Obituary: Denise Levertov
Saturday 27 December 1997
What characterises Denise Levertov's poetry is an untiring creativity, a freshness and sense of urgency. She wrote lyrical, celebratory poems, and poems that found hard-hitting and appropriate imagery for the horrors of our times. Her work has a wide range, defying the notion that poets can be categorised as "nature poet" or "war poet". There is a consistent clarity in her voice and a sparseness in her language. She was a mystical poet who wrote assertively of the spiritual, and a political poet who continued to find images to make us think.
Levertov was born in Ilford, in 1923, and emigrated to the United States in 1948, the year after she married the American writer Mitchell Goodman. Her first collection of poetry, The Double Image, was published in 1946. Her 22nd collection, Sands of the Well, will be published by Bloodaxe in February.
She grew up in Essex and was educated at home by her Welsh mother and by her father, a Russian Jew who settled in England after the First World War and became an Anglican priest. During the Second World War she worked as a civilian nurse in London. Her first book was published in England and when she moved to America she was published in Kenneth Rexroth's 1949 anthology The New British Poets. Rexroth wrote later that "she, more than anyone, led the redirection of American poetry . . . to the mainstream of world literature."
She was associated with the Black Mountain school, and during the next three decades she came to be seen as America's foremost contemporary woman poet. In the course of her career she held the position of poetry editor of the Nation in 1961, and teaching posts at Vassar College, Tufts University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before becoming Professor of English at Stanford in 1982. She was a recipient of the Shelley Award for Poetry and elected to the American Academy in 1980. In addition to her many collections she published books of essays and autobiographical pieces.
It was her conviction in the intrinsic unity of the two aspects of her vision, the spiritual and the political, that gave her poetry its individual voice. An active campaigner for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, she described the evolution of her own political commitment in the introduction to her 1971 collection To Stay Alive, seeing herself as one of those
who have come bit by bit to the knowledge that opposition to war, whose foul air we have breathed so long that by now we are almost choked forever by it, cannot be separated from opposition to the whole system of insane greed, of racism and imperialism, of which war is only the inevitable expression.
This conviction remained at the basis of her philosophy and she responded in her work to events in Chile and El Salvador as well as to the threat of nuclear war. She used a personal voice to reflect upon the public world, insisting upon poetry's role in protest and resistance.
There is an unselfconscious directness in her political poetry. Her language is uncluttered. The Vietnam poems are angry, forcing the reader to confront the particularity of atrocity.
She is weeping for her lost right arm.
She cannot write the alphabet any
on the kindergarten blackboard.
She is weeping for her lost right arm.
She cannot hold her baby and caress
it at the same time
Levertov's focus was always sharp. She showed how poetry can work to express horror without making it safe, how poetry can be both profound and lucid. A concern with exploitation and injustice runs through all her collections. What prevented her sense of the world becoming overwhelmingly negative was the articulation of a moral and spiitual faith. Her sense of our responsibility for war and suffering becomes a source of hope:
all of us are
our brother's keepers,
members one of another
responsible, culpable and -
able to change
Denise Levertov was an inspiration. Those to whom she taught creative writing, and those who heard her read her work, will never forget. Perhaps she has been a particular inspiration to the generations of women poets who follow her. She showed that it is possible to be serious and committed, to take on the large issues without losing the personal perspective. She moved effortlessly between spiritual tuss- les, reflections upon ageing, relationships, places, and world peace, always with the same precision, the same steady gaze.
I had grasped God's garment in the
but my hand slipped
on the rich milk of it.
The "everlasting arms" my sister
loved to remember
must have upheld my leaden weight
from falling, even so,
for though I claw at empty air and
nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.
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