Denise Levertov (1923–1997) was the most prominent Christian poet of the second half of the twentieth century. During a long and highly visible career, she published 24 books of poetry, 4 collections of essays, and 8 books of translation. Levertov was a leading figure in advancing the modernist innovations of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, but she is also a direct link to the art of earlier Christian poets, most notably Gerard Manley Hopkins and George Herbert. She was a voice of conscience in protesting against the Vietnam War, U.S. nuclear policy, and environmental depredations.

Religious Background.

Though Levertov would be known as a distinctly American poet, she was born outside London and spent her formative years there. Levertov’s parents were deeply religious. Her mother was an orphan raised in a Congregational minister’s household, and her father was a Jewish scholar who converted to Anglicanism and became a priest in the Church of England. In her essays, Levertov describes him as a “learned Jew and fervent Christian” (1973, p. 77). He led a poorly attended church that reached out to Christianized Jews but saw himself primarily as a scholar, writing extensively on church matters relating to Hebrew scriptures and culture. Her parents failed to pass down their religiosity to their daughter, and Levertov had ceased to participate in formal religion by the time she was a teenager.

Her education, conducted at home and overseen by her mother, was strong in the arts. She began dance lessons at age three. Soon she was studying French and piano and receiving drawing instruction from a professional artist. Creative writing was encouraged. Her reading of poetry began with Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and progressed through Palgrave’s Golden Treasury to Tennyson, the Romantics, and even contemporary British poets: Auden, MacNeice, Day Lewis, and Eliot. She eventually gave up dance and turned to poetry, reacting against the rigid technique of classical ballet. When she returned to dance in adulthood, she studied modern dance. This more open approach to movement—disciplined yet improvisational—became a model for her poetics, and also for her understanding of spirituality.

Becoming an American Poet.

Levertov was initially influenced by the Romantics. She quoted often from Keats’s letters, and in 1942 she purchased and annotated heavily the first published selection from Coleridge’s notebooks. Her understanding of Keats’s negative capability, which she considered essential for writing a poem, had a spiritual component—the self is not merely negated but absorbed into something greater. Her intense lyricism, though, was shaped by her early devotion to the poetry and letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, probably her most significant poetic model. Rilke’s spiritualism, most famously expressed in his concept of angels in the Duino Elegies, is hardly orthodox, but Levertov found ways to bend it toward orthodox ends.

It was her early assimilation of American influences that was to definitively shape her career. She discovered William Carlos Williams’s work in a bookstore in Paris shortly before immigrating to the United States in 1948. After an exchange of letters, the two met and began sharing poems. With Williams as her example, she studied the speech patterns of her new country and allowed them to shape her poems. Like Joseph Conrad or Isak Dinesen, she began writing with purity and beauty in a second language—in this case, American rather than British English. Beyond merely internalizing Williams’s dictum “No ideas but in things,” Levertov found in him a capacity for awe that was Franciscan in its elevating of the ordinary into the realm of the transcendent. Linda Wagner-Martin, in the first major study of Levertov’s poetry, observed that Williams’s influence was more thematic than technical, his example one of attention and humanism—humanitarian is the word she applies to Williams—and that Wallace Stevens and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) are more important technical influences. Her true inheritance from Williams is the “quality of unashamed revelation of emotion” from his later poems (Wagner, 1967, p. 137).

Organic Form and the Black Mountain Poets.

In the 1950s, Levertov received support from Kenneth Rexroth, who anthologized her work in New British Poets, and from a group of poets associated with the experimental Black Mountain College—Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan most importantly. Though she never set foot on the campus in North Carolina, her association with the Black Mountain Poets led to her work appearing in leading avant-garde journals, especially Origin and Black Mountain Review.

Levertov’s conception of organic form was developed in concert with other Black Mountain Poets and is one of the major innovations of late modernism. Influenced by Hopkins’s concept of “inscape,” Levertov believed there was a “form beyond form” that could be intuited through the perfected attention of the writer. The poet is in “communion” with the poem’s subject matter, seeking its “inscape,” which determines the structure of the poem. The task of the poet is to be receptive to the order within the subject matter, not to impose an arbitrary structure upon it. Received poetic forms were of no use to Levertov.

Even this radical throwing-off of accepted academic formalism can be traced back to a Christian practitioner, George Herbert, who, in the formal age of the seventeenth century, seemed to create a new form for each poem he wrote. Every Levertov poem is a unique form organic to its occasion. Levertov was able to express these ideas in compelling essays, which she began writing in mid-career, establishing herself as an important theorist of poetics. As with Randall Jarrell, her essays rival her poetic output in significance. She tended to express her poetics in religious terms, famously transforming Charles Olson’s formulation in his essay “Projective Verse”—that “form is never more than an extension of content”—to “form is never more than a revelation of content,” fully cognizant of the biblical resonances of the term. For Levertov, the poet is performing a priestly function, and the poem is a temple within which religious rites—communion, prayer, epiphany—are enacted.

