Denise Levertov (LEHV-ur-tawf) was a visionary poet whose work combines the ethereal nature of consciousness with the specificity of the natural world. Levertov’s magical view of the world has its origins in her ancestry: Her mother was descended from the Welsh tailor and mystic Angel Jones of Mold; her father was descended from the noted Jewish mystic Schneour Zaiman, a Hasid, or member of a sect of Judaism that emphasized the soul’s communion with God. Levertov’s father ultimately converted to Christianity, becoming an Anglican priest, but he retained his interest in Judaism and told Hasidic legends to Denise and her older sister Olga, encouraging in them what Levertov has called “a wonder at creation.”
In 1947, Levertov moved to the United States, and it was there that she established her reputation as a poet, finding there a new sense of the English language that suited her poetic vision. Accordingly, she escaped what she saw as the stifling Romantic and Victorian traditions of the past. Her abandonment of formal meter and stanzaic form accompanied her transformation from a British to an American poet.
As a result, she embraced the more organic forms of free verse epitomized by imagistic poets such as H. D. and William Carlos Williams–particularly with regard to Williams’s credo “no ideas but in things.” In addition, she embraced the Black Mountain school of poetry. Like its representatives Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, she discovered meaning in the poet’s personal relationship to her subject while conveying that meaning through lines whose unit of measure was the human breath rather than a standard meter. Indeed, her poems are so carefully constructed that their artistry may go unnoticed. They strike the reader hardly as written works but rather as a form of rarefied speech, their imagery both clear and pure.
In 1956, Levertov moved with her son and her husband, novelist Mitchell Goodman, to Mexico, where she was joined by her mother. Much of her most moving work appears in Life in the Forest, which recounts her mother’s last years and the comfort she found in closely observing the natural world. As the war in Vietnam escalated in the 1960’s, Levertov’s artistic agenda reflected the political turmoil engulfing the United States, although in one book during this period, The Sorrow Dance, she again turned to personal matters and created some of her finest work in poems, inspired by her older sister.
Levertov’s power as a poet came from her ability to synthesize, to combine opposites and to achieve a sense of balance: Jewish and Christian, English and American, personal and public, ancient and modern. Her work springs from a well deep within her, yet it is informed by keen observations of the external world. Her best poems echo the joy of life in the senses, as is apparent from titles such as O Taste and See. For Levertov, the life of the body informs the life of the mind, and the past informs the present. A poet of connection, of linkage, she was a discloser of the invisible web that ties both people and nature together.
Breathing the Water, her fifteenth book of poems, includes “The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich, 1342-1416,” in which the poet again asserts the relevancy of the past to everyday life. While some critics and readers were disenchanted by Levertov’s political agenda in Relearning the Alphabet and To Stay Alive–specifically by her opposition to the Vietnam War and her support of feminism–her continued preoccupation with the varieties of love, be it maternal, erotic, or religious, earned for her a wide readership. Her ability to see the miraculous in the mundane, in addition to her command of natural speech rhythms and arresting imagery, placed her at the forefront of contemporary poetry through the 1990’s. Levertov lectured around the world and, after 1982, was a professor at Stanford University, where she conveyed her sense of vision to a new generation of writers.