Denise Levertov: a poet's pilgrimage: her work led her to celebrate the transcendent.
Ten years after her death, her more than 20 volumes of poetry and essays attest to her work, but they also reveal her life and the writing of poetry that led her to embrace Christianity and, eventually, Catholicism.
Denise Levertov claimed that from the age of about 10 she knew she was "an artist person and had a destiny." Her early experiences in nature taught her to reverence, to pay attention, to see and hear. This childhood method of relating to the world led her ultimately to the vocation of a poet. At age 12 she sent a clutch of poems to T.S. Eliot for review; he encouraged her. At 16, her first poem was published.
This early poetic expression was nurtured by a very distinctive English childhood growing up in Ilford and the contiguous countryside of Essex. Her only sister was nine years her senior; as a result she was very much alone. She was also unencumbered. She was schooled at home by her mother until about age 12. Free to roam, she explored the countryside and its historic towns, visiting museums, reveling in gardens. At home she read voraciously--Wordsworth, Tennyson, Keats, Herbert, Traherne and Rilke, as well as all the Victorian novelists.
Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff and Paul Philip Levertoff (their daughter subsequently changed the spelling of her name) provided a rich intellectual and emotional environment for their children, a place where art and language, music, natural beauty and social sensibilities were valued. The Levertoffs were also politically responsive, taking in refugees from Nazism and protesting Italian and Spanish fascism. Their girls hawked the Daily Worker.
Denise always had a sense that she was different, but it was a difference of confidence derived from her solitude and her lineage as half-Celt and half-Jew. Her father was a Russian Jew of Hasidic background who converted to Christianity and worked as an Anglican priest and scholar of Jewish mysticism. Her mother was Welsh, a writer and a painter.
Although Denise attended Anglican services, she did not define herself as religious. Rather, it was this sense of destiny that dominated her psyche. She was summoned to celebrate mystery, something she later claimed was the principal theme of her poetry from its very beginning.
Her sense of wonder and openness was born of a paradisaic childhood, but that world ended with the coming of the Second World War. Any hope of attending university was given up; she took up war work and trained as a nurse. After the war she met an American GI, Mitchell Goodman, whom she married in 1947. A year later they moved to New York City, and the following year their only Child was born.
As a young poet recently arrived in America, she was eager to find a new voice. She discovered inspiration in Emerson, Thoreau, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. She came to know Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, and with them became associated with the Black Mountain School of poetry. During the 1950s while living in Mexico, France and then New York City, Levertov continued to write, producing five volumes of poems.
This work reflected a double vision of wonder and joy on the one hand, and death, darkness and destruction on the other. Within these dualities, however, she recognizes a certain pull. In the poem "The Thread," she writes: "Something is very gently,/invisibly, silently,/pulling at me--a thread/or net of threads/ ... I haven't tried the strength of it. No barbed hook/pierced and tore me."
In the next decade, great sorrow closed in on her. Her anguish over nuclear testing and the United States' deepening involvement in Vietnam and her grief at the haunted life and early death of her sister expressed themselves in her poetry. She remained productive, however, publishing several collections of poems, supporting herself as poetry editor for The Nation and teaching part-time. She gave poetry readings throughout the country and participated actively in antinuclear and antiwar protests, traveling both to Hanoi and Moscow in the early 1970s.
"Revolution or death," a mantra from the streets was brought into her poems. "Mad Song" reflects her own suffering: "I've forgotten how to tell joy from bitterness." The strain of the war weakened her commitment to pacifism and contributed to the fraying of relationships, including that with her husband, from whom she separated and then divorced in 1973.
At the center of the great wrenching was her vocation as a poet. Her question was how to respond, how to find authenticity in a world gone mad. Her poetry and her reflection on her craft proved to be the way through.
There are few poets who have thought as deeply as Denise Levertov about the origins and techniques of poetry and the interrelatedness of the meditative and active life. Two collections of essays, The Poet in the WorM, published in 1974, and New & Selected Essays, published in 1992, explore these questions and the relationship between poetry and engagement with a suffering world.
For Levertov, the process of writing "organic" poetry was linked to the content of the poem and to her vocation as a poet. She believed that the poet searches for the inner form of a thing, what Gerald Manley Hopkins called its "inscape." Intuition recognizes this patterned order in which the thing partakes and then expresses that in analogy, resemblance or allegory. Like Rainer Maria Rilke, her mentor, Levertov assumed that if a thing was to speak to the poet it must be regarded as the only thing that exists and be given exclusive love at the center of the poet's universe.