Levertov in the Tradition of Christian Poetry.

Composing poems, for Levertov, was a spiritual process. She viewed the chaotic world about which she wrote as having an order that was perceptible through prayer-like engagement. Though Levertov was known as a radical experimenter, an anti-traditionalist, she was always writing in the Christian tradition. Hopkins’s concept of “inscape” guided her formal innovations from the beginning. It is only in her last books that Levertov becomes an explicitly religious poet, but during her early to mature phase of the 1960s, in which her poems were clearly shaped by the expectations of high modernism, she is already displaying an affinity for ritual, employing the forms of prayer and psalm, incantation and refrain, the austerity of religious rite.

In this poetics, poetry should not refer but make incarnate: “We need a poetry not of direct statement but of direct evocation: a poetry of hieroglyphics, of embodiment, incarnation; in which the personages may be of myth or of Monday, no matter, if they are of the living imagination” (Levertov, 1973, p. 61). Experience is resurrected in the mind. The poem becomes a sculptural object, an icon, ultimately a mystery. Levertov is no iconoclast; she is a fashioner of icons. The stanza is visual but also makes incarnate the poem’s music. Levertov did not agree with Olson’s conception of breath-spaced lines, but she had strict ideas about how the words on the page controlled the sounds of the poem. In scoring the poem, Levertov viewed the line break to have one-half the value of a comma. Line lengths for her were determined by the poet’s interior voice, which she thought of as a kind of prayer. This is a model of writing that is not theory-driven, but rather improvisational—inspired. Levertov admired Mark Rothko (but no other abstract expressionist painters), though her ideas of organic form have parallels in abstract expressionism and in action painting (Hollenberg, 2013, p. 128, 132–133). Levertov’s poetics remained constant throughout her career. The music of her lines doesn’t change a great deal once she learns to make it: she merely redirects the focus of her singing from politics to the environment, from myth to explicit Christianity.

Becoming a Major Poet.

Levertov’s status as a major poet was established by her groundbreaking collections of the 1960s. Biblical motifs are employed throughout these books, and often they are central to the best poems. The title poem of her 1961 collection The Jacob’s Ladder was inspired by an encounter in Mexico with the frescoes in the Church of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca, one of which—the one portraying Jacob’s dream—made a deep impression. The definite article renders the poem more concrete, less dream-bound. The ladder to heaven is not ethereal, but made of weighty stone. Doubt, always an important part of her belief, has the capacity to soften the stones, but the journey up the ladder, which is the journey of the poem, remains arduous and painful. The angels passed along the way seem more Rilkean than biblical, but they inhabit the same physical pathways as Levertov’s own struggles.

In “O Taste and See,” another poem that gives its title to a collection, Levertov places scripture in the worldly setting of a subway car. The poem contradicts Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us,” which by the height of the New Criticism in the late 1950s was the kind of explicatable poem that had become holy writ. Levertov reverses Wordsworth’s assertions about the corruptions of worldliness—which may be an affront to the construct of experience held by the Romantics but is merely an illumination of Psalm 34 in which sensory experience is a means to access God. Only in the tasting of worldly things is the truth made apparent.

The Sorrow Dance, from 1967, is rich with poems labeling themselves as “Psalm,” “Lamentation,” “Hymn,” “Triptych.” The major accomplishment of the book is the “Olga Poems,” a six-part poem elegizing Levertov’s sister. This lyric sequence demonstrates that Levertov’s means of poem-making can sustain a long poem. Each section is built with a different line length, a different stanza shape, but if there is a structural disorder to the poem, it is a disorder that Levertov claims would have been an antidote to her sister’s obsession for order that complicated her own pilgrimage. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was an admirer of these books of Levertov’s early maturity.

Religious poetry, according to The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, “inherits a tolerance—sometimes a positive admiration—for obscurantism” (Preminger et al., 1993). Not Levertov’s religious poetry. Her writing is always characterized by precision, achieving a clarity that furthers her spiritual aims. Robert Creeley observed that “she moved always to the physical term, call it—and probably she herself puts it most simply in a characteristic line: ‘If we’re going to be here, let’s be here now …’ ” (Levertov, 2002, p. xv). The intensity of this emphasis on the physical is atypical for a religious poet. Levertov viewed the vocations of artist and mystic as distinct, even opposed: mystics seek the ineffable. This is not to say that her work did not embrace mystery. It did, in every phase, not just the late, openly religious phase. The poems of The Jacob’s Ladder affirm that. They are an extension of Rilke’s early influence. In some of her earliest teaching notes, Levertov instructs: “Strength of feeling, reverence for mystery, and clarity of intellect must be kept in balance with one another” (Wagner 1967, p. 140).

