a small mining village in North Wales.
Denise wrote, “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervour and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells”. She was home-schooled, showing an enthusiasm for writing from an early age and studied ballet, art, piano and French as well as standard subjects.
She wrote about the strangeness she felt growing up part Jewish, German, Welsh and English, but not fully belonging to any of these identities. She felt lent her a she was special rather than excluded: “[I knew] before I was ten that I was an artist-person and I had a destiny”.
When she was five years old she declared she would be a writer. At the age of 12, she sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot (who knew her father), who replied with a two-page letter of encouragement. In 1940, when she was 17, Levertov published her first poem. During the Blitz, Levertov served in London as a civilian nurse. Her first book, The Double Image, was published six years later.
In 1947, she married American writer Mitchell Goodman and moved to the United States in 1948. Although they divorced in 1975, having one son, Nikolai. In 1955, she became an American citizen.
Levertov’s first two books had comprised poems written in traditional forms and language. She was influenced by the Black Mountain poets and William Carlos Williams. Her first American book of poetry, Here and Now, shows the beginnings of this transition and transformation. Her poem “With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads” (below) established her reputation.
During the 1960s and 70s, Levertov became much more politically active in her life and work. As poetry editor for The Nation, she was able to support and publish the work of feminist and other leftist activist poets. The Vietnam War was an especially important focus of her poetry, which often tried to weave together the personal and political, as in her poem “The Sorrow Dance,” which speaks of her sister Olga’s death
… how you always
loved that cadence, ‘Underneath
are the everlasting arms’—
burned out, down
to the sick bone, save for
that kind candle.
In 1990 she joined the Catholic Church at St. Edwards, Seattle, In 1997, she brought together 38 poems from seven of her earlier volumes in The Stream & the Sapphire, a collection intended, as Levertov explains in the foreword to the collection, to “trace my slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith, a movement incorporating much doubt and questioning as well as affirmation.”
From A Poet’s Valediction Nicholas O’Connell
Did your understanding of poetic inspiration help to imagine what it would be like to have religious faith?
That’s one way of putting it. When you’re really caught up in writing a poem, it can be a form of prayer. I’m not very good at praying, but what I experience when I’m writing a poem is close to prayer. I feel it in different degrees and not with every poem. But in certain ways writing is a form of prayer.
Is prayer similar to poetic inspiration, in that you can’t force it, but simply must wait and hope for it?
But you do have to focus your attention. I was really amazed at how close the exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola were to a poet or novelist imagining a scene. You focus your attention on some particular aspect of the life of Christ. You try to compose that scene in your imagination, place yourself there. If it’s the Via Dolorosa, you have to ask yourself, are you one of the disciples? Are you a passerby? Are you a spectator that likes to watch from the side, the way people used to watch hangings? You establish who you are and where you stand and then you look at what you see. –
For what You have given us
In Denise, in Paul, in Olga and Beatrice
We give You thanks
For what You have made us
In darkness and doubt
In pain and in pointlessness
We cry out for help
For what You have done for us
In giving us life
In transforming our hope
In sending Yeshua
We write in the lines of our lives
Sources and resources:
Dana Greene Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life (2012).
Donna Krolik Hollenberg, A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov (2013)
Final Interview http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/levertov/oconnell.htm
With eyes at the back of our heads/Denis Levertov
With eyes at the back of our heads
we see a mountain
not obstructed with woods but laced
here and there with feathery groves.
The doors before us a facade
that perhaps has no house in back of it
are too narrow, and one is set high
with no doorsill. The architect sees
the imperfect proposition and
turns eagerly to the knitter.
Set it to rights!
The knitter begins to knit.
For we want
to enter the house, if there is a house,
to pass through the doors at least
into whatever lies beyond them,
we want to enter the arms
of the knitted garment. As one
is re-formed, so the other,
When the doors widen
when the sleeves admit us
the way to the mountain will clear,
the mountain we see with
eyes at the back of our heads, mountain
cut of limestone, echoing
with hidden rivers, mountain
of short grass and subtle shadows.
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