This gave the poet a kind of "inseeing," an access into the very center of the thing itself. In Poet in the WorM, she defines the poet as both an instrument on which poetry plays and a craftsman, one who has a responsibility to communicate what one sees. Writing the poem is the poet's means of "summoning the divine." As such, the poet is a priest and the poem a temple in which communion occurs between the human and the divine within and between both poet and reader.
Central to the work of the poet is imagination, that capacity to understand that a thing wants to live. Imagination necessarily gives birth to compassion for that which one imagines. Poetry is then "a giving of life." The authentic poet must be one who works against all forms of injustice and destruction; the capacity for evil, no matter how notorious, is a failure of imagination, a failure to engage with and develop compassion.
The role of the poet is to awaken and engage the reader. In her poem, "Taste and See," Levertov reverses Wordsworth's line: "The world is/not with us--enough./ O Taste and See." This tasting and seeing meant not only revealing what was hidden, but holding oneself open to the experience of the transcendent, the numinous embedded within. The key was imagination, the chief of human faculties, the perceptive organ that synergizes intellect, emotion and instinct and makes it possible to experience God. It was to that numinous, transcendent mystery that Levertov turned increasingly.
For most of her adult life, Levertov considered herself an agnostic, suspecting that belief was irrelevant, an embarrassment and potentially incompatible with her political and aesthetic values. But in 1979 while writing her long poem "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus," she came to a new understanding of faith and how the love of God could be reconciled with human suffering. She became a Christian.
The incarnation was the supreme relinquishment of God's self in which "an innocence" was made "defenseless" so that human freedom could be honored. Humanity was responsible for suffering, and it was humanity's responsibility to keep "the spark of remote light" alive in a suffering world. Suffering did not annihilate joy; the two coexisted.
During the 1980s, Levertov taught at Stanford University and published six collections of new poems and two books of essays. The focus of this work was the magisterial natural wilderness of the Pacific Northwest and the numinous she found accessible everywhere. It was not that her religious faith had overcome doubt. In "Suspended," she acknowledged: "I had grasped God's garment in the void/but my hand slipped/on the rich silk of it./ ... for though I claw at empty air and feel/nothing, no embrace,/I have not plummeted."
It was through the writing of her later poetry that what she called her "shaky belief" became closer to faith. Hers was never a faith of intellectual certainties but rather of hope. In the poem "Beginners," she writes: "But we have only begun/to love the earth./We have only begun/to imagine the fullness of life. How could we tire of hope?/--so much is in bud." This faith was deepened through her creative activity. For her it was this work that "enfaithed."
For almost 10 years she explored the treasures of the various Christian traditions, Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian. She was especially attracted to the mystical tradition of the Catholic church and the nourishment she received in its liturgy. But her admiration for Catholic witnesses to justice--Dorothy Day, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Archbishop Helder Camara, Archbishop Oscar Romero--as well as her friendships with such contemplatives as Thomas Merton, Fr. Murray Bodo and Br. David Steindl-Rast, influenced her greatly. By 1988 she'd become a Catholic, admitting that she did not like the hierarchical structure of the church nor its inflexible dogma, but like others she would now criticize from within.
In the final years of her life, she found parallels between the work of the poet and the mystic. Both took risky journeys into the unknown, both were in service of the transcendent, both experienced transformation--the mystic in being, the poet in the work itself. In the art of writing poetry, the poet "summons the divine"; in the art of being, the mystic becomes the divine.
It took 74 years of intense living for Denise Levertov to establish the link between poetic insight and compassion for the world. Having revered and seen, named and imaginatively entered into the other, the poet was incapable of destroying that which she had come to know. The desire to express that knowing in writing gradually "enfaithed" her. While her attention might be "flickering," her faith was simple and single in intention. In "Primary Wonder," the final poem of her last book of poems, she confesses that she often forgets "the quiet mystery" but it returns, once more present to her: "the mystery/that there is anything, anything at all/ ... rather than void; and that, O Lord,/Creator, Hallowed One, You still,/hour by hour sustain it."
Ten years after her death, the poetry of Denise Levertov continues to give witness to the primary wonder of life itself and the work that uncovered it.
[Dana Greene is currently director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University and dean emerita of Oxford College of Emory University.]