By the 1970s, Levertov had received a Guggenheim fellowship, been awarded numerous prizes, and served as poetry editor of The Nation and at W. W. Norton & Company. She had also become a prominent voice against the war in Vietnam and would remain a voice for social conscience throughout her career. It was around this time that Levertov severed her relationship with her longtime friend and encourager Robert Duncan. Hollenberg writes that the ultimate break was caused by their religious backgrounds: Duncan having absorbed his adoptive parents’ Gnosticism, which asserts an “unrecognizable opposition” between humankind and God, and Levertov’s Judeo-Christian background, which posits a God involved in the world, whose presence may be felt in the creation’s imagery and forms. In one of the hundreds of letters they exchanged, she speaks of wanting to be “in a real relation” to her experience of the world. Duncan’s background led to detachment; Levertov’s required involvement, commitment, engagement (Hollenberg, 2013, pp. 228–229).

Her first major religious poem, “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus,” was begun as an exercise in form but resulted in a dramatizing of her movement into religious faith. Levertov herself came to view the writing of the poem as a conversion. She composed each section in order, attentive to the structural demands of the mass form. When she came to the Sanctus, she had undergone a conversion of sorts that allowed her to write authentically of a religious experience, one she had just felt.

By the time of 1984’s Oblique Prayers, Levertov was writing books of complete religious orientation. Oblique Prayers embodies the highest melding of her deepening religiosity and her modernist poetics. Images of dust and chaos abound, masking the tantalizing presence of an unknowable yet present God. The political poems in the second section of the book understand their political calling in terms of religious vocation. “The Avowal,” written in celebration of George Herbert’s 300th birthday, is more than a pastiche of Herbert’s style. She combines her characteristic free verse with a reversion to iambic pentameter in the two lines portraying the goal of God’s embrace, as theologically orthodox as any claim in a Herbert poem. “This Day,” one of Levertov’s strongest religious poems, combines her belief in images with her longing for religious rite.

Late, Explicitly Christian Phase.

If her early poems tended toward a prayer-like state, by the final phase of her career Levertov felt free to claim that every page in her 1992 book Evening Train, the next-to-last book she published during her lifetime, was a prayer. Her last prose work, Tesserae, is an attempt at memoir, but Levertov is unable to abandon the ways of seeing that have served her so well. The book is better classified as testimony. The sections are disjointed and fragmentary, rich in luminous detail, evidences of a life writing lyric poems. Her singular lyric voice, the driving energy behind her long career, is present throughout.

Levertov’s committed approach to writing religious poems parallels her earlier path through political protest. Both topics resist poetry. Her political convictions left little room for moral ambiguity, for the range of uncertainty where art is usually found, but Levertov never backed away from these challenges. Her ultimate conversion to Catholicism is suggestive of her father’s difficult conversion to Anglicanism. In her foreword to The Life Around Us, a retrospective assemblage of environmental poems, Levertov writes of her earlier self when she was less aware of the multitude of environmental threats, implying a gradual maturation in her thinking about environmental concerns. The same slow seasoning, over the entire course of her career, may be graphed in her religious thinking.

Bibliography

  • Duncan, Robert, and Denise Levertov. The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Edited by Robert J. Bertholf and Albert Gelpi. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004.
  • Greene, Dana. Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012. A lean and even-handed biography. Especially sensitive to the late religious phase of her career.
  • Hollenberg, Donna Krolik. A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. A detailed, scholarly treatment of her development. Insightful regarding Levertov’s relationship to theoretical trends.
  • Levertov, Denise. The Poet in the World. New York: New Directions, 1973. The influential first collection of her essays.
  • Levertov, Denise. The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature. New York: New Directions, 1997.
  • Levertov, Denise. The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes. New York: New Directions, 1997.
  • Levertov, Denise. Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 2002. A convenient assemblage of her major poems, though the thematic shape she gave to her individual collections, which enhances the impact of individual poems, is lost in the selecting.
  • Levertov, Denise. The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov. Edited by Paul A. Lacey. New York: New Directions, 2014.
  • Levertov, Denise, and William Carlos Williams. The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams. Edited by Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1998.
  • Preminger, Alex, T. V. F. Brogan, and F. J. Warnke, eds. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Wagner, Linda W. Denise Levertov. New York: Twayne, 1967. The first critical study, published when Levertov was 43.

Bobby C. Rogers