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The Poet's Total Involvement.

This article is the introduction to The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, edited by Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey, published by New Directions in October 20l3. The volume makes available six decades of Levertov's work and includes, for the first time, and in chronological order, every poem she ever published.

IN 1960, WHEN SHE WAS IN HER LATE thirties, Denise Levertov published a poem in Poetry magazine. In the free and bold tone which had become her signature, the first lines weighed origin and loss.
    Something forgotten for twenty years: though
     my fathers
   and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk
     and Caernarvon,
   and though I am a citizen of the United States
     and less a
   stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
   I am Essex-born: 

The poem is brilliant and mysterious. In this it resembles its maker. When I met Denise Levertov, thirty years ago in Dublin, I found a smiling, debonair woman; a conversationalist of great charm, but with an elusive air. What was it? When I thought about it I was nearly certain I was looking at a drama of displacement. With her English birth, her American citizenship, her Russian inheritance, she seemed like one of those European exiles at a cafe table on a summer evening--able to understand every place because she had long ago lost the ability to belong to only one.

I came to think I was wrong; or at least only partially right. Some of the reasons are made plain in this splendid and inviting book. To see Denise Levertov's work in a Collected version assembled by New Directions--meticulously edited and annotated by Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey--is to be offered a new vantage point on one of modern poetry's greatest achievements.

The effect is transformative. All too often, a working poet, in his or her lifetime, is seen in fractions: single volumes, selected poems, limited editions. All are welcome; none provide the information we need. But a Collected Poems is different; it offers a panoramic view. It shows the poet not merely moving through time, but inhabiting the questions that come jangling along with it. Through this wider lens, it is now possible to see Levertov in a broader, more complex way.

The complexity is rewarding. On page after page here, we can see Levertov's gifts engaging some of the major contests in twentieth-century poetry: between conscience and imagination, between individual and collective obligation. The poet whom Robert Creeley describes as "dogged, determined, flooded with purpose" is more and more on view as the book goes on. Finally, she emerges from these pages as the maker of a fluid, mercurial lyric that is often breathtaking. She also emerges as a hero of the ethical imagination. And there are few.

Denise Levertov, a defining American poet, was born in England. She came into the world, in October 1923, as Priscilla Denise Levertoff. Her inheritance was a rich reworking of Russian and Jewish and Welsh. Her father, Paul Levertoff, was descended from Shneour Zalman, a Russian founding father of the Habad branch of Hasidism. He converted to the Church of England and became an Anglican priest. Her Welsh mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones, encouraged her in both literature and spirituality. Their daughter described them as "exotic birds in the plain English coppice of Ilford, Essex."


Her Englishness, ardent and regional as her poem on the map of Essex suggests, would always remain part of her. In the first volume here, The Double Image, published in 1946, it's possible to find phrases, lines, even whole stanzas to remind us she was a young poet in England at a moment of rhetoric and incantation. These after all were the years of Dylan Thomas and George Barker. Forever afterwards, that first acoustic chamber would leave a watermark of musical noise under the conversational ease of her poems.

By her early thirties she was settled in America. She had married an American, Mitchell Goodman. It was a momentous transition. Even at this distance, it's possible to pause on one page or another here and wonder at this young woman, who crossed from England to America four hundred years after Anne Bradstreet and, like Bradstreet, must have "found a new world and new manners."

In fact, Levertov's real rite of passage may have come through another poet, William Carlos Williams--that obstinate, generous titan of demotic verse. His work guided her. In 1951 she wrote her first letter to him from Italy. "If a man is a force in one's life," she wrote, "he certainly ought to know it. So thank you."

For all that, the first five volumes here--The Double Image (1946), Here and Now (1956), Overland to the Islands (1958), With Eyes at the Back of our Heads (1960), and The Jacob's Ladder (1961)--make it clear no single influence can account for her. Kenneth Rexroth writes of her work: "It would be easy to say it came under the influence of William Carlos Williams. It would be more true to say it moved into the mainstream of twentieth century poetry."

So what does a Levertov poem look like as it moves into that mainstream? What energies, what formal properties show up in these poems that go from postwar England to America in the Kennedy years?

First and foremost is a stance, a receptivity. As James Wright said, "her imagination is always religiously open and it always responds to what touches it awake." The openness is everywhere. In "O Taste and See," the title poem of her 1964 volume, a crude phrase from a subway Bible poster becomes a rush of syllables, guessing at the hiding places of the sacred--a theme that will last long into her life:
    grief, mercy language,
   tangerine, weather, to
   breathe them, bite,
   savor, chew, swallow, transform 

Notice, too, the assonantal magic at the end of "The Ache of Marriage":
    two by two in the ark of
   the ache of it. 

