Denise Levertov (1923 - 1997)

Life and Works

Denise Levertov was born in Ilford, Essex, England, in 1923. She received education at home from both her parents and numerous readings. In her own words,

There weren't any schools in the neighborhood which my parents thought were much good. My mother had taught school, and was a great reader. So from year to year it just seemed to work out better for me to do lessons at home, Victorian style. My mother gave me daily lessons from age five to twelve. I also listened to the BBC school programs.

This lack of formal education has somewhat gained her a reputation for clear, precise, unnecessarily adorned style. While her first two books display a naïve sort of neoRomanticism and a certain superfluous prettifying of her verse, she soon evolved toward a maturing poetic style, and this process coincided--very significantly--with her settling in the U.S. This new precision, grounded in reality--in immediacy, in faithfully recorded accounts of experience--is very American too. She revels in the beauty of the small, the everyday, the insignificant. Although she only moved to America at age twenty-five, her poetry is thoroughly American; more precisely, it could be described as quintessentially postwar American in content and form. In fact, due to the early influence of the projectivist Black Mountain poets, hers is a poetry where the articulation of both is especially interdependent. Among other acknowledged influences we can count William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, H. D., Kenneth Rexroth, and in a way also Ezra Pound:

One thing we all owed [Pound] was an awareness of the need for precision in poetry, and also an awareness of the dangers of self-indulgent sentimentalism.

Levertov's poetry--after such a long and prolific career--is especially rich in themes and periods, but essentially she remained truly committed to a number of concerns, a number of social and political preoccupations (human rights, pacifism, democracy, ecology, etc). In the early 1960s the Cold War and the foreign policy of the USA moved her to an increasingly active militancy against the American intervention in Vietnam, the first of many social and political causes she would fight.

The influence of the Black Mountain poets translated in a new poetics of projective verse whereby content, not traditional rigid metrics, shaped form:

For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet discovers and reveals. There are no doubt temperamental differences between poets who use prescribed forms and those who look for new ones--people who need a tight schedule to get anything done, and people who have to have a free hand--but the difference in their conception of "content" or "reality" is functionally more important. On the one hand is the idea that content, reality, experience, is essentially fluid and must be given form; on the other, this sense of seeking out inherent, though not immediately apparent, form.

Of course, her adoption of projectivist ideas did not produce any sort of dull conformity, since the very basis of projectivism (at least the way she conceived it) ensured that there would be a somewhat unique form for each poet. In this case, perhaps even more than in others, a marked individualism characterized her voice. As she herself put forward, organic poetry is not so much the following of rules as it is the process of discovering one's own rules. It is more an adventure than a handbook:

A partial definition, then, of organic poetry might be that it is a method of apperception, i.e., of recognizing what we perceive, and is based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man's creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories. Such a poetry is exploratory.

...the way that a poem is written on the page is a score for the way that it should be read aloud, and the way that it will be experienced. Such concrete manifestations of perception are crucial aspects of the way that poetry can "reveal." I believe strongly that the line itself is expressive of patterns of seeing. I have never really understood the breath theory that Olson talks about; but I think that line-breaks are determined not just by physiological breathing demands, but by the sequences of your perceptions.

After her political involvement in the 1960s, some of her books were received with reservations: overt activism conditioned the poetry, and "message" became the most relevant aspect in her work at the expense of more properly poetic concerns, turning her beautifully crafted lyrics into prose preaching. Overall there was a certainly annoying confessionalism. This is a phase many poets undergo, but in her case we can safely state that her agenda did not smother the poetic impulse, and eventually she found a voice that could fit both preoccupations. Throughout her life she remained convinced of the power of poetry to provoke real changes in people's lives, and never renounced a socially committed (and lyrically balanced) voice, while of course also addressing other issues. Among those, we can also include a religious feeling that comes expressed in--again--a very American style: a vision of herself as participant in a pantheism that neatly evokes that of Whitman.

Her final years saw the fruit of many different facets of her work: as writer of essays as well as of poetry, as teacher of poetry, as militant pacifist, etc. She died in 1997. Many will remember her poem "Life at War" (from her 1966 book The Sorrow Dance) as the ultimate pacifist manifesto, where Levertov wonders at how mankind is capable of the best and the worst, capable of art and war, and also of indifference toward the suffering of our kin:

			The disasters numb within us
			caught in the chest, rolling
			in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
			resembles lumps of raw dough
			weighing down a child's stomach on baking day.
			Or Rilke said it, 'My heart . . .
			Could I say of it, it overflows
			with bitterness . . . but no, as though
			its contents were simply balled into
			formless lumps, thus
			so I carry it about.'
			The same war
			We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,
			our lungs are pocked with it,
			the mucous membrane of our dreams
			coated with it, the imagination
			filmed over with the gray filth of it:
			the knowledge that humankind,
			delicate Man, whose flesh
			responds to a caress, whose eyes
			are flowers that perceive the stars,
			whose music excels the music of birds,
			whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
			whose understanding manifests designs
			fairer than the spider's most intricate web,
			still turns without surprise, with mere regret
			to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
			runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
			transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
			implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.
			We are the humans, men who can make;
			whose language imagines mercy,
			lovingkindness; we have believed one another
			mirrored forms of a God we felt as good--
			who do these acts, who convince ourselves
			it is necessary; these acts are done
			to our own flesh; burned human flesh
			is smelling in Viet Nam as I write.
			Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
			in our bodies along with all we
			go on knowing of joy, of love;
			our nerve filaments twitch in its presence
			day and night,
			nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
			nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
			the deep intelligence living at peace would have.



Autor: Ernesto Suárez Toste (Universidad de Castilla la Mancha)