Reading & Returning to Denise Levertov

— Sarah Ehlers

A Poet’s Revolution:
The Life of Denise Levertov
By Donna Hollenberg
University of California Press, 2013, 532 pages, $44.95 hardcover.

THE AUTHOR OF more than 20 volumes of poetry and four books of prose, and seen by many as an outstanding model of the politically committed poet of the Left, Denise Levertov (1923-1997) came to national attention in the 1960s and ’70s when she was active in the War Resisters League and Resist, and poetry editor of The Nation.

Throughout her long career, Levertov used the word “revolution” with all the weight it should carry. In her 1970 anti-Vietnam War poem sequence “Staying Alive,” Levertov wrote of how Robert Duncan, her close friend and a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance poetry movement, reminded her that “revolution” was the “wrong word” because it “implies the circular: an exchange / of position, the high / brought low, the low /ascending, a revolving, / an endless rolling of the wheel.” But she continued to use it because, as she also wrote, “it is the only word / we have.” (Poems. 149)

In “Staying Alive,” Levertov presented the concept of “revolution” as “cultural and religious as well as political,” and she tested the possibilities and limits of its multiple meanings and uses.(Hollenberg, 261) “Revolution or death. Revolution or death,” she pondered in the opening to Part I of the sequence, “Of course I choose / revolution.” (Poems, 137)

Poems like “Staying Alive” have made Levertov the subject of acclaim — but her overtly political works have also made her, at times, a marginal presence in North American poetry studies.

Levertov’s poetry was embraced in several midcentury poetry circles (including the Black Mountain school of artists she is most often associated with), but when To Stay Alive, the volume featuring “Staying Alive,” was published in 1971 critics were ambivalent. Some found the volume “too political,” while others felt “irritated” by the combination of “poetic and moral response.” (Hollenberg, 261)

Marjorie Perloff, in a review of poetry volumes published in 1970 and 1971, cited Levertov’s contemplation of “Revolution or death” as proof that the book was neither good poetry nor good rhetoric. “It is difficult to believe that the poet who [was] one of the most promising heirs of Williams Carlos Williams … should resort to the flat abstractions, the facile polemics, and the careless rhythms of To Stay Alive,” Perloff wrote, comparing Levertov’s “anti-Vietnam War poems” to “a versified New York Review of Books” because of their shared “righteous indignation, uncompromising moral zeal and self-important tone.” (Perloff, 114)

As Donna Hollenberg recounts in A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, in the mid-1980s Levertov opposed Perloff’s appointment to the English department at Stanford University, where Levertov taught poetry workshops for half of the year. (She was of course outvoted; today, Perloff is a distinguished professor emeritus at Stanford.)

History — at least the history of North American poetry criticism — sided with Perloff’s approach (contemporary controversies notwithstanding) even though Levertov felt that Perloff “responded to poems the way one would respond to crossword puzzles” and thus failed to “acknowledge the relationship poetry has to one’s whole life.” (Hollenberg, 355)

On one hand, this anecdote only further suggests why Levertov’s poetry has garnered less critical attention than many of her contemporaries — despite the fact that she has many admirers. As Mark Jarman notes, Hollenberg’s biography is revelatory in part because it shows how Levertov’s “relative obscurity” is not just a product of her insistence on mixing poetry and politics, as the story often goes.

It is also, Jarman suggests, a product of her failure to predict the ascendancy of the avant-garde Language Poetry movement of the 1960s-’70s, which troubled the notion of an expressive speaker.

On the other hand, could one also argue that criticism failed Levertov, too? Why does her insistence on revolution — her deep belief in poetry as at once intensely personal and spiritual and necessarily public and interventionist — feel slightly out of fashion, if not a bit of an embarrassing desire? (Levertov in the 1960s: “If I speak of revolution it is because I believe that only revolution can now save that earthly life, that miracle of being, which poetry conserves and celebrates.”)

Even if Hollenberg’s magisterial critical biography doesn’t answer such questions directly, it provides keys to answering them and, in so doing, opens important new directions for understanding Levertov’s body of work as well as her potential and, indeed, renewed importance for contemporary conversations guiding North American poetry studies. Readers of Against the Current will also be interested in Hollenberg’s account of the political landscapes Levertov engaged.

Evolution of a Political Poet

Priscilla Denise Levertoff was born October 24, 1923, in Ilford, Essex, England. Called “Denny” (and sometimes “Den”) by her friends, she changed her surname to “Levertov” in the 1950s in order to distinguish herself from her sister Olga, also a published poet.

In 1947 Levertov married writer and fellow activist Mitchell Goodman (1923-1997, a well-known activist in the Boston Five anti-draft resistance movement against the Vietnam War), and the two moved to the United States in 1948. Their son, Nickolai Goodman, was born in 1949.

Levertov’s prolific writings address the political traumas of the 20th century at the same time that they express the spiritual joys of earthly life. (One might think of the “insouciant armadillo” in her poem “Come Into Animal Presence,” who “glances at us and doesn’t / quicken his trotting / across the track into the palm brush” but who also “has some intention to pursue” there ([Selected Poems, 19].)

Levertov’s spiritual vision, love of words, and political activism can be traced to the influence of her parents and her early family life in England. Her father Paul Levertoff was a Russian Jew whose scholarship and teaching explored the theological relationships between Judaism and Christianity. Her mother Beatrice (née Spooner-Jones) was Welsh and a descendent of Christian mystics.

Denise and her older sister Olga were both educated at home, where they were tenderly cared for and surrounded by books and music. Both were also gifted as children: excelling at writing, music and ballet. Denise began taking dance classes at age three and piano lessons at age six, and her “love of books, animals, clothes, the park, and the Holy Family is also evident very early.” (Hollenberg, 29)

Levertov’s eventual poetic activism also had strong roots in her early childhood. The Levertoffs were committed to social justice movements, and during the Second World War they were involved in aiding German and Austrian refugees. In the early 1930s, Olga joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. Only 11, Denise was too young to join even the Young Communist League, but she did (without telling her parents) sell the Daily Worker door to door, an experience that would have a profound effect on her.

Olga, nine years older, was an early and lasting influence on Levertov. But their relationship would prove increasingly fraught, and Olga’s estrangement from the family was a source of great pain. In “The Olga Poems,” an elegiac sequence included in Levertov’s 1967 volume The Sorrow Dance, Levertov comes to grips with the sorrow that characterized her sister’s life.

At the same time that “The Olga Poems” are a record of reconciliation, they are also part of a breakthrough in Levertov’s own development as a social poet. In the opening sections, she remembers her sister as a political activist. “You wanted / to shout the world to its senses /did you?” she asks, comparing their different reactions to a childhood memory:

What rage
and human shame swept you
when you were nine and saw
the Ley Street houses,
grasping their meaning as slum.
Where I, reaching that age,
teased you, admiring
architectural probity, circa
eighteen-fifty, and noted
pride in the whitened doorsteps.
(Selected Poems, 55)

The “Olga Poems,” along with other poems in The Sorrow Dance, demonstrate Levertov’s belief in an inner knowledge necessary to the creation of a political poetics.

Levertov’s 1960 poem “During the Eichmann Trial” is often considered her “first overtly political poem,” but “The Olga Poems” were arguably just as significant to her development as a social poet. As Hollenberg describes, in 1960 Levertov’s “personal sorrow would make itself felt in ways she could not deny and would coincide with public calamity to change the scope of her poetry.” (Hollenberg 166, 167)
One of the many achievements of Hollenberg’s biography is how carefully she parses these various and complex relationships. Her book does more than draw connections between the facts of the poet’s life and the poems she makes; it also provides a holistic account of how Levertov’s ideas about poetry as a category at once ontological and functional developed over the course of her life.

Levertov learned from her mentor and friend William Carlos Williams “the necessity for the poet to deal with specifics, to locate himself in history — but never at the expense of the imagination.” (Poet in the World, 91)

Hollenberg charts how Levertov would increasingly locate her own poetry in politics and history through recourse to personal experience and the expression of her speaking “I,” and demonstrates the intersections between Levertov’s poetry and her inner life as well as the influences of diverse friends, poets and midcentury groups.

The Poet in Wartime

In A Poet’s Revolution, the reader encounters Levertov’s poetic response to the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s — especially her anti-Vietnam War poetry and activism — in the context of a long and varied career of putting poetry in the service of social justice movements. Levertov’s anti-war activism was an evolution from, and continuation of, commitments that were fostered in her childhood and that stemmed from her deep sense of her ancestry.

Hollenberg recounts how Levertov’s decision in 1940 to commit herself to poetry and to stop her ballet training demonstrated a change in “Denise’s inner life [that] coincided with a change in the political atmosphere.” Her first published poem “Listening to Distant Guns,” written before she left ballet school, demonstrates her ability to describe the psychological effects of political extremity, “the low pulsation” of war, and to register the reality of war using natural imagery:

The roses tremble; oh, the sunflower’s eye
Is opened wide in sad expectancy.
Westward and back the circling swallows fly,
The rook’s battalions dwindle near the hill.
(Selected Poems, 1)

A Poet’s Revolution is the fullest account to date of key movements in Levertov’s life and art: her development as a poet from World War II to the Vietnam War to the political conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s. Hollenberg deftly moves between biographical and historical context and detailed close reading, refracting Levertov’s vast body of work (her Collected Poems spans six decades of work and is over nine hundred pages long) through personal, political and spiritual concerns.

While a key contribution of A Poet’s Revolution is its total account of Levertov’s political commitments, bridging in many ways the Old and New Left as well as political movements in England and the United States, Hollenberg’s chapters on Levertov’s commitments to the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including New Left student movements, the anti-war movement and anti-racist movements, stand out as particularly important.

Prior to the release of Hollenberg’s biography, the publication of The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov by Stanford University Press as well as the accompanying volume Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, The Poetry of Politics, the Politics of Poetry, both edited by Albert Gelpi and Robert J. Bertholf, returned critics to questions of poetry’s relationship to politics during the Vietnam era, especially as such debates were crystallized in the disagreement between Levertov and Duncan.

Their differing views of the role of poetry in the antiwar effort, which effectively ended their close friendship, gives significant insight into the landscape of midcentury political poetry, and Hollenberg’s biography adds new, important contexts to these ongoing conversations.

Equally important is Hollenberg’s attention to Levertov’s later poetry and activism. Levertov was an anti-nuclear activist and an environmentalist and strongly opposed the first Gulf War. Throughout the 1980s, she supported the work of politically engaged poets such as Carolyn Forché who addressed political extremity through a personal lyric mode.

Levertov’s theorization of the political lyric, which Hollenberg charts over the course of A Poet’s Revolution, will allow readers new insight into the forms of Levertov’s poetry, but will also provide new optics for understanding the legacy of writers like Forché.

Levertov Teaching / Teaching Levertov

Though she received no formal education, Levertov taught for the majority of her later life at institutions such as CCNY, the University of California Berkeley, Stanford and Tufts. Hollenberg was one of Levertov’s students at Tufts, and she opens A Poet’s Revolution with an anecdote from that time:

“Once, after class, when I showed her a poem of my own that anticipated future changes in my life, she turned to me and repeated the word revolution, trilling the r and flashing her gap-toothed smile in conspiracy. ’It’s from the Latin, revolvere,’ she said, offering historical validation.”

Hollenberg explains how she came to understand that “revolution” did not just connote “political activism and momentous cultural change,” it also meant “a reawakening of the spirit, of understanding, of empathy, of the capacity for transformation.” (1)

As A Poet’s Revolution so beautifully elucidates, Levertov’s political work was inextricably linked to personal revelation and transformation, a feature of her poetics that this new biography helps the reader to better grasp.

Hollenberg is professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut-Storrs. In addition to her biography of Levertov, she has generated a wealth of scholarship on modern and contemporary women’s poetry, including a book-length study of the Imagist poet H.D.

Here I should admit that while I was a Masters’ student at the University of Connecticut, it was Donna who introduced me to Levertov’s poetry. In her classes, I learned how to understand the poems on their own terms as well as within a complex matrix of historical reality, political commitment and poetic influence.

Beyond the debts I owe for these lessons, it is not an overstatement to say that Hollenberg’s account of Levertov’s life and poetry will shift the terrain on which we understand her importance, and allow us to see her and her milieu afresh. In so doing, Levertov’s poetry becomes an aperture through which we might rearticulate the historical relationship of American poetry to forms of political activism and, in consequence, our understanding of protest poetics now.

Works Cited

Jarman, Mark. “Lives of a Poet: Denise Levertov.” Hudson Review 66.4 (Winter 2014). Web. 19 January 2016.

Levertov, Denise. Poems 1968-1972. New York: New Directions, 1987. Print.

—. The Poet in the World. New York: New Directions, 1973. Print.

—. Selected Poems. Ed. Paul A. Lacey. New York: New Directions, 2002. Print.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Poetry Chronicle: 1970-1971.” Contemporary Literature 14.1 (Winter 1973): 97-131. Print.

March-April 2016, ATC 181