In whatever manifestation, this is indeed an imagination that can be touched awake whether by symbols or sonic values. In fact, one way of reading this early work may be to regard it as a sound studio. Levertov was trying her notes, making a register for her voice both higher and lower than was usual in a mid-twentieth-century American poet. But the sounds are only part of it. At the edge of the poems in O Taste and See and The Jacob's Ladder are hints of an expanded role for the poet. "Pure poetry, diatribe, and passionate exhortation meet in the prophets," she would write in a later essay. These early poems may not be prophets. But they are meeting places for the crosscurrents of Levertov's energy and ambition.

In 1961, at the end of this cycle of early publication, Levertov was 39. She was plainly weighing her future as a poet. She dates a poem from the autumn of that year, "September 1961," which is later published in O Taste and See. In it, she writes of herself and others inheriting their responsibilities from an older poetic generation. The poem is somber, thoughtful. It is also different. This is no longer a private voice. Almost the opposite: this is an imagination reaching for the spoiled strengths of an older art: didacticism, revelation, witness. The lines from "September 1961" celebrate and warn. They also point forward to a difficult, exemplary future.
    for us the road
   unfurls itself, we count the
   words in our pockets, we wonder
   how it will be without them, we don't
   stop walking
   there is far to go 


The 1960s and 1970S were years of change and upheaval. The Vietnam War was a polarizing event: a visible hurt, fracturing a public consensus. But something less visible was happening as well; and in many ways the poems Levertov wrote in these years defined it. That less visible entity was a radical shift in ideas of poetic responsibility. "The critical context in which politics and poetry were discussed in the late 1940s," wrote Robert von Hallberg, "emphasized a poet's obligation to the private experiences out of which poetry can come."

But the volumes here from 1968 to 1982--from The Sorrow Dance to Candles in Babylon--show a woman in mid-life and a poet in mid-career, and both growing restless with that obligation. These are bold, intense collections. There are seven in all: The Sorrow Dance (1967), Relearning the Alphabet (1970), To Stay Alive (1971), Footprints (1972), The Freeing of the Dust (1975), Life in the Forest (1978), Candles in Babylon (1982). They track a life becoming complicated and enriched by ideas and sorrows: the death of a sister, the pressures on both marriage and parenthood, the growth of political activism. Above all, they show a poet less and less convinced that poetic responsibility can be discharged through private vision.

In letters to a friend, poet Robert Duncan, at the height of the Vietnam War letters which eventually strained their friendship--Levertov begins to express her doubts about a private aesthetic. She writes of "trying to grasp with the imagination what doeshappen in war." In her 1967 essay "The Poet in the World," she writes:
    People are always asking me how I can reconcile
   poetry and political action, poetry and the talk
   of revolution. Don't you feel, they say to me, that
   you and other poets are betraying your work as
   poets when you spend time participating in sitins,
   marching in the streets, helping to write
   leaflets etc. My answer is no; precisely because
   I am a poet, I know, and those other poets who
   do likewise know, that we must fulfill the poet's
   total involvement in life in this aspect also. 

A volume like To Stay Alive, published in 1971, shows a deepening attachment to "total involvement." There is no doubt that, with such commitments, Levertov took risks with her subject matter which translated into risks with her audience. She was unswerving and even unapologetic in her purpose: "My didactic poetry," she wrote, "should be judged by the same criteria as my lyric poetry; in my opinion, it won't be found wanting." And yet, inevitably, some of these books, some of these poems remain a controversial part of her achievement.

Many of them, of course, found admirers. Who wouldn't read "Tenebrae" today, as a text that has survived any and all contexts? With its gusto, its front-loaded reproach to moral passivity, it remains a model of dark lyric purpose. Its eerie placing of human vanity next to public suffering draws us in: we look on, summoned and enchanted, as the poem lifts a time of war into the timelessness of moral outcry:
    Gowns of gold sequins are fitted,
   sharp-glinting. What harsh rustlings
   of silver moire there are,
   to remind me of shrapnel splinters. 

But for some readers--especially as they tracked the antiwar activist--there was a keen disappointment at the loss of their earlier lyric witness: that glowing poet who had written down their visionary dawns, their attitudes to marriage, their twilight winters in Central Park. This poet now seemed focused on a different kind of experience, no longer theirs.

But was that lyric witness really lost? Here again we can draw on the immense value of The Collected Poems. It shows us a near and distant view of her work, a foreground and a background. Certainly, poems like "Tenebrae" and "Life at War"--from To Stay Alive and The Sorrow Dance, respectively--are antiwar poems. They breathe a tonic grief and anger.

But now, thanks to Paul A. Lacey's and Anne Dewey's editing, we can look into that distance. And what we see is continuance rather than rupture: a poetry of witness that is entirely co-existent with the old lyric life. Nothing has been lost; none of the music, brio, poise has been abandoned. We turn a page; we turn another. (This is the luxury of a Collected Poems.) And we can prove that continuance.

To start with, the poems of this time are made in Levertov's signature way--that is, from headlong syntax and conversational wildfire. Even the reader who disagrees with the politics can be excited by this throwaway, heraldic stylist, writing as freely of "the gray filth" or "the gas-fog" of an antiwar march as of taking down clothes from the line in "On the Roof": "gathering the washing as if it were flowers." Little has changed; much has been added. The beautiful, thrifty lines from "A Cloak" in Relearning the Alphabet still hold true:
    breathing in
   my life
   breathing out

What's more, the additions are not to be found just in style or syntax. They are in the braiding of different imaginative components. Finally, it is this diligent weaving--of language, ethical responsibility, lyric craft--that makes Levertov's relation to her age so compelling, and the poems that emerge from it so essential.


In the last decade and a half of her life, Levertov published six volumes of poetry, one posthumously: Oblique Prayers (1984); Breathing the Water (1987); A Door in the Hive (1989); Evening Train (1992); Sands of the Well (1996); This Great Unknowing (2000).

These later volumes show the same unswerving eloquence as earlier ones. But there is a focus that complicates their relation to the earlier work. It is not a matter of disrupting that past, so much as internalizing what had been external. In these books a political commitment has grown into something else: it is now a fully realized moral vision, absorbing both the private troubadour and the public poet.

Many of these poems are connected to Levertov's Christian conversion in 1984, and yet not confined to it. "Levertov's Christian faith," writes Albert Gelpi, "is the source of both her inspiration and her politics, her poetry of celebration as well as her poetry of opposition."

In the beautiful poem "Annunciation," for instance, from A Door in the Hive, we can see Levertoy incorporate the ghosts of a past--gender, faith and loss--into the body of a new poetic faith. The Virgin Mary is shown on the threshold of revelation. Even the theme is poignant. Women's lives had been central to Levertov at all stages of her work; women's issues much less so. In her 1982 essay "Genre and Gender v. Serving an Art" she wrote, "I don't believe I have ever made an aesthetic decision based on my gender."

And yet in this poem faith itself is gendered. A young woman is considered as an instrument of will. She faces her destiny as a believer might, or even a young poet. "Aren't there annunciations/ of one sort or another / in most lives?" the speaker asks. The poem widens out from there, almost as if the confluence of faith and femininity had brought both into a sharper relief.
    She was free
   to accept or refuse, choice
   integral to humanness. 

In her final years Denise Levertov found new friends and further acclaim. At Stanford University, where she taught at this time, colleagues such as Albert Gelpi, Ken Fields and John Felstiner treasured her company. And still the poems moved forward, seeking and striving. In one of the finest, "Uncertain Oneiromancy," from Sands of the Well, a speaker guides a blind man through a museum at night. She is so concerned for his safety she becomes beauty-blind. So busy is she guiding him, warning him, taking his arm, that she sees nothing else.

This may be Levertov's most subtle statement on imagination. As the poem progresses, the old convention of the blind poet is wonderfully reversed. It is not now the poet who is blind. The poet, the speaker, can see. It is the man she is guiding who is blind. But as the poem comes towards its powerful conclusion, the poet and the speaker, the blind man and his guide begin to shimmer and dissolve and--as can so easily happen in the best Levertov poems--a whole, mighty argument about vision and faith cracks open in a few lines.
             I stood looking after him, watching as the street enfolded
him, wondering if he would make it, and after I woke, wondering still
what in me he was, and who the I was who took that long short-cut with
him through room after room of beauty his blindness hid from me as if it
had never been. 

When Denise Levertov died in the late winter of 1997, I was at Stanford. We planned a small memorial service. Immediately we asked Adrienne Rich, who also had been at Stanford, to speak; immediately she agreed.

When she spoke, she singled out one memory. Denise and herself, she said, had been young women and young mothers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And, of course, young poets. Rich remembered their long talks at the kitchen table. Always, she said, Denise would press new discoveries on her: new poets, different voices, poems from another coast. Those conversations, Adrienne Rich said, opened a new, exciting poetic horizon. She felt indebted to them all her life.

A great poet generates a great conversation. Denise Levertov's ardent, eloquent body of work accomplishes this: craft, ethics, lyric reach are all part of it. This superb collection provides a vast new resource to continue it. But somehow it seems especially important to remember that the finished conversation was once a living one. And so I like to think of those winter twilights in Cambridge, and Denise Levertov bringing with her the news of poetry. As she does here. As she will always. 4

EAVAN BOLAND'S most recent book is A Journey with Two Maps (Norton, 2012). She teaches at Stanford University.
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Author:Boland, Eavan